August 28, 2014 at 9:23 am

Battle of the Three-bangers: '14 Ford Fiesta vs. '95 Geo Metro

2014 Ford Fiesta 1.0-liter Ecoboost (Ford)

Good things come in threes. Three-point basket buzzer beaters. The Three Stooges. Charlie’s Angels.

And Ford’s turbocharged, 1-liter, three-cylinder engine.

Three-holers have been as rare as four-leaf clovers in recent years as their poor power and inherent lack of balance have won them few buyers. The Mitsibishi Mirage and Smart, to name two, have underwhelmed with their buzzy leaf blowers. But with the relentless advance of fuel economy regulations and engine technology, automakers like Ford are re-introducing the three to a new generation of buyers.

The 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE is lightning in a bottle. Make that lightning in a 1-liter bottle. With its surprising power, hybrid-like fuel efficiency, and Fusion-like good looks, this overachiever is sure to become a micro-car icon. Indeed, the Ecoboost Fiesta brings to mind another three-banger idol from last century, the Geo Metro.

GM’s Metro wowed us with 47 mpg numbers long before Toyota gave birth to the Prius – or the 3-cylinder Fiesta took Europe by storm. Though discontinued before the Millennium, the Metro maintains a cult following that worships its small sticker price and big fuel savings.

Sure, the little Ecoboost just won International Engine of the Year for an unprecedented third straight year. OK, Germany honored its tech innovation with the prestigious Paul Pietsch Award. Ford wants three-cylinder bragging rights stateside? It’s gotta go through the Metro first. Eager to gauge the three’s evolution, I went hunting in my Race Red SFE for a late ‘90s Metro.

Geo Metro owners are a proud lot. Like the Dwarves in Tolkein’s Hobbit, they are a close tribe fiercely protective of their cars and three-cylinder artisanship. They are dismissive of pretenders — ahem, like the Mirage and Smart — that fail to live up to the three’s fuel efficiency potential. The 1.0-liter Smart gets only 36 mpg? Amateur.

They give the new Fiesta more respect.

I contacted the Michigan clan through the online Geo Metro Forum. My offer to reciprocate driving a Geo Metro for the Fiesta was met with much enthusiasm. The Metroids are intrigued by a 1-liter that aspires to the Holy Grail of 50 mpg while also promising performance — a strange concept in the remote, Middle Earth realm of three-bangers.

The Geo Metro itself was hatched as an economy car in every sense of the word. At $8,085 in 1995 ($12,639 in today’s dollars) it was the cheapest chariot on the lot – and would still be today. So obsessed was GM with Metro’s price tag that it offered the passenger side mirror as an option.

The pride of the litter, the Geo Metro XFi (manufactured from 1990-1994), got an EPA estimated 43 mpg city/53 highway. That’s 47 mpg combined. It was the penny-pincher’s best friend. But the Metro made no pretense of performance. Zero-60? Use an hour glass. Side Gs? Side what?

Lansing-based Geo Metro owner Matt Spiess answered my call for a three-for-all. We had a blast.

Spiess’s 49-horsepower, 1995 Metro is officially EPA rated at 40 mpg combined (37 city/44 highway) a year after GM discontinued the XFi. But in his quest for better fuel economy, Spiess has upgraded his matchbox (complete with “Got 50 mpg?” sticker on the bumper) with XFi guts and a rear spoiler not unlike my Fiesta. As a result Spiess is averaging an astounding 52 mpg around Lansing. On my 80-mile trip from Detroit, I drove “green” – 5th gear, at the speed limit (you don’t know how hard that is for me) – and still managed “only” 47 mpg.

Point to Mr. Geo. Yet, while returning hybrid-like fuel economy numbers, the affordable Fiesta is one zesty salsa to drive. Game, set, and match, Mr. Ford.

To the auto engineers of the last 20 years, we salute you. Start with the Fiesta’s briefcase-sized engine. Its 123 Ecoboost-ed horses are not just 74 more than the Metro. Not just more than the standard 1.6-liter Fiesta. It’s more ponies-per-liter than a Lamborghini Aventado (106) or Corvette ZR-1 (103).

This three is King Kong in a can.

The turbo’s peak torque arrives at just 2,500 RPM. Merging onto US-127 north of Lansing at full throttle, the subcompact Fiesta disappeared from the Metro. Its 8.3-second, 0-60 sprint is a half-second quicker than a 1.8-liter Honda Civic. The Fiesta’s power comes smoothly, predictably, quietly.

The quiet is a testament to the fact that subcompact advances aren’t just under the hood.

Thanks to extensive sound-deadening and chassis work, the interior is noticeably quieter than the buzzy Metro. The instrumentation is more refined, the cup holders abundant, the cargo room plentiful. The three-banger only comes in Ford SE trim with a list of standard features as long as your arm. Seven air bags, leather steering wheel, a passenger side mirror . . .

“I can't believe how smooth, quick, quiet, and powerful it was,” wrote Spiess at GeoMetroForum.com afterwards. “It did not feel like a little 3-cylinder at all.”

Our comparison was not without its old school nods, however. Throwing the threes into tight turns, I found the Metro’s hydraulic steering more responsive than the Fiesta’s numb electronic rack. And in a nod to cost, the Ford only comes with a five-speed manual gearbox.

The cost-cutting is a reminder that the Fiesta’s leap in engine technology is not cheap. Where the Metro tri-hammer was a base engine, the Fiesta mill is a $995 option over the base $14,925 sedan. Add the SE trim, heated seats, and destination charge, and my triple stickered at $18,190. That may be south of similar mpg hybrids — and Mini Cooper’s stylish three-holer ($21,300 base) — but it’s well north of what an inflation-adjusted Metro would be today. Heck, you could buy a used Metro for the Ecoboost premium, Spiess noted.

But the wee Metro also came with a price: Dealers couldn’t give them away. The XFi died in 1994 due to poor sales — the Metro brand followed in 1997. Squeezed by Washington mpg edicts even as Americans shy from small cars, the Fiesta 3-cylinder is an attempt to make fuel efficiency fun.

From the Fiesta 3-banger to one of my 2013 Best Vehicle finalists, the Fiesta ST hot hatch, Ford has brought spice to the common shoebox. The Fiesta has studied the Metro’s efficiency. But it is also learning the three Rs of sales: Revvy, racy, and roomy.

On my way back from Lansing, I flogged the Fiesta harder. I pulled Gs, rowed the box, returned 42 mpg . . . and still would have had enough room for Charlie’s Angels.

1995 Geo Metro

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, three-door hatchback
Price: $8,085 (base, 1995)
Power plant: 1.0-liter single overhead cam 3-cylinder
Power: 55 horsepower, 58 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 12.6 seconds (ZeroTo60Times.com); 90 mph top speed (est.)
Weight: 1,808 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 37 mpg city/44 mpg highway/40 mpg combined (base Metro); 43 mpg city/53 mpg highway/47 mpg combined (Metro XFi)
Highs: Sub-$10k sticker; Got 50 mpg?
Lows: Spartan interior; Slow as molasses
Overall:★★★
Excellent ★★★★
Good ★★★
Fair ★★
Poor ★

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

1995 Geo MEtro
Ford's 1-liter Ecoboost is the International Engine of the Year for a ... (Ford)
Instrumentation and interior is more basic in the 1995 Geo Metro. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)
The Fiesta's interior is noticeably quieter than the buzzy Metro. (Ford)