We are zooming through the canyon roads of Hollywood Hills in a subcompact Ford Fiesta that takes century-old gasoline engine technology and the car in two directions at once. One vector is fun and sporty performance. Done. The other direction is the highest fuel efficiency ever seen in a gasoline engine car sold in the United States: quite possibly 45 mpg in highway driving, around 40 combined. That would be up in hybrid territory. All this from a 1.0-liter EcoTech (turbocharged) engine of just three cylinders: The power to move 2,500 pounds comes from three combustion chambers each slightly smaller than a 12-ounce soda can.
Just like a hybrid or diesel, the EcoBoost 1.0-liter Fiesta will carry a price premium over the non-turbocharged Ford Fiesta now on the market. The EcoBoost premium is about $ 1,000 on other models, probably will be here, and that translates to a payback period of about four or five years at today’s gasoline prices.
As the world searches for cars that use less fuel, a small car with a powerful small engine seems obvious. But four cylinders has been the absolute minimum in the US. Few cars have engines smaller than 1.5 liters, and only the soft-selling Smart Fortwo has three cylinders. Ford poured on the technology to give the engine 123 hp via a turbocharger, gasoline direct injection, and variable valve timing. Some customers may have trouble seeing themselves buying a car of three cylinders in a country so vast. Based on a day-long drive, I believe most people won’t know, or care, how many cylinders the Fiesta 1.0-liter has. It should be a non-issue.
To damp the vibration and roughness in a three-cylinder engine design that is inherently unbalanced (unlike an inline six, V8 or V12), Ford engineers unbalanced the flywheel (in the opposite direction to the engine’s imbalance) rather than resort to a power-draining, counter-rotating balancer shaft. To keep the engine noise down, the bottom of the timing chain runs through an engine oil bath. All this tech lives in an engine footprint that is covered (looking straight down) by a standard sheet of paper. It would take three Ford Fiesta engines to equal the displacement of the 3-liter turbo engine in the BMW 3 Series, but the Ford engines would put out a combined 363 hp to BMW’s 300 hp.
The power-to-weight ratio of 123 willing horsepower driving a 2,500-pound car yields a subcompact that feels quick, especially if you work the five-speed manual gearbox. Despite the quick feel, the 0-60 mph time will be around 10 seconds, which hasn’t been quick for a decade. But adequate, yes. The upside is miles per gallon. Ford says the EcoBoost Fiesta will get more than 40 mpg highway and also says it will deliver a highway rating better than any non-hybrid car sold in the US. The manual transmission Chevrolet Cruz Eco gets 42 mpg highway from gasoline; the larger Volkswagen Passat sedan with a diesel engine gets 43 mpg. Thus the Fiesta will be at or close to 45 mpg if Ford’s projections are on target.
A co-driver and I got a bit less than 30 mpg overall pushing the car hard in hilly country but that was city-highway driving and nobody is going to get close to EPA ratings on Malibu Canyon Road.
4-5 years to pay off the $ 1,000 EcoBoost price premium
Will a highly efficient EcoBoost Fiesta save you money? Yes, after four or five years. It could be longer. To see how long, build your own Excel spreadsheet or try to follow the arithmetic here without nodding off. If the Fiesta EcoBoost costs $ 1,000 more, gets 35 mpg city, 45 mpg highway and an average of 40 mpg — our estimates — in a year driving 12,000 miles, it will burn 300 gallons — $ 1,050 of regular gasoline, at $ 3.50 a gallon.
In comparison, the Fiesta with a decent 1.6-liter, 120-hp normally aspirated (no turbo) engine runs $ 14,200-$ 20,000 and gets 29-39-33 mpg (city driving counts for 55% of the average.) Over 12,000 miles, the non-turbo Fiesta will use 364 gallons or $ 1,273 of gas, making the difference $ 223 a year and the break-even period about four years. If the combined mpg rating of the new Fiesta is 38 not 40 mpg, it would be a five-year payback, still not bad compared to the 10-year payback for some of the less efficient hybrids. If gasoline jumps to $ 4.50 a gallon, you’re in luck, sort of: The payback for 12,000-mile drivers drops to from five to three and a half years. If you drive just 7,500 miles a year, you’re using less gas, saving only $ 140 a year, and you’ll need seven years to break even.
It will be unclear if Ford will continue the SFE (special fuel economy) package on the current Fiesta. For $ 695 extra you get a modified 1.6-liter non-turbo engine, aerodynamic wheel covers, aerodynamic underbody cladding, 1-2 mpg better highway rating (40 mpg), and the same 33 mpg overall rating. Chevrolet has a similar package in the Cruz Eco, also in an attempt to keep pace with the 40 mpg Hyundais (now 39 mpg after Hyundai fessed up to misstating results). Buyers have been staying away from the Ford and Chevy eco packages in droves. You’d need at least 10 years to earn back those premiums. And you have to be skilled to even find the SFE models at Ford.com. Only Jimmy Hoffa is better hidden.
Next page: Should you buy a 2014 Ford Fiesta?