Last Updated May 21, 2010 8:27 AM EDT
The event was the International Motor Press Association's Spring Brake, an annual test drive session at Bear Mountain State Park about an hour north of New York City. I got my first driving impressions of two models about to go on sale-the 2011 Ford Fiesta and 2011 Ford Mustang. In addition, I fired up the Mini E, an electric car still in a consumer test with a few hundred volunteers but an indication of what electrics can be. Here are my impressions:
2011 Ford Fiesta-The Fiesta is the first of two top-selling small cars in Europe that Ford is bringing here. (The other one, the Focus, will arrive in 2011; see Fuel-Efficient American Cars Star at New York Auto Show.) As a well-equipped, high-mileage entry (40 mpg highway, 30 city), the four-passenger Fiesta will compete with small cars like the Nissan Versa and Honda Fit. Responsive, electric-assist power steering and well-tuned suspension took the Fiesta through the twisting Bear Mountain curves with an aplomb unusual in small cars. Fiesta will clearly be near the top of the class in handling. The 118-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine delivers decent acceleration, but it is more fun when paired with a manual transmission. The six-speed automatic, clearly set for gas mileage, is quick to shift gears upward but slow to downshift for more boost. The well-bolstered seats and sensible dash layout made the Fiesta easy to drive. The Fiesta base price will start around $13,300, but will jump up to around $17,000 as you add options like the SYNC voice command system for music and cell phone calls. This is below Fit's starting price of $14,900 (up to $19,100) but well above Versa's $9,990 (up to $16,780). With its high level of standard equipment and attractive options, Fiesta looks like a value contender.
2011 Ford Mustang-The line was long to get behind the wheel of the new Mustang GT. Auto writers tend to have a need for speed, and they were eager to try out the revived version of the 5.0-liter, 412 horsepower V8. When I did get into the driver's seat, there was plenty of muscle behind this muscle car-timed elsewhere at going from zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds. Beyond its tire-smoking capability (I didn't really smoke them, as it's considered poor form at group events), the Mustang GT has a comfortable interior and decent handling through the mountain curves. That was a pleasant contrast with its main competition, the Chevrolet Camaro, which was also at Bear Mountain. (The Camaro's low-chopped top and airline-cockpit dash may mean to give a race car feel to NASCAR fans, but it just makes me claustrophobic. And the Camaro was the most ungainly through the curves of any car I drove at the event, including several SUVs.)
The new Mustang has been getting notice as well for its little-brother V6 version, which is rated at 31 mpg highway, 19 city; see Fast Cars with Good Gas mileage? Yes! But the 300-plus horsepower V6 plus six-speed automatic transmission didn't seem very speedy even compared to some other V6 vehicles in the day's test fleet. However, if Mustang's comfort and style appeal to you-rather than raw muscle-the V6 may seem attractive starting at $22,145.
Mini E-Like the Nissan Leaf but unlike the Chevy Volt, the Mini E is a pure plug-in electric with no gasoline engine booster. Unlike both those cars, due out later this year, the Mini E is not about to go on the market. It is in a research leasing program with 450 volunteers in the New York and Los Angeles areas. But for a test drive, it sure is fun. The electric motor gives real thrust from a standing start and keeps it up without interruption. The Mini E has been timed elsewhere at going from zero to 60 in 8.5 seconds, but it felt faster. Like any nimble Mini would, it gobbled up the mountain curves in the test drive. Despite the slightly stiff bounce over bumps from suspension tuned for that kind of handling, this Mini is still a comfortable highway ride. The one unnerving touch is the so-called regenerative braking, which recharges the battery using the brakes.The Mini E is set so you don't actually have to touch the brake. Just lift your foot off the accelerator and the Mini E will slow sharply. I did eventually begin to get a feel for easing up just enough that the sharp braking wouldn't take hold. Mini's BMW parent isn't saying when it might actually sell this car. (See Should You Buy an Electric Car?) But it would be a worthy entry whenever that day comes.
Photos by Jerry Edgerton