CC Long Term – 2011 Ford Fiesta Zetec 1.4TDCi: Knowing When To Stick Or Twist

One thing we all learn about car ownership, sometimes with a first car, sometime not, is knowing when to change. Sometimes we time it right, sometimes not and sometimes we no choice.  Some people work to a timetable for changing every 3 or 4 years, others flex around other circumstances. But when you get a car that suits you, the decision might be postponed, to the extent that an end date is not set or even really considered. So, what’s it like to have a long term ownership of Britain’s, and one of Europe’s, best seller, the Ford Fiesta, over 5 years and 135,000 miles?

I learnt to drive on a Fiesta, though that was a 1978 957cc Mk1, with dual controls. The car has subsequently come a long way, through five definite iterations (and as many as seven if you could major facelifts and reskins) over 40 years. The current model has been Britain’s best seller since 2009, and is now giving way to the sixth (or eighth version), retiring at the peak. Typically, the Fiesta accounts for 5-6% of the UK market, selling perhaps 120,000 units a year in the UK.

Although I learnt to drive on a Fiesta, we are not historically a Ford family. I grew up with Rootes, Chrysler Europe and Talbot products in the family drive way, followed by VW Jettas, whilst my Uncle worked for Vauxhall and drove a new Vauxhall Viva, Victor, Velox or Cavalier every year. For whatever reason, back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, we never looked for a Ford. For me that changed in 2002, when I bought the first to two Focuses, based partly on the press accounts of the transformation between the Escort and Focus, both of which proved to be great cars and great buys.

I have always bought used, never new, for the value for money reason. If you’re buying a car like a Focus or a Fiesta, then that need not limit your ability to get the car you want in terms of specification. This was the third car in a row I purchased through the Ford Direct Approved Used scheme. The actual process of choosing a Fiesta was actually pretty quick, unlike the initial choice of a Focus 10 years earlier. Although the Focuses (Foci?) had both been great cars and had turned me into a Ford fan, circumstances suggested that the (Euro) Focus Mk2 had actually been more than large enough, for a car that spends probably 90% of its life one-up and rarely sees rear seat use. The large boot was great though.

But Ford had served us well, the car looked good, the dealer experience had been about good enough and the value was there. A couple of dealer visits checked out the size relative to the likely needs and that Mum could get in the back easily enough. Add that to the best in class in ratings the Fiesta gets from the press made the choice pretty straightforward. I did look at some others, but nothing fired me up.

It was February 2012 when I bought the car, and petrol and diesel were both around £1.35 per litre, or around £5 for a US gallon, so you can see that a car that reduced fuel bills was attractive. That drove the choice towards a diesel, which the Fiesta then offered as a 1.4 litre, 8 valve turbo diesel, giving 70 bhp and 118lbft of torque, and came with a five-speed gearbox. This engine also appears on various Peugeot, Citroen, Mazda and Suzuki vehicles. For Ford, the engine is built in Dagenham, England and the car was assembled in Cologne, Germany, using a French gearbox. The Fiesta may be sold worldwide these days, but at heart it is European supermini or sub-compact.

Picking the exact specification took a little longer. The UK gets 3 or 5 door hatchback Fiestas, with no saloon option, and at that time there were basically five levels of trim for the Fiesta in the UK – Studio, Style, Zetec, ST and Titanium. Studio is a base level, designed to get you into the showroom, albeit with electric front windows and mirrors, Style offers more with air conditioning as an option but is still fairly plain and Zetec is really the level aimed at the owner-chooser, with alloy wheels, air conditioning, a better stereo, fog lights, trip computer, ambient lighting, an electrically heated windscreen, some chrome effect trim and slightly smarter interior trim. ST is a fairly aggressively specified sports version and Titanium has all the toys, some unnecessary. Zetec stood out as the level to go in at, albeit with a couple of options, one a very popular one.

There are many Ford dealers to choose from, all with access to the national Ford Direct inventory, so sitting down to finalise the specification and identify the actual car was easy enough. I did this with two dealers – one the dominant regional Ford chain and the other a bigger semi-national but multi-brand chain. The small but more local dealer was easily ruled out on price – although the car was coming from Ford Direct the actual price is set by the dealer, as is the trade-in valuation.

For some reason, both started by offering me a choice of grey, silver or black cars. Those who know me well will know that I do not go for those sort of colours on cars – I was set on Coloardo red. I like strong colours on cars, and red cars, I like Colorado red and it looks great on the Fiesta, especially with the chrome effect window trim you get on the Zetec. With a slight sense of surprise (did they assume I wanted grey?), both then offered me a choice of the two same cars.

Ford Direct takes cars not just from the retail turnover but is also the route Ford use to move ex-fleet, such as rental and Ford management staff lease, cars through to the retail market. On the basics of Zetec diesel, red, five door, I had identified the options of Bluetooth phone and music connectivity with voice activation (call out “Phone Home” and it will) and rear parking sensors. The latter brings automatic folding door mirrors as well, and Zetec also has some features like footwell and ambient lighting that you may not associate with a supermini and certainly weren’t in the 1977 Fiesta. Another plus is the electrically heated windscreen, which on a frosty morning could clinch a sale for Ford in two minutes flat.

