Automatic traditionally mean convenience, but this one’s genuine fun too. Say hello to the Fiesta Automatic that goes on sale in January 2012. First things first, the automatic will only be available on the petrol variant. Ford’s reason for not making an automatic diesel is, quite simply, costs; it would be far too expensive to develop given the low sales volume of diesel automatics elsewhere around the world.

Coming back to the car at hand though, the Fiesta automatic comes with a  segment-first six-speed, dual-clutch transmission, called Power Shift in Ford lingo. As with other dual clutch transmissions, the gearbox has one clutch working the odd gears and another working the even ones.

The unique bits are its electromechanical clutch actuation and dry lubrication (typically found on manual transmissions) for reduced load on the engine. Worth mentioning is the fact the gearbox will require absolutely no maintenance through the life of the car (a claimed 2,40,000km). Ford also claims the gearbox boats a very high level of mechanical efficiency that will enable the Fiesta Automatic to match the manual car for fuel economy. While we couldn’t verify this claim on out short drive in Goa, we can tell you the engine-gearbox package works well.

Slot the gear lever into ‘D’, lift off the brake and the Fiesta gets off the line very smoothly. This smoothness is helped by the gearbox’s ‘micro slip’ feature that allows controlled clutch slippage to eliminate gearbox rattle at very low engine speeds. But despite all the hardware, the Fiesta isn’t very quick off the line, with its dual-clutch transmission lacking the torque build-up of a torque converter automatic.

What you will immediately like about the gearbox is how quickly it adapts to your throttle foot. Ambling at a steady speed at part-throttle foot. Ambling at a steady speed at part-throttle, the ‘box always runs in a high gear to aid fuel economy, but put more pressure on the accelerator pedal and the gearbox will shift down a gear or two and keep the engine in the meat of the power band. Full throttle has the car change character yet again with gear changes now executed right at the redline. Very nice. What’s great is that all shifts are seamless and downshifts are perfectly timed too.

However, at city speeds you do have to wait a bit for the ‘box to shift down to the right gear when you need instant power. Then too, power comes in a step and the whole response isn’t as fluid as a torque converter automatic.

One peculiarity is that the ‘box shifts to neutral as you go off the throttle in ‘D’ mode. While this aids fuel economy, it also means slowing down with engine braking, and this takes some getting used to. A ‘Grade Assist’ function (activated via a button on the gear lever) does keep the car in gear though – helped when driving down slopes. There is also a ‘Hill Start Assist’ function that keeps the brakes engaged for 2.5 seconds after you lift off the brake pedal, to prevent it rolling backward.

To get the most engine braking effect (when driving downhill, for instance), the gearbox can be slotted into ‘L’, which runs the car in the lowest possible gear for a particular speed. However, we liked L-mode for a far less noble reason. In this mode, the gearbox acquaints you with the less-seen wild side of the 1.5-litre Ti-VCT engine. The addition of the sixth ratio adds a newfound zest that we thought lacking in the manual petrol car. 6500rpm upshifts, instantaneous downshifts and the Fiesta’ brilliant ride and handling come together to deliver and incredible driving experience. So good was our drive up (and down) the ghats, we didn’t mind the lack of paddle shifters, a feature found on the Honda City Automatic.

Clearly, the Fiesta retains its ‘enthusiast’s car’ traits even it this automatic avatar. The lack of rear seat space won’t be an issue for most buyers, who are likely to drive the car themselves. For them, the view from the supportive driver’s seat will be all that matters.

Ford has not revealed prices yet, but market buzz is that it will price the car aggressively to compensate for the manual car’s high price. We expect a Rs 50,000 premium over the manual equivalent. If ford can deliver on the fuel economy promise, this automatic could win itself a small fan following.

Source: Autocar December 2011

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