Ford Fiesta arrives in U.S.

You probably haven't seen it yet, but the Ford Fiesta is actually the company's top-selling car in Europe. Excited? You should be.

There are currently more than a half-million of these subcompact munchkins running around Europe and Asia, where the latest version was launched in October 2008. And Ford promises that none of the Fiesta's charm and spunk will be lost in translation when the Mexican-built four-door hatchback and all-new four-door sedan versions arrive here by summer.

The Fiesta is part of Ford's plan to bring its Euro-designed models to our shores instead of reinventing or significantly altering these products to suit what was assumed to be North American tastes. That means we're finally going to get the same firm-riding, precise-handling, fuel-sipping vehicles as across-the-pond drivers have been enjoying for years. After driving the Fiesta, we can't wait.

The car certainly looks a cut or two above most typical entry-level runabouts. The design is Euro sleek and fashionable, with plenty of tucks and folds in the sheetmetal plus a set of truly beautiful headlight pods -- Ford calls them "Dragon's Eyes" -- that neatly blend in with the fenders. At the rear, the hatchback's styling easily wins out over the sedan's, but both versions are easy on the eyes.

Unfortunately, the well-proportioned interior is diminished by a somewhat garish dashboard. Ford has some work to do if it hopes to match General Motors Corp. (and others) in this department. The rest of the interior is well done, but rear-seat leg room is a bit cramped despite the wide door openings. As well, the split-folding seat backs don't fold completely flat into the hatchback's load floor. By comparison, the Focus, Ford's current small-car contender, has an extra 5 inches of space between the front and rear wheels, which adds to its overall passenger friendliness. Overall, the Fiesta sedan is more than a foot longer than its hatchback counterpart and is almost the same length as the Focus.

Get up and go comes from a 119-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers plenty of pep for the 2,540-pound hatchback/2,580-pound sedan.

The base transmission is a slick-shifting five-speed manual, while a six-speed automatic is an option.

Ordering a Fiesta will require careful study as there's a wide range of models and options to consider. The base S sedan rings in at $14,000, including destination charges, and comes with air conditioning, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, power locks and mirrors, hands-free capless fuel filler plus a cabin filled with air bags.

The next step up for the sedan is the SE, which is where the $15,800 hatchback begins. They add remote keyless entry, four-speaker sound system and a message center with trip computer, while the top-level SEL sedan and SES hatchback also include 16-inch alloy wheels (15-inch rims are standard), heated outside mirrors, interior ambient lighting, premium sound package and SYNC, Ford's voice-activated communications and entertainment unit that was developed in conjunction with Microsoft.

Options include keyless entry with push-button start, climate control and leather seats (heated in front). A power sunroof will be added to the list shortly after the official launch.

As impressive as the Fiesta is, Ford can't afford to rest easy. Both the reorganized General Motors and Fiat-controlled Chrysler have a number of small-car initiatives in the works, while Mazda, Volks-wagen and others will soon introduce their own "subs." Meanwhile, the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris have established themselves as category leaders and likely won't surrender gracefully to any upstart challengers.

However, since the Fiesta already exists in Europe, the company has been able to bring some samples here to test the waters and generate some excitement. Aside from a few subjective shortcomings uncovered during our test drive, the pluses will likely make the car well worth the wait.