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IT'S been a long time since Ford had a genuine striker in the baby-car league.
You have to go back to the Korean-made Festiva to find a regular scorer for the team.
The Ka was only ever a midfielder, and even then it needed a price cut to promote it from left back.
But now there is a new star in the squad, and it's going to give Ford a massive kick.
The Fiesta has all the right skills and strengths for the light-car contest, with a funky body and a perky engine. Unlike the Ka, it also has an automatic gearbox option, and the price has been set with a basic bottom line of $14,490.
It has taken Ford Australia a long time to get the European-made Fiesta into its team, but it's been worth the wait.
It's not as adventurous as the Honda Jazz or as enjoyable to drive as the Mazda2, but it has the rest of its rivals covered.
It is, without any doubt, the car that Ford has always needed to replace the Festiva.
The Fiesta was designed and developed in Germany.
It comes in three basic models – LX, Zetec and Ghia – and with a choice of three and five-door hatchback bodies.
There is only one engine, and the 1.6-litre Duratec is a good one. Ford says the power and torque peaks are 74kW and 146Nm with lightweight design, twin-overhead camshafts and sequential fuel injection.
The gearbox choices are the traditional five-speed manual or four-speed automatic for the front-wheel drive Fiesta, but Ford has created a self-shifter with multi-mode electronic controls.
Brakes are four-wheel discs and the suspension is fully independent with the sort of sports tuning we have come to expect on everything up to the Fairlane.
The lineup begins with the LX three-door at $14,490, but it's a price that doesn't include the $2000 extra for airconditioning. The five-door LX is $15,990.
The mid-level car is the sporty-ish Zetec three-door at $18,990 – which picks up anti-skid brakes, alloy wheels and fog lamps – while the flagship is the five-door Ghia at $21,490 including a six-stack CD player, with optional side and curtain airbags for $900.
"Customers looking for a small car are just as selective as those wanting a larger car. They prefer a small car because it's the vehicle that best suits their needs," Ford Australia president Geoff Polites says.
"The days of having to sacrifice driving dynamics, performance and safety features along with size will be gone with the new Fiesta."
THE Fiesta is a good little jigger. We've driven a range of cars, from the basic five-door model to the sporty Zetec with optional body kit, and liked them all.
They are responsive, comfortable, well equipped and great value.
We spent most of our time with the LX five-door manual and believe it is a winner at $15,990.
The engine is perky, there is plenty of space inside, it has all the right gear, and it is enjoyable to drive.
It's not at the cutting edge set by the Jazz and Mazda, which have truly innovative cabins and class-leading quality.
But it is cheaper, and few buyers in the baby-car class are going to know what they are missing by heading straight to a Ford showroom.
Just why has it taken Ford Australia so long to get the Fiesta and get it right? Right now, we don't care.
We're just happy there is a Ford that takes the brand back to the strengths of the original Laser and the Korean-made Festiva, and which delivers a package to sit comfortably alongside the classy BA Falcon.
The Fiesta even shades the larger Focus, which needs the same sort of engine-room effort.
The baby car's Duratec four is punchy from the bottom and still has a top-end surge that allows nippy performance in the city and strong overtaking.
It's also light on fuel, proving the efficiency of its design.
The engine is helped by the car's light weight, but it highlighted – for us – the real weakness of the Focus.
If Ford can get the powerplant right in the Fiesta, why can't it do the same for the Focus?
The five-speed manual gearbox is light and direct and the brakes are strong and efficient, while the steering has good feel with a light load for parking.
The ride and handling of the Fiesta is outstanding, with great grip in curves and the sort of enjoyable response that qualifies it as a hot hatch.
It doesn't bump and thump like many of the Euro-made babies, either, though we'd prefer less road roar from the tyres on coarse bitumen.
There is plenty of space in the Fiesta, the ¿smiley face¿ dash (top left) is simple but attractive, and we liked everything from the giant ventilation outlets to the CD sound and the column-mounted sound controls we sampled in the Zetec Fiesta.
But the seats don't have enough shape or support, you have to pull the seatbelt a long way forward in the three-door car, and the cabin colour – cave black – won't be much fun in an Australian summer.
Holden discovered a long time ago that it needed lighter and brighter cabin colours in its Barina and Astra.
But they are only minor niggles on a car that's right at the front of the baby-car battle and kicks another big goal for Ford.