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Ford Fiesta 1.0L: How small is too small?

Will Ford’s diminutive one-litre engine go over in power-hungry North America?

Malibu, Calif. — Small may be good, but surely there’s a limit when it comes to car engines. Ford’s new one-litre, three-cylinder will be as small as it gets in North America when it comes to Canada late next year — have its engineers gone too far?

Ford invited me here to drive its new Fiesta with the tiny engine to find out first-hand. Apparently, its PR people had wanted to prove their point by bringing one of the engines from Detroit as carry-on baggage, but although it’s small, its 90 kg weight was still a bit much for the overhead bins on the plane.

Even so, a strong man could lift the block without a winch. There are full-sport motorcycles with engines the same size. This thing is tiny.

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It’s not alone. The diminutive Smart car is powered by a 999 cc, three-cylinder engine that makes 70 hp — just enough to push two passengers and a few bags of luggage. And smaller engines have been known in cars: the air-cooled 479 cc Fiat two-cylinder that ferried generations of Italians is perhaps the best known, remembered fondly by those who’ve long forgotten their underpowered misery on the autostrada.

There’s even a new two-cylinder, 900 cc turbo engine available in the modern European version of the Fiat 500, though not here in North America, where it has a 1.4L four-cylinder under the hood. We like our power here.

But not only is Ford promoting its new one-litre as “the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid in North America,” it’s sticking it under the hood of a sporty Fiesta, with go-faster graphics and a spicy demeanour. In fact, the little engine is more advanced and more fuel efficient — and peppier — than the 1.6L base motor that we’ll see when the 2014 Fiesta debuts next spring.

This is because the one-litre is an Ecoboost engine, which is Ford’s term for a motor that’s been fixed up with turbocharging, variable valve timing and direct fuel injection. There’ll also be an Ecoboost version of the base 1.6L that will be a fair bit more powerful, but it won’t be as fuel-miserly as the smaller mill.

It’s unusual for a compact car like the Fiesta to be offered with three quite different engines, but Ford expects the choice to create an even wider appeal among an already broad demographic.

The base 1.6L will be good for 120 hp and 122 lb.-ft. of torque, and will return a claimed average of 5.9 L/100 km, similar to the current model. The Ecoboost version of that engine, available in the Fiesta ST next spring, will kick out 197 hp and 214 lb.-ft. of torque (“Make no mistake — it’s a rocket ship,” said a Ford spokesperson.)

But it’s the 1.0L that I drove here, and although its 123 hp is similar to the base engine, its 148 lb.-ft. of torque is considerably more. It felt like it, too, on Southern California’s twisting mountain roads.

Ford of Canada isn’t being specific about fuel-consumption claims for the three-cylinder, saying only that it will be better than the 5.9 figure of the base, because it’s not yet been officially tested by the government. Perhaps Hyundai’s recent costly court case, in which it overestimated the fuel consumption of some of its cars, has set an example against jumping the gun.

However, the one-litre engine is already available in Europe in the Ford Focus, which also comes with a base 1.6L naturally-aspirated version, and there the smaller engine claims an 18 per cent improvement in fuel economy on the heavier model. If the ratio holds true for the Fiesta, expect claims of about 4.9 L/100 km, which is right down there in hybrid territory — but a lot more fun.

The European cars also come with stop-start technology, which won’t be available in our Canadian models — it’s a costly option, and it’s vital for cars in this market to be cost competitive. No pricing has yet been announced for any of the Fiestas, though the difference for the more expensive but cheaper to run one-litre engine against the base 1.6L probably won’t be much; in Britain on the Focus, it’s about $400.

It’s also safe to assume the overall cost of the Fiesta will be in line with cars like the Toyota Yaris, Chevy Sonic and Honda Fit. Ford provided equivalent versions of these three competitors to compare here on a runway course, and the Fiesta was tighter-handling and more responsive through the turns. Driving to the airfield, the little car never felt underpowered, even overtaking other vehicles up steep hills.

More importantly, the extra torque of the three-cylinder is delivered more widely through the rev band, so it picked up and went quickly in each of its five manual gears. If horsepower is top speed and torque is acceleration, the Fiesta has its priorities right.

So the little engine that could is both peppy to drive and miserly to fill at the pump, which is every engineer’s dream. Much of that is due to the rare three-cylinder configuration, which is unusual because it ought to provide a rough, unbalanced ride. But the Fiesta motor was quite smooth, and very quiet.

Engineers worked hard to reduce the motor’s NVH (Noise Vibration Harshness) rating, and did so by reducing friction everywhere possible: the drivebelt for the camshaft, for instance, runs internally in oil to keep it well lubricated, and there is no balance shaft because the pistons are designed to run in sync without one. The dual cooling for the cylinder and the block lets the motor warm up more quickly, too.

Ford expects this clever one-litre engine to eventually replace the more traditional 1.6L version, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t prove the most popular. After all, customers will walk in to showrooms — or online websites — lured by the lowest price possible, and then learn the advantages of an engine so small it would previously have been dismissed as laughable. Over time, enough will buy it that an entire mindset might be altered.

And when it comes to saving fuel, but still having fun behind the wheel, isn’t that a good thing?

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  • Ford Fiesta 1.0L: How small is too small?
  • Ford Fiesta 1.0L: How small is too small?
  • Ford Fiesta 1.0L: How small is too small?
  • Ford Fiesta 1.0L: How small is too small?

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