A MANUAL gearbox is no longer the automatic choice for Ford's Fiesta city car.
Buyers of the blue oval's smallest car in Australia have hitherto been short-changed if they've opted for the self-shifter, getting a smaller, less-powerful engine than the minority in this segment that want a manual. And for more money.
A new dual-clutch auto transmission, however, is now available - for $2000 - with a bigger, 1.6-litre four-cylinder as part of an update effected by a switch of production from Europe to Thailand.
There's the same 89kW of power and 151Nm of torque as the manual - and it makes a significant difference, turning the Fiesta auto from gutless to (relatively) grunty.
Where the previous 71kW/125Nm 1.4-litre and four-speed auto combination produced mediocre performance and struggled up hills, the updated Fiesta auto now has sufficient go to make it a user-friendlier car in a broader range of scenarios.
The 'Powershift' auto's two extra ratios also contribute to improved fuel consumption, reducing the Fiesta's thirst from 6.9 to 6.1 litres of unleaded per 100km - to match the manual.
You're left asking, though, whether the auto is a genuine dual-clutch system as it moves up the gears. Changes are noticeably slower compared to the DSG unit employed in the rival Volkswagen Polo 77TSI, but one advantage is less hesitation off the mark.
A lack of a manual tipshift option is also disappointing, even if it could be argued that most city-car buyers wouldn't use it.
Such a mode would suit a car that is engineered to be driven in a spirited manner. The best, but still less than ideal, bet for keen drivers is to select the auto's L(ow) gear, which holds gears longer and will downshift automatically when you start to apply the brakes or step off the throttle.
The Fiesta remains the class benchmark for handling, edging the Polo and its Mazda2 twin - a fact that doesn't prevent it from also providing a comfortable ride where it counts: in the city.
This doesn't change if you opt for two new options for the Fiesta: a sedan variant, or a 1.6-litre turbo diesel that's now available in lower trims than the $24,990 Econetic model. (The three-door has been discontinued.)
The TDCi Fiesta isn't quite as economical as the efficiency-obsessed diesel-powered Econetic that's Australia's most frugal car with 3.7L/100km, but 4.4L/100km is still an excellent figure.
There's little torque below 1500rpm, but the diesel engine - which costs an extra $2500 over the petrol engine's $16,990 starting price in either LX or Zetec spec - produces enjoyable mid-range pulling power that reduces the use of the five-speed manual, which is the only gearbox available.
It doesn't get horribly raucous as revs rise, either, with only a slight buzziness as the tacho heads towards the 4500rpm redline.
Thai production has allowed Ford to add some extra equipment, such as voice-control Bluetooth, and improve safety. Stability control is now standard on every Fiesta, and side curtain and driver's knee airbags are added to the mid-spec LX and range-topping Zetec.
Those extra airbags aren't standard on the base CL model, though - costing $600 as part of an optional safety pack.
The change of production source brings some other disappointments.
The steering wheel no longer adjusts for reach as well as height, and the Fiesta's dash is now constructed from hard rather than soft plastic - taking its interior quality another step away from the pace-setting Polo.
The new sedan's boot is wide and deep, and brings a healthy 430 litres of luggage space, though there are gooseneck hinges and the rear seats don't fold flush with the cargo floor. You'll also have to pay extra for a spare wheel as a mobility kit is standard, and there were examples of some poor fit and finish in some of the models we saw - such as an ill-fitting glovebox lid.
Ford Australia expects the new Thai-built model to further boost sales of the Fiesta, which has gained market share since the latest-generation was introduced in January 2009.
Halo models also usually have a positive effect on sales, and the sportier side of the Fiesta story won't end with the March arrival of the firmer-suspended Zetec trim.
The company won't officially confirm that there will be a successor to the Fiesta ST that was called the XR4 in Australia.
But Drive's spies have already caught the new ST/XR4 testing in Europe, a model that's expected to be powered by a 1.6-litre turbocharged 'Ecoboost' engine.
The Fiesta's talented underpinnings are certainly capable of handling more power. The new XR4 Turbo might be teamed with an optional dual-clutch auto, as a manual is no longer necessarily the automatic choice for all driving enthusiasts.
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