The lead choice offered by both dealers had these, plus wider than standard, lower profile alloy wheels and tyres (more on them later), additional curtain airbags and rear privacy glass. Then comes the haggle, and the reason for going to two dealers.

Two rounds each, to get to best and final cost to change. A basic negotiating tactic maybe, but by playing one off the other, I saved an additional £500 and ended at a figure that valued the car at around 65% of its new, options included price. It was then eight months old, had 2300 miles on the clock, with Ford as the first owner on the registration document. Why buy new?

I took delivery on a Friday evening in February, and on Sunday morning started the first insurance claim. Parked outside a friend’s house overnight Saturday to Sunday, it was keyed down one side, along both doors and the front and rear wings. The panels were OK but the paint cut deeply enough to need a respray. #nothappy.

Into daily service, on a daily commute that consisted of 22 miles of motorway, plus some minor roads at one end and airport access roads at the other. Fuel consumption was consistent from the first tank at 53-55 mpg (Imperial). Weekend use is obviously fairly varied – sometimes short and local, sometimes a 400 mile weekend on family duty, over motorways or perhaps 200 miles on more mixed roads. If you go with the 70-75 mph flow on the motorway, then 50-53 mpg is still achievable. Put your foot down and try to cruise at 80-85 mph, if the road is clearer, it comes down below 50 mpg, and this rate is also apparent if there’s a headwind. But it’s still well ahead of the Focus petrol.

In town performance is great too – there’s torque in the diesel and the car is still pretty compact, although visibility out of it is not as good as the driving school’s 1977 Mk1. Yes, you are aware it’s a diesel, especially on start-up and when accelerating hard but it is by no means intrusive. The gear shift is a little long but easily managed and difficult to wrong slot, the steering nicely weighted and the clutch easily managed, unlike the 1977 car, which had a clutch so sharp it must have been supplied by Gillette.

On the open road, the car has more than adequate power and torque to maintain a good average speed and for overtaking. It’s not going to set A to B speed records – you need a Fiesta ST200 for that – but it can more than keep up, and the handling and roadholding are both definitely up there with the best in class. Pedal weighting seems well judged, steering weighting is nicely compromised between ease of town use and feel on the open road. You can truly enjoy driving this car on a bendy road.

Demerits are a smaller than ideal, and smaller than some competitors, rear seat and boot, although we have taken 5 people in it – the car has three full rear seat belts and ISOFIX mountings. The ride is fairly firm and controlled, rather than soft, but by no means uncomfortable and is consistent with the sharp handling, and long journeys are not a concept to be avoided.

The biggest gripe has been partly of the Ford’s making, partly of others, including fashion. The tyres on the optional alloy wheels are 195/45R16 – 45 profile on 16 inch wheels, and I have had to replace one wheel and three tyres for damage incurred on potholes and damaged expansion joints. The Ford dealer was very pleased to be able to sell me a new wheel within 4 hours, but slightly surprised that I was disappointed when they said it was a four day wait to have the (undamaged) tyre fitted to it. The local tyre shop did the job, and eventually the relevant council’s insurers paid for it. This all leaves you wary of any pothole, of which the UK has a world leading selection to choose from.

Interior wise this Fiesta is contemporary, or was for 2008, and predominantly grey as is the wont these days. The instrumentation (speed, revs and fuel by gauges, anything else by warning lamps, including coolant temperature) is clear and easily read. It is always lit, so a couple of times I have missed turning on the headlights in low visibility and rain as the instruments were already lit, whereas in the Focus Mk2 it was the other way round – I turned on the lights early to help with the instrumentation.

Some have criticised the Fiesta for the standard of the materials used in the cabin – perhaps they aren’t as good to the touch as a VW, but nothing has broken, rattles or been damaged by routine use.  The front doors have padded armrest areas and the contact points are fine, though the lighter grey door card itself is not indulgent. The rear door has no padding at all.

The heater controls, in which you rotate the rim of the controller rather than turn it more conventionally, are perhaps more robust and functional than they are elegant, but on the other hand the column stalk movements are as good as any I’ve used, and more logically configured than some, including VW. Yes, you can see the red window frames inside the car, but you can do that in a BMW 2 series MPV as well.

I referred to one of the options being very popular – the Bluetooth phone and music connectivity, which has worked very convincingly from the day I got it, and gets used almost every day. The car has an auxiliary music input I’ve never used, a USB socket which is also useful and a CD player that gets used about twice a month, as I have a preference for BBC speech radio and subsequent downloads over recorded music.

In addition to the voice control for programmed regular numbers (“phone home” for example), the driver or just as easily the passenger can dial up numbers on the dash top buttons, and the car will readily connect to the phone without prompting. A very convincing piece of equipment that transforms the practicality and safety of a mobile (cell) phone in the car. The UK has (rightly in my view) a strictly enforced and popularly supported ban on drivers using hand held phones, so this is a great solution. I have proved you can make successful calls whilst sitting on an iphone.

