Ford is going to give the Fiesta an automatic option and a six-speed, dual-clutch transmission
Usually, Automatic transmission just translates to convenience, but on the rare case, it makes the car genuinely fun to drive too. Thankfully for Ford, the new Fiesta Automatic is one of those rare cases. The car that goes on sale in January 2012 will only be available as a petrol-powered model, simply because making a diesel auto doesn't make financial sense for Ford, given the low numbers for diesel automatics all over the world.
Coming back to the car at hand though, the Fiesta Automatic comes with a segment-first six-speed, dual-clutch transmission, called PowerShift in Ford lingo. As with other dual-clutch transmissions, the gearbox has one clutch working the odd gears and another working the even ones.
The unique bits are its electromechanical clutch actuation and dry lubrication (typically found on manual transmissions) for reduced load on the engine. Worth mentioning is the fact the gearbox will require absolutely no maintenance through the life of the car (a claimed 2,40,000km). Ford also claims the gearbox boasts a very high level of mechanical efficiency that will enable the Fiesta Automatic to match the manual car for fuel economy. While we couldn't verify this claim on our short drive in Goa, we can tell you the engine-gearbox package works well.
Slot the gear lever into ‘D', lift off the brake and the Fiesta gets off the line very smoothly. This smoothness is helped by the gearbox's ‘micro slip' feature that allows controlled clutch slippage to eliminate gearbox rattle at very low engine speeds. But despite all the hardware, the Fiesta isn't very quick off the line, with its dual-clutch transmission lacking the torque build-up of a torque converter automatic.
What you will immediately like about the gearbox is how quickly it adapts to your throttle foot. Ambling at a steady speed at part-throttle, the box always runs in a high gear to aid fuel economy, but put more pressure on the accelerator pedal and the gearbox will shift down a gear or two and keep the engine in the meat of the power band. Full throttle has the car change character yet again with gear changes now executed right at the redline. Very nice. What's great is that all shifts are seamless and downshifts are perfectly timed too.
However, at city speeds you do have to wait a bit for the box to shift down to the right gear when you need instant power. Then too, power comes in a step and the whole response isn't as fluid as a torque converter automatic.
One peculiarity is that the box shifts to neutral as you go off the throttle in ‘D' mode. While this aids fuel economy, it also means the car coasts forward rather than slowing down with engine braking, and this takes some getting used to. A ‘Grade Assist' function (activated via a button on the gear lever) does keep the car in gear though — helpful when driving down slopes. There is also a ‘Hill Start Assist' function that keeps the brakes engaged for 2.5 seconds after you lift off the brake pedal, to prevent it rolling backward.
To get the most engine braking effect (when driving downhill, for instance), the gearbox can be slotted into ‘L', which runs the car in the lowest possible gear for a particular speed. However, we liked L-mode for a far less noble reason. In this mode, the gearbox acquaints you with the less-seen wild side of the 1.5-litre Ti-VCT engine. The addition of the sixth ratio adds a newfound zest that we thought lacking in the manual petrol car. 6500rpm upshifts, instantaneous downshifts and the Fiesta's brilliant ride and handling come together to deliver an incredible driving experience. So good was our drive up (and down) the ghats, we didn't mind the lack of paddle shifters, a feature found on the Honda City Automatic.
Fiesta retains its “enthusiast's car” tag with gusto, even in the automatic avatar. The compromise on the rear space wouldn't bother buyers who'd mostly be buying these versions for their own driving pleasure anyway. For them, the view from the supportive driver's seat would be what matters.
Ford hasn't revealed prices as yet, but the grapevine says that it will price the car in an aggressive manner to compensate for the manual's high price. We expect a Rs. 50,0000 premium over the manual equivalent and if Ford can deliver the promise on fuel efficiency, the automatic could find itself a fan base.