SANTA MONICA, CA – Ford came upon a good thing when it decided to build its entire powertrain strategy around pairing gasoline direct injection with turbocharging and variable-valve timing in a bid to downsize engines while improving fuel economy and performance.

The smaller-is-better approach has found success since the 3.5L EcoBoost V-6 assembled at Ford’s Cleveland Engine No.1 plant first appeared in 2009 in large sedans such as the Ford Taurus SHO and Lincoln MKS. After that, it stunned critics by becoming a very successful replacement for V-8s in the F-150 pickup.

With each successive EcoBoost launch, the engines have gotten smaller and better. The 2.0L EcoBoost 4-cyl. arrived last fall and, like the 3.5L V-6 before it, muscled its way onto the Ward’s 10 Best Engines list for its ability to outperform many naturally aspirated V-6s.

In this year’s engine competition, WardsAuto editors have been impressed by the new Fusion sedan’s small 1.6L EcoBoost 4-cyl., which serves as a worthy replacement for many large-displacement inline-4s.

But Ford has saved the best for last – a potent little package with a lightweight cast-iron engine block that can clear airport security and stow in the overhead bin of a commercial jet.

The 1.0L EcoBoost derives its power from a mere three pistons pumping furiously in combustion chambers that displace fewer than two pints. Think back to elementary school, and four of those tiny cardboard milk cartons held more volume.

But this is no sixth-grade science project: The 1.0L EcoBoost provides serious propulsion for a stylish subcompact, the refreshed ’14 Fiesta, that handles well and tips the scales at a mere 2,427 lbs. (1,101 kg).

Oh, and while never feeling underpowered, it delivers a staggering 49.7 mpg (4.7 L/100 km) during a moderate-paced 45-mile (72-km) route to here from Camarillo along the Pacific Coast Highway.

My buff-book driving partner, pushing the limits along the twisty peaks and valleys of Mulholland Highway, raves about the car’s stability, handling and mitigated body roll, with a twist-beam rear suspension and MacPherson struts up front. Under heavy flogging, the 3-cyl. Fiesta still manages better than 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km).

On an autocross track filling an abandoned runway at the nearby Camarillo Airport, the 1.0L EcoBoost more than holds its own against some of its competitors, the Honda Fit, Chevrolet Sonic and Toyota Yaris.

The car gets off the line with surprising thrust, considering the engine is so small, and its midrange torque, from 2,500 to 4,500 rpm, approaches that of the new breed of premium turbocharged 4-cyl. engines with twice the displacement.

Despite its odd number of pistons, the 3-cyl. EcoBoost is extremely smooth at idle and low rpm but growls nicely, like a burly V-6, when approaching the 6,500-rpm redline thanks to outstanding exhaust tuning.

At times, the Fiesta sounds like the Focus ST, which uses the “sound symposer,” a resonator attached to the intake manifold to amplify the sound of the running engine into the cabin.

But powertrain engineer Steve Russ says the Fiesta’s 1.0L EcoBoost functions without the mechanical device. However, the symposer will see duty in the Fiesta ST, which is being unveiled here at the Los Angeles auto show this week and goes on sale next spring with the 1.6L EcoBoost 4-cyl, expected to be rated at 197 hp.

The Fiesta ST should not outshine its tri-piston little brother, which also shares the spotlight at the LA show.

U.S. certification is not yet complete, but European specs for the engine in the larger Focus cite 0-62 mph (100 km/h) acceleration times of 12.5 seconds with the 5-speed manual transmission and 11.3 seconds with a 6-speed manual. Surely, the U.S. numbers will be better because the Fiesta feels much faster.

To start, the 5-speed manual will be the only available transmission with the 1.0L EcoBoost when the ’14 Fiesta goes on sale late next year, although the dual-clutch automatic is under consideration.

Actually, the 5-speed manual is an able companion for this tiny powerplant. Tall gearing allows the Fiesta to run at 50 mph (80 km/h) along the undulating Pacific Coast Highway in third gear without breaking a sweat, generally below 3,000 rpm. In many drive situations, gears four and five are barely needed.

When Environmental Protection Agency certification is complete, Ford predicts the 3-cyl. Fiesta will be the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid available in the U.S. For now, the auto maker will only promise highway fuel economy above 40 mpg (5.8 L/100 km), which is a conservative estimate.

But this kind of mileage in a small, fun-to-drive package with a European feel and manual transmission could result in some cross-shopping with the Volkswagen Golf TDI, a more expensive vehicle similarly prone to stellar fuel economy, especially on road trips. Heck, the EcoBoost Fiesta even sounds at times like a diesel, in a good way.

Power spools up via a low-inertia single-scroll turbocharger from Continental. The contract represents the supplier’s first foray into the booming turbocharger market.

Ford’s Russ says a twin-scroll unit was not necessary for the 3-cyl. application, but he tells WardsAuto the 2.0L EcoBoost will integrate dual scrolls in the future.

Built in Germany, the 1.0L EcoBoost features a number of innovations, including a timing belt immersed in engine oil for better sound deadening (rather than running dry, a first for Ford in the U.S.); an exhaust manifold integrated in the cylinder head; a crankshaft offset by 10 mm (0.39 ins.) to help reduce friction during the piston’s power stroke; split cooling for the block and head to better manage heat and reduce fuel consumption; and mounts designed to decouple and absorb the engine’s shaking forces.

The powertrain team also managed to do without a counter-rotating balance shaft, which often is necessary to quell small-engine vibrations but adds weight and cost. Instead, engineers focused on the front pulley and rear flywheel, where weights are placed precisely to counteract engine vibrations.

The engine already has received awards since its launch in the European Focus in March, and that same engine also will see duty in the European B-Max and C-Max. The Fiesta also is launching now in Europe with the same 1.0L 3-cyl.

New technology is not cheap, of course. Pricing for the ’14 Fiesta is not yet set, but expect the EcoBoost technology to carry a premium of about $1,000, as it does with the three other engines in the family. Pricing for the ’13 Fiesta begins at $13,200. We’re told the engine will run on regular unleaded fuel.

The 1.0L EcoBoost Fiesta suggests the “One Ford” strategy is working, and that a vehicle and powertrain developed primarily with European drivers in mind also can work nicely in the evolving U.S. market, which has migrated rapidly toward smaller vehicles with power-dense engines.

EcoBoost No.4 will be in the hunt for a Ward’s 10 Best Engines award, but not this year. Because it won’t be available in the Fiesta until late 2013, the Ford powertrain team will have to wait until then to see how it fares in the competition.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com

'14 Ford Fiesta (current European specs)
Vehicle type Five-passenger, front-wheel-drive, 5-door hatchback
Engine 1.6L turbocharged GDI EcoBoost 3-cyl.; iron block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 123 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 148 lb.-ft. (201 Nm) at 4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 71.9 x 82.0
Compression ratio 10:1
Transmission 5-speed manual
Wheelbase 97.99 ins. (249 cm)
Overall length 156.2 ins. (397 cm)
Overall width 67.8 ins. (172 cm)
Overall height 58.8 ins. (149 cm)
Curb weight 2,427 lbs. (1,101 kg)
Base price TBD
Fuel economy TBD
Competition Chevy Sonic, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Toyota Versa
Pros Cons
Wonderfully power-dense 3-cyl. Hefty EcoBoost premium
Five-speed manual only Why not launch with automatic, too?
Eligible for Ward’s 10 Best Engines But not until next year