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Ford Fiesta Zetec

Sensational fun at an easy-to-justify price

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • Fantastic handling...
  • But needs more power to do it justice
  • Spacious but some areas of poor design/finish
  • Attractive styling
  • Attractive price
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Lancer Evo, Impreza WRX/STi, Peugeot 206 GTi 180, Honda VTEC – and the Ford Fiesta Zetec. Huh, what was that?! No, we haven’t lost our marbles so believe us when we tell you, like these well recognised performance machines, the little Fiesta is a cracker to drive – and we mean drive. Of course, it doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of straight-line go as these hi-po Gods and it’ll be w-a-y off the pace on a racetrack but for cornering prowess and driver enjoyment, this has gotta be the best buy at the cheap end of the market.

We’re still coming to terms with how good it really is.

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Forget any hang-ups you might have about front-wheel-drive hatchbacks. Point the little Ford at a corner and rip into the apex at what you reckon would be its handling limit and, somehow, the Fiesta zaps out the other side asking for more. The wonderful chassis turns in with alacrity, maintains excellent steering response and feel through the corner and, in all except the tightest turn, gets its power down without fuss. And grip, boy, does it grip! With 195/45 16 Continental Sport rubber, the 1063kg Ford has similar outright grip to many other ‘gun’ performance cars. Understeer is minimal and your cornering line can be effectively tightened with a mid-corner throttle lift – the rear-end squirms around slightly but it’s not what we’d call oversteer. It’s a set-up that’s quick, predictable, fun and safe.

So why are we now slobbering over the Fiesta some two years after its local release? Well, it seems the platform has always been there - as we said in our ’04 review of the luxury-spec Fiesta Ghia five-door (Ford Fiesta Ghia Road Test), "the Fiesta can zip through tight and medium-radius corners fast enough to scare many ‘high-performance’ cars.” But it’s only now, with the ’06 release of the sporty Zetec model, that the chassis can really shine.

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The Fiesta Zetec gains its elevated handling status thanks to 16 inch alloys wearing low-profile performance tyres and a sports suspension package. The suspension upgrade comprises revised (lowered and stiffer) springs, firmer dampers, firmer bushes, a thicker front swaybar and a stiffer rear suspension twist beam. The suspension layout remains the same as found in lesser models – MacPherson front struts and a semi-independent twist beam rear axle. With all that stiffening it might sound like the Zetec will have a bone-rattling ride – but that’s not the case. The ride is definitely firm but within acceptable boundaries.

The Fiesta Zetec’s braking hardware hasn’t been upgraded over lesser models - there are the same ventilated front discs and rear drums teamed with ABS and EBD control. We found no problems with the braking performance but, given the Zetec’s sporty nature, it’d be nice to see rear discs.

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The Fiesta Zetec’s biggest downfall – and the reason it will probably never be taken seriously as a hot hatch – is it uses the same engine as the base Fiesta. With the Duratec 1.6-litre making 74kW at 6000 rpm and 146Nm at 4000 rpm, the Fiesta is hardly a ball of fire in a straight line – even with its modest 1064kg kerb mass.

The Zetec model is equipped with a shorter ratio five-speed gearbox in an attempt to improve performance. But it doesn’t hide the fact that the Zetec deserves a gruntier engine – something that’ll rev to 7500 rpm and put out, say, 100 – 120kW. The Duratec engine offers a pretty broad torque spread and decent performance (0 – 100 km/h in the high 10s) but it simply doesn’t do the package justice.

Interestingly, the 1.6-litre Duratec engine has a desire for premium unleaded and, perhaps due to its short gearing, it drinks more fuel than we expected. Consumption during our mainly urban test averaged almost 8 litres per 100km. Note that the engine’s high 11:1 compression ratio really is best suited to high-octane unleaded – we heard it detonate on several occasions while running normal unleaded (despite being knock sensed).

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The Zetec is currently offered in only three-door guise but interior space is generous. Front occupants have plenty of space (except, annoyingly, the driver misses out on a left foot rest) and there’s enough rear space to accommodate two adults. Sure, there’s a centre rear belt but you’re not likely to fit a fifth person. The long doors are easy to open and access to the rear seat is decent but the release latch on top of the front seat serves only to tilt the backrest – there isn’t a tilt/slide facility. Fortunately, with the front seat in a normal position, there’s no need to slide the seat further forward. Another oddity is the front backrests won’t tilt fully forward unless the head restraints are retracted – if they’re extended (as they generally should be for safety purposes) they foul the roof...

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The rear cargo area, although offering decent space, shows similarly poor design. The un-fastened carpet is free to slide around and crumple, the rear face of the rear backrests is painted black metal (which will quickly scratch), and the quality of materials and finish are quite poor.

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The ’06 Fiesta’s interior has been freshened with well laid out controls and highly visible instruments. Unfortunately, the speedo increments are less than ideal for Australia. Depending on front seat position, it can also be a very long stretch to grab the seatbelt. Standard equipment levels are pretty much on the money – there are power front windows (the rear windows are fixed), air conditioning, dual airbags, a leather steering wheel and a decent sounding single CD audio system. Secondary audio controls are awkwardly mounted on the steering column rather than on the steering wheel while manual gearbox versions also receive an auxiliary audio input socket (for iPod or MP3 players) which is an obvious afterthought.

The Fiesta Zetec is sharp looking sports hatch that, thankfully, misses out on any gaudy ‘boy racer’ bits. The ‘06 Fiesta series has been updated with new bumpers, grille, headlights, taillights, side mouldings and the Zetec adds attractive 16 inch alloys, fog lights, some extra colour coding and a lowered stance.

So how much is it for a slice of Fiesta Zetec fun?

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Well, the five-speed manual version checks in at an impressive AUD$18,490 – way cheaper than any comparable Euro marque models and only a couple of grand dearer than a typical hubcap equipped base model 1.6 litre hatch. If ever there was an excuse to indulge yourself, this is it – the extra outlay is minimal. Arrrhh, if only there was more power and slightly improved design/build quality...

The Fiesta Zetec was provided for this test by Ford Australia.

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