SAN FRANCISCO – For the B-car segment to grow, reeling in American consumers is a must, and the ’11 Ford Fiesta is the perfect bait.

Ford says it expects the small-car segment, in which the Fiesta resides, to account for 36% of the U.S. market by 2013, up from just 21% in 2003. As such, the tiny Ford has the potential to be a big fish in an expanding pond.

The Fiesta is attractive, well-appointed and fun to drive – a prime example of what a B-car can and should be.

The car does away with the “econobox” moniker given to less-than-stellar B-cars of the past, including Ford’s previous U.S-spec Fiesta, which was sold from 1978 to 1981 before being yanked in favor of the Ford Escort.

The Fiesta’s sheetmetal is both curvaceous and angular, taking Ford’s global kinetic design language, meant to convey motion even while standing still, to a whole new level.

The rakish profile culminates in an aggressive rear end belying the car’s diminutive stature.

The Fiesta comes in two body styles: a 4-door sedan and 5-door hatch. The hatch is more sporty-looking, but Ford expects the bulk of buyers to pick the sedan.

The new B-car offers more colors than a rainbow trout. Nine vivid hues are available with equally colorful monikers, such as “Lime Squeeze” and “Blue Flame.”

The shades might be a bit much for traditional buyers, but they’re likely to net the Fiesta’s target audience of “twenty-somethings” looking to express themselves.

Inside, the Fiesta is well-appointed and edgy, with high-quality materials and craftsmanship. This bodes well for the car, as research has shown consumers shopping B-cars no longer will accept sub-par interiors.

The center console is both a highlight of the interior as well as its shortcoming. Ford says it is meant to “invoke the same familiarity and usefulness as a cell phone’s interface.” And it definitely looks cool.

But in the “user-friendliness” department, it comes up short. The console’s buttons are intuitive and laid out nicely, but their small size makes them difficult to activate with any accuracy.

The center console also houses the door lock/unlock button, which may frustrate drivers conditioned to looking for it along the door armrest. The upside is only one button is necessary, and front-seat passengers now have access to it.

The seats are extremely supportive, but more sporty than comfortable. They also are a bit narrow for full torsos, largely due to the Fiesta’s global nature. Ford had to design seats that would appeal to consumers worldwide.

’11 Ford Fiesta
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive 5-passenger hatchback
Engine 1.6L inline 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 120 hp @ 6,350 rpm
Torque 112 lb.-ft. (152 Nm)
Compression ratio 11.0:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 98.0 ins. (249 cm)
Overall length 160.1 ins. (407.0 cm)
Overall width 67.8 ins. (172.0 cm)
Curb weight 2,575 lbs. (1,168 kg)
Base price $15,795
Fuel economy 29-40 mpg (8.1-5.9 L/100 km)
Competition Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Chevrolet Aveo
Pros Cons
4-cyl. zippy in town Anemic going uphill
40 mpg hwy rating Actual mileage varies
Snazzy styling Tight rear seating

Disappointingly, the back seat lacks legroom. And others in the B-car segment offer more in the way of rear-seat comfort.

Where the Fiesta truly shines is on the road, the curvier the better. During a recent test drive here, the 5-speed manual transmission offers quick, effortless shifts with a short throw, and the 6-speed automatic is more than competent.

The car handles far better than most in this segment, providing the fun-to-drive experience Ford engineers wanted.

Steering is spot-on, with inputs transferred seamlessly to the front wheels via Ford’s speed-sensitive Electric Power Assist Steering system.

The Fiesta comes with one engine choice, a 1.6L DOHC inline 4-cyl. producing 120 hp and 112 lb.-ft. (152 Nm) of torque.

The 1.6L is one of the smallest engines Ford has sold in North America since the 63-hp 1.3L under the hood in the largely forgettable Aspire in the 1990s.

The 1.6L stacks up favorably against top competitors, including the Honda Fit’s 1.5L 117-hp engine and the 106-hp 1.5L 4-bangers in the Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris.

Ford’s scrappy 1.6L keeps noise, vibration and harshness levels to a minimum and offers a plump, linear torque curve.

But Ford may have been better off scheduling the test drive on flatter terrain. On steep inclines, the engine struggles mightily, like a salmon swimming upstream.

In fifth gear, with the accelerator fully depressed, the Fiesta strains to gather speed, forcing a downshift or two.

But the Fiesta delivers great fuel economy. Even during spirited driving here, the car achieves about 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) city/highway.

Ford says the Fiesta will get 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km) on the highway (when mated to the automatic).

Ford product planners fully understand the importance of the Fiesta. With its summer launch fast approaching, they are determined to make sure this one’s a keeper with consumers.

bpope@wardsauto.com