The voice activation is activated by prodding the indicator stalk, and the car asks what you want it to do. The system will also work to select specific radio pre-sets, CD tracks and the like, but my attempt at configuring it was frustrating – it would accept voice activation for a specific frequency but as national FM radio stations have a range of frequencies, asking for “93.7 MHz” will not reliably get you the station. I prefer the digital method, pressing the button with my finger. Likewise, swapping from radio to CD or to Bluetooth is a single button press.

The audio system is monitored through the separate dash top display, which is perhaps the most dated part of the car, at least visually. The display is orange LED and relatively small. However, possibly through familiarity, possibly because I am yet to use a large touchscreen I really like and don’t find to be distracting, I find it perfectly OK. It tells me the time, the radio station, CD track and shows my phone contacts and call lists clearly enough. Models with sat nav have a larger (or maybe less compact) display that is still smaller than many clip-on sat nav displays.

The parking sensors and folding mirrors work just as you’d expect, with the added bonus that you can tell visually, from the mirrors, if the car is locked, and add a bit of theatre. OK, so it’s not the doors on a McLaren or even the rising gear shifter on a Jaguar XF, but it is bit more than just a flash of indicators. The mirrors incorporate the side repeater and the driver’s side mirror was clipped and pushed back a few weeks ago by a hasty VW driver pushing along a narrow road, breaking the indicator lens. A popular online site (not that one but the one that sells books) sold me a new indicator lens for £12, which clipped straight in. I comfort myself with the fact that the other guy had to buy a VW part.

The privacy glass initially didn’t bother me – I probably wouldn’t have chosen it I had been speccing a new car – but after a while you get the point. It allows you to leave something like a jacket almost obscured on the rear seat, maybe helps keep the car cool in the summer and visually goes well with Colorado red. I haven’t tried the additional airbags and don’t intend to.

With one exception, other issues have been few and far between. One of the front fog lights was knocked off its mounting within the bumper/valence by a piece of tyre rubber bouncing down the motorway. A cable tie fixed that. Incidentally, fog lights may look good but seem to make little difference in actually seeing in the fog. I use them more for spotting potholes. Rear foglights are absolute life savers, though.

The car was clipped on the right rear corner by an airport coach squeezing its way through the car park queue, and who didn’t stop, technically an offence. Another insurance claim, and fortunately the airport police were able to put me in touch with the right person at the coach company to confirm it happened – I had the coach’s registration number and he had CCTV – and accept liability. A new bumper and rear fog light were needed. Other than that, two headlight bulbs (in close to 400,000 miles of Ford motoring the only bulbs I have only ever replaced are headlight bulbs) and a replacement windscreen fitted on a Sunday morning, after a stone chip became a long crack. The cambelt was replaced last autumn, at around 120,000 miles. The car has successfully passed the annual MoT inspection each year since 2015, without issues.

During March this year, there developed a noise that sounded like a failing wheel bearing or similar coming from the front left wheel. It persisted and seemed to get no worse but one morning it most definitely was and changing gear became difficult and ultimately not practical at all. A breakdown truck was called, and an inspection suggested some form of gearbox failure, something apparently not unknown on this gearbox. A week later, a reconditioned gear box had been fitted, along with a new clutch as a convenience and precautionary measure, and normal service has been resumed.

Gearbox incident aside, the car has been completely dependable. The car is on its original battery, exhaust system and rear wiper blade, the pedal rubbers still look good and a polish still brings up great colour. It has been to many corners of the UK, to France twice, to work, on holiday, across central London and mountain passes, to the shops and to the household waste tip. It still brings a pleasant sense of anticipation on opening the door in the morning or evening, short or long drive. I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone looking for a similar car. A driver asking for a bit more power or a user wanting a bigger boot are as common as an owner wanting more economy and are familiar features in almost every car ownership story.

The car has now done 136,000 miles, in a just over six years since its first registration. It still feels tight, performs as advertised, the interior is, shiny steering wheel apart, pretty well unmarked and it gathers admiring glances from the combination of the attractive Fiesta shape, effective colour/wheel/trim combination and sunshine. Would I buy another? Well, Ford are now selling the new Mk8 Fiesta in the UK, which is closely derived from my car, both technically and visually. Is it different enough to tempt me to change? I don’t know – maybe the interior would seem a step ahead – but size wise it seems very similar to the old car, and that is probably the biggest issue the new car has.

But the bigger issue for me, as it seemed to be for JP Cavanaugh with his Honda Fit, is this – is there a need to replace it at this time? 136,000 miles may seem quite a lot of miles and at one time it was, but is it now? There’s no corrosion to speak of, there aren’t any rattles or clatters, no oil is required between services, and it performs as it always has done. The car living opposite (a 1999 Audi A3 diesel) has done over 300,000 miles, our friends’ 2005 SAAB 9-3 has done 345,000 miles. I suspect they’d say the Fiesta was barely run in. And that’s sort of where I am with it too. It feels like a long term relationship. And that is as a good a recommendation as you can get.

I guess I’m sticking with the Fiesta. He answers to the name of Felix.