Three-cylinder Ford Fiesta little but lively

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Parsimony plus punch . . . the Ford Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost. Photos supplied

Strong drivetrain and chassis, intriguing road in a fascinating country: today's nip around hill country behind Changmai in northern Thailand has all the elements of being a memorably happy day out in the new Ford Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost.

So why, when every ingredient is so right, am I a bit grumpy?

The problem is a chap called ''Diesel'', our local lead driver in the police car heading our little group. He demands our cars stay very close and he's on the R/T all the time, barking out warnings: ''truck coming'', ''dog on roadside'' and so on.

He's utterly overly cautious. The truck is on its side of the road. The dog is well off the tarmac.

''Tree on road'' is actually a bit of banana frond ... What Diesel needs to do is slow down the talk and speed up the pace. That's the frustration.

This is a perfect road and this Fiesta feels fiesty. The Mighty Mouse 1.0-litre three cylinder petrol (international engine of the year two years running) is working well with a car whose chassis and steering dynamics are category-leading.

The engine also seems attuned to the Powershift automated manual gearbox, also a new partnership. Previously this engine has only found pure manual partners.

We should now be zipping along, engine revving, ripping up and down through the cogs, exploring the car's nippiness. Yet, while happy enough to flout the posted limits on the motorway and even through the villages, up here in the hills Diesel just loses his bottle.

All right, it's not wholly without reason. A lot of big indigenous wildlife lives up here, and another potential threat could come from the dozens of dangerously overloaded one-tonne utes.

And yet, for the past hour we've been on some great roads ... and never got beyond third gear, or above 60kmh. Admittedly, a year ago I took this engine to 200kmh on a German autobahn, though in that case it was fitted to a Focus, not a Fiesta.

Although the Fiesta is no scorcher - Ford says 0-100kmh in 11.4sec - and quotes a 212kmh top speed, it's one of those cars that always feels faster than it might actually be.

Hooking up to PowerShift is good for it, too. Yes, you're not wrong in thinking that a small revvy engine requires a caning and lots of gearshift stirring to fully fire up. Yet while the manual will probably be the better enthusiast car - it doles out an extra 30Nm on over-boost for overtaking - even when you're leaving the PowerShift box entirely to its own ways it doesn't seem dull.

The turbo's tuning for broad spread provides enough mid-range muscularity to trick the unwary into thinking they're sitting behind more cylinders and a bigger capacity; the trick is to keep pulling at least 1500rpm, hardly a hardship as the perky attitude and thrummy aural signature incite energetic driving.

It's such a clever engine: atop an iron block small enough to fit on an A4 paper sheet sits a cylinder head with an integrated exhaust manifold. The tiny turbo spins at a maximum of 248,000rpm and teams with direct injection and variable-valve timing to fizz things up. The inherent imbalance of a three-cylinder engine is countered by specifically weighting the flywheel and pulley. This avoids using an efficiency degrading balance shaft.

Last word to Ford NZ communications man Tom Clancy: ''We see this Fiesta as having the potential to be as successful in 2014 as [the]Ranger has been for us this year.''

Can it be done? Fiesta, on present count, is an also-ran in the small car category, with less than half the volume of the Toyota Yaris and Suzuki Swift. And yet the impressively vivacious engine comes through as the little engine that really can, for parsimony plus punch. So why not?

Three-cylinder Ford Fiesta little but lively
At a Glance
Ford Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost

Price: $27,340 manual, $28,840 automatic

Engine: 999cc three-cylinder turbocharged petrol, max power 92kW@6000rpm, max torque 170Nm@1400-4500rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual, six-speed automatic

Brakes and stability systems: ABS, EBD, EBA, DSC

Wheels, tyres: 195/50 R16

Fuel and economy: 4.9 manual, 5.3 automatic litres per 100km on combined cycle, capacity 42 litres

Dimensions: Length 3982mm, width 1722mm, height 1467mm