Spending the Christmas season with the Ford Fiesta Vignale.
At the risk of repeating myself, I feel compelled to explain the set of circumstances that resulted in myself and my partner crossing Germany (twice) in the finest of small Fords towards the end of the year 2018.
Having sold my better half’s car early in the autumn (and with my own steed in storage), we found ourselves at the mercy of our friendly neighbourhood’s rent-a-car station on more than one occasion. For the holiday season – which entailed a 900-kilometre-trip from Hamburg to the Swiss border and back – we were destined to feel especially cheerful, since we ended up with not just some Kleinwagen, but the class-defining Ford Fiesta. But one with a whiff of coachbuilt extravagance and luxury, in the form of Ford’s Vignale top specification, sprinkled on top.
Ford’s reputation for building fine-handling motor cars meant I expected the Fiesta to feel like a somewhat more polished kindred spirit to the Mazda 3 that had turned out to be such a surprise win as part of a previous round of the rental car lottery. This, I can reveal without any further ado, was not the case.
But before addressing the Fiesta driving experience, this car’s specification deserves a bit of attention. It is, after all, a Vignale.
Like Ghia before it, Vignale is a suitably Italianate name (insofar as one could imagine it printed on a lady’s leather handbag) that happens to be among the Ford Motor Company’s valueless assets. But whereas the Ghia name became too associated with wood print plastics, pseudo velour and ruched leather upholstery for it to evoke Milanese haute couture flair any more, the Vignale name has lain dormant among Ford’s possessions long enough for it not to be tarnished by outdated aspirational conceptions of yore.
So instead of ‘wood’, the allegedly style-conscious supermini buyer of 2019 supposedly lusts after ‘carbon fibre’ and, inevitably, stitching and leatherette. In catering with this craving, Ford’s colour & trim specialists have created a cabin ambience miles away from the petit bourgeois plushness of a top-spec Scorpio, instead going for the kind of vodka lounge ambience to which more than one mood board had been dedicated a decade ago.
Topping off all the other efforts at raising the ‘false aspirational’ game is the Vignale’s hi-fi system, which is (supposedly) supplied by none other than masters of minimalist high-tech chic, Bang & Olufsen. One must assume that the deal Ford offered the Danish brand in order to use the B&O logo was too good to ignore: For both the flimsy looks of the stereo and its tinny sound (which wasn’t improved by dashboard’s rattling when base-heavy songs were being played at sensible volume) would be poisonous to any marque trading on sophistication.
Then again, the Danes might have reckoned that any Ford owners wouldn’t be tempted to buy themselves a home stereo system costing half as much as their cars, thus keeping potential damage to the brand in check.
Truth be told, the plastic panels on the dashboard and centre tunnel are not as offensive as most faux-carbon fibre, as its pattern and dark purple hue are not trying to mimic today’s no.1 high performance cypher in too devoted a fashion. However, the same clearly cannot be said about the copious amounts of stitching, which highlight not only their hardly artisan fit and finish, but also the unpleasant texture of the swathes of leatherette they are (supposedly) connecting.
An utterly pointless line of purely ‘decorative’ stitching on the front seats’ side bolsters is the most repugnant instance of this regrettable trend I have come across so far. Fans of True Religion-branded bluejeans might feel otherwise.
Probably not exclusive to the Vignale specification is the fluorescent blue ‘mood lighting’ that supposedly makes the Fiesta a ‘cool’ place to spend the dark hours in. In actual fact, it’s miles away from the excellent legibility and unobtrusive ‘aircraft cockpit’ flair the red-orange lighting of late 1990’s BMWs helped create. Having said that, it’s not as unpleasant as VW’s clinical, irritating white strips of interior lighting either.
As mentioned earlier, I was convinced the Fiesta would prove to be a slightly more professional feeling piece of kit than the appealing, but hardly flawless Mazda 3 we’d spent some time with in the autumn. So it was to my astonishment when I realised that in terms of cabin ambience – which was hardly the Mazda’s biggest forte – the Ford barely bettered it.
Little details such as the rather chintzy typography, coupled with very strange choices like using some of the nastiest plastics to be found inside the entire cabin right where they are touched all the time (on the door grab handles) were not in keeping with the image of Ford as established champions of mass market competence and Mazda’s status as underweight challenger. Some shoddily finished details and some visible wiring by the front seats’ base didn’t help improve matters in this regard.
Of course, flimsiness is all but forgiven if the rest of the car excels. Unfortunately, the Fiesta isn’t outstanding in any area. Least of all in terms of ‘user experience’, or UX in automotive industry parlance. In this field, the Ford managed to frustrate even more than the misguided VW Tiguan we’d sampled months earlier, thanks to a misplaced touchscreen, slow-to-respond software and a confusing input structure.
With no rotary controller fitted, the Fiesta required operating its infotainment system either using the irritatingly arranged buttons & knobs on the steering wheel or another row of buttons below the screen (which turned out to be utterly pointless). Most inputs required using the touchscreen, which was ill-placed in that the Vignale’s rather harsh ride meant placing one’s hand on top of it and using one’s thumb proving the most effective method.
The system’s lagging, coupled with my thumb occasionally not hitting the right spot due to the car’s movement, made for an altogether rather frustrating experience. Being able to connect my Smartphone and use some of its functions through the infotainment system was little consolation for this drastic shortcoming. Some of the money spent on the supposedly classy ‘Vignale’ animation upon start up might have been better invested in ergonomics research instead.
The same could also be said about the requisite driver aids no well-specified car can do without these days. This was most apparent during in-town driving, when overtaking any car parking in the street caused an alert (shrill enough in itself to cause a crash) warning of an impending frontal impact with incoming traffic. At the same time, the massive a-pillar, with its limiting effects upon the driver’s field of vision, inevitably resulted in musings regarding misguided efforts in the field of active safety.
Speaking of the car’s basic qualities, I must report that in this Fiesta’s case, Ford’s reputation for building ‘driver’s cars’ is largely unfounded. Hardly surprisingly, the Fiesta wasn’t as antiseptic a driver’s tool as that underpowered VW Tiguan, but it also lacked the communicative crispness of the Mazda 3.
Its ride quality was somewhere closer to the Mazda’s (though the VW could hardly be described as a becalming cruiser either), but its direct, yet lifeless steering and the retarding nature of the little three cylinder EcoBoost engine (certainly when mated to an automatic gearbox) made for little in the way of Freude am Fahren.
In addition, the Ford’s extremely small fuel tank was a considerable nuisance when covering longer distances, as its decent, but not outstanding frugality (about 6 litres per 100 sensibly driven kilometres/ 47 MPG) couldn’t prevent the need for numerous stops along the way.
Returning to matters superficial, the Fiesta’s appearance deserves a brief summary. In order to be charitable, I’d like to single out the Vignale’s wheel design as one element of the car that truly exuded some upmarket flair. Their sheen was pleasant, rather than gaudy, and the entire design wasn’t trying too hard to be, like, totally posh.
The metallic red also was quite easy on the eye, even if not nearly as remarkable as Mazda’s superficially similar Soul Red Chrystal. The dedicated Vignale chrome trim also didn’t grate too badly, even though the V motif pattern on the grille is conspicuous, rather than striking. The less said about the Vignale badging (the typography in particular), the better though.
The Ford Fiesta Vignale is no bad car. But it’s no good car either, which – grand though it may sound – sheds an unfavourable light onto Ford’s European operations in general. For if this is the Fiesta, Ford’s mainstay European offer at its very best, it falls well short of expectations.
And all the fake stitching in the World won’t distract from that.
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