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The Ford Fiesta LX has been awarded Best Small Car in the 2009 Australia's Best Cars Awards.
The pick of today's small car crop have modest dimensions but are big on utility and great fun to drive. They entertain with carefree looks, an eager work ethic and take-on-the-town agility. However many buyers - especially those downsizing - now expect more from a small car than they once did. Second-rate safety is no longer acceptable and neither is compromised quality, refinement or performance. Buyers are demanding an awful lot for relatively little.
The current Mazda2 - a vastly better car than its predecessor - has satisfied the growing expectations and shrinking budgets of thousands of Australian buyers since its launch 18 months ago. Now it faces a stern challenge with the local arrival of the new Ford Fiesta, an acclaimed small car designed and built in Germany upon a platform shared with the Mazda.
For this comparison we brought together two mid-range models with five doors, five-speed manual transmissions and optional safety packs. Thus equipped, the Mazda2 Maxx 1.5 costs $20,310 and the 1.6-litre Fiesta LX is priced at $19,490. Over the course of a week, ABA compared the cars back-to-back in a variety of city and extra-urban settings. I shared my driving time with a young female professional who was selected at random to provide a fresh perspective. The cars were also evaluated independently by Tim Pomroy and Scott Nargar from NRMA Motoring & Services. Both are members of the Australia's Best Cars judging panel.
Style is all-important in this class. In five-door form, the Fiesta is at its best viewed square-on, from either the front or back. The three-tiered lamps in the headlight housings exude character and are unusual in that they stretch well back into the guards. In profile, the Fiesta looks longer than it is - certainly longer than the Mazda - although the actual difference is a few millimetres. The illusion is caused by the extended window outline, a longer roofline and that dramatic rearward sweep of the headlights.
But the high-waisted Fiesta looks mediocre in profile. The wheelarches are exaggerated by thick, botoxed lips and, in a tall-bodied car, they only succeed in reinforcing a weak wheel-to-body relationship. So the standard 15-inch alloys simply look too small for the car. To make matters worse, the LX-spec wheels are plain ugly. And then there's the insipid colour of the test car, a bluey-greeny-grey mix called 'Hydro'. Rest assured there are better options on the Fiesta colour chart.
The Mazda2 on the other hand is an enduring design that has become a familiar sight on Australian roads. The nose looks a little blunt alongside the Fiesta but the overall shape is striking and well balanced from any angle. It's so good that our test '2' got away with wearing a bright green suit. Basically it's as cute as a button and has a softer, more feminine form whereas the Fiesta looks more grown-up and, at times, more dynamic.
The Ford is definitely more dynamic inside. In fact, at first glance, the futuristic cabin can be a bit overwhelming. But you soon find it's fairly intuitive to use. And just as well; far fewer new car buyers read their owner's manuals these days than you might expect.
The range of seating positions is excellent whether you are short or tall. The Fiesta's firm but supportive driver's seat has plenty of height adjustment and decent under-thigh support and (importantly for me at 1.84m tall) the steering wheel is adjustable for both rake and reach. Controls are nicely weighted and the front doors have a surprisingly solid feel to them, quite unlike those in most cars this size.
Someone downsizing from a larger car would be surprised at how spacious the Fiesta feels. Basketballers will not want for head room. But the audio display screen, deeply recessed in the top of the dash, appears distant, while the entertainment controls - fashionably arranged like a mobile phone keypad - slope away from the driver and can be a stretch to reach. That's a rare ergonomic slip on the Ford's part.
Faux metal is prominent throughout the Fiesta cabin and the effect is good. Other materials like the carpeting, door inserts and textured plastics not only seem quite classy but are pleasant to touch. A disappointment is the hard, sharp-edged plastic of the door latches. Oddment storage is excellent with three useful cupholders of different sizes sitting between the front seats and there is a decent-sized glovebox.
Other small things add to the impression that the Fiesta is the more civilised machine: indicator repeaters are integrated in the wing mirrors; the rear hatch can be released via the key fob; interior lights illuminate when you unlock the car and there's no screw-on fuel filler cap to contend with at the petrol station. Such features can make a big difference in the course of ownership and they help set the Fiesta apart from the Mazda.
In the back, head room is marginally better in the Fiesta because the roofline retains its full height for longer. This also results in a slightly greater load space behind the split-folding rear seats. Do a little digging and you'll discover a full-size spare wheel; Mazda offers only a space-saver.
Our female tester found the two cars similar in size, performance and function but very different in character and aesthetics. We formed very different opinions of the cars and it took some time to isolate the reasons why.
Ford's twin-cam 16-valve engine with variable cam timing (Ti-VCT) delivers 88kW at 6000rpm and 152Nm of torque at 4050rpm. By comparison the Mazda's 1.5 makes 76kW at 6000rpm and 137Nm at 4000rpm. The difference in outputs isn't all that noticeable in the city but I found it quite pronounced when climbing hills on the open road. On uphill sections of our drive route, the Mazda ran out of steam and required a downshift to fourth while the Ford comfortably continued its climb in top gear. I considered the Fiesta's extra torque a big plus point whereas my fellow tester was indifferent, admitting that she was willing to forgive any shortfall in the Mazda2's performance because she simply felt much happier driving the car.
It might not match the Fiesta for oomph but the Mazda2's gear ratios are well chosen and the sonorous engine note from 3500rpm encourages keen drivers to explore the upper reaches of the rev range at any opportunity. The brake pedal has good weighting and the steering still offers decent feel despite its electric assistance. But I mostly preferred driving the Fiesta with its extra power, greater grip from broader Continental tyres, more compliant ride in town and more sophisticated-feeling controls (especially the gearshift). A downside was more wind noise on motorways although this was easily drowned out by the superior sound of the Fiesta stereo. It features iPod connectivity.
Being much taller than my driving partner, I felt more comfortable in the Fiesta and could quickly find a better driving position with the steering wheel fully extended towards me. I appreciated the Fiesta's firmer seat with its extra lateral support and under-thigh support. My partner had no problems finding a good driving position in either car but preferred the softer cushioning in the Mazda's seats. The absence of reach adjustment for the steering was not an issue for her.
We agreed that the Mazda was the more appealing car style-wise. The Fiesta has some distinctive features, and strong functionality, but the overall design is simply not as well executed as the Mazda's. Inside, Ford has tried very hard with the dash and for me, it adds a dynamic quality to the cabin and makes the dark Mazda dashboard and console with its hard plastics look bland by comparison. The Mazda cabin is very user-friendly though.
But while I preferred the more upbeat and modern Fiesta cabin, especially the quality and feel of the materials and switchgear, and the impression of being in a mid-size car, my partner again voted for the Mazda. She was willing to forego the impression of greater space because she preferred what she described as the cocoon-like feel of the Mazda2's cockpit. She explained feeling more connected with the car, more a part of it. She also felt that some of the Fiesta's controls were beyond easy reach and preferred the higher gearlever position in the Mazda, the shorter gear throws and less travel in the pedals.
We also undertook various parking manoeuvres and, for me, the Ford was more user-friendly at low speeds. It has better forward visibility around the A-pillars, and the engine's greater torque at low rpm makes clutch work and low-speed movements smoother. My accomplice found rear visibility much better in the Mazda due to its lower rear window line and was adamant that it was easier to manoeuvre. I agreed that rear parking sensors would be useful in the Ford.
The new car market is a rapidly changing landscape. Rarely can a class-leader rest on its laurels without the risk of a polished newcomer pinching its crown. In the blink of an eye, I believe that is what has happened to the Mazda2.
When buyers are assessing what's currently in showrooms, it can pay to consider what's looming on the horizon. Had I rushed out to buy a '2' when it was named Australia's Best Small Car, I would now be rather disappointed. Not by the Mazda, which remains an excellent all-rounder and was the clear choice of our female driver, but by the fact that I'd have missed out on a car that - in many respects - is a significantly better proposition for me and represents better value for money.
The new Ford Fiesta LX might have a little less sizzle than the Mazda but it has more substance, is more sophisticated and boasts a superior cabin. For a one-off trip to the local café, I might enjoy driving the Mazda more. But for a car in which to travel 15,000 varied kilometres each year, my choice would definitely be the Ford - in any colour so long as it's not 'Hydro'.
|Ford Fiesta LX||Mazda2 Maxx|
|ENGINE||1.6-litre 4-cyl||1.5-litre 4-cyl|
|TRANSMISSION||5-speed man||5-speed man|
|PRICE as tested||$19,490||$20,310|
ABC judges Tim Pomroy and Scott Nargar deliver a different preliminary verdict.
With the cars sitting on the same platform, interior space was always going to be close and differences are small. Each car's rear seats fold down in the same fashion but neither achieves a flat floor. The Fiesta houses a full-size spare under the floor while the Mazda2 makes do with a space-saver but with little evidence of 'space saving'.
Front seats in the Mazda2 are a touch softer than those in the Fiesta and the side bolstering is less intrusive. The rear seating has a bit more shape about the seat base.
Rearward vision when parking was better in the Mazda2 as the rear window is slightly lower and larger. The Fiesta has iPod connectivity which can be used via the central display in the dash and controlled by the steering wheel audio controls.
The Fiesta LX comes standard with anti-lock brakes with EBD, and driver and front passenger airbags. The $1000 Safety Pack consists of head and thorax airbags, a driver's knee airbag, dynamic stability control and brake assist.
The Mazda2 Maxx also has anti-lock brakes with EBD and brake assist. Driver and passenger front airbags are standard. Mazda's Safety Pack - an $1100 option - comprises front side and side curtain airbags, dynamic stability control, and traction control. EuroNCAP gave a Mazda2 a full five stars with the optional safety pack fitted and the Fiesta achieved the same rating.
|NRMA track test*||Mazda2 Maxx||Ford Fiesta|
|0-60 km/h||5.14 sec||4.82 sec|
|0-80 km/h||7.70 sec||7.19 sec|
|0-100 km/h||11.72 sec||10.87 sec|
|0-400 metres||50-80 km/h||17.60 sec|
|50-80 km/h||5.98 sec||5.89 sec|
|60-100 km/h||7.84 sec||7.52 sec|
|Emergency braking at 80km/h||25.52m||23.20m|
|Turning circle metres||10.42m||10.30m|
|Interior noise 80km/h||69.7 dB(A)||69.7 dB(A)|
Each manufacturer has tailored spring rates and dampers to suit their own briefs. On the road the Mazda2 displayed a slightly more refined ride than the Fiesta which wears wider, lower-profile tyres.
In terms of handling, the Mazda2 was nicely balanced is most driving situations. With slight body roll until the springs loaded up, it maintained its poise through fast, tight corners without upsetting the ride, whereas the Fiesta felt a little more nervous through the same corners at the same speed.
At low speeds the steering in the Fiesta was light and the car easy to manoeuvre. At higher speeds the assistance is reduced to give greater feel. The Mazda2's steering has more weight, and overall the Mazda2 delivered a greater level of feel and feedback.
Overall the Mazda2 delivered a slightly more refined drive thanks to its quieter engine. Clutch and gear operation were similar, providing smooth and effortless changes. Both are easy cars to drive and operate.
Is the Fiesta good enough to take the crown from the Mazda2? It comes very close but doesn't quite get there in our view. The Ford has a performance edge but the Mazda is a more refined package and has a more comfortable ride and smoother driveline.
|Model||Fiesta LX vs Mazda2 Maxx|