Ford's (NYSE:F) Fiesta subcompact is a little car with many virtues. Unlike small Fords of decades past, this Fiesta is solidly built and handles like a premium car.
What's more, it gets good mileage, and it has a plush interior that goes way beyond most folks' ideas of what an "econobox" is like.
In the U.S., where gas is still cheaper than in many parts of the world, the Fiesta doesn't get all that much love. Sales of the little Ford haven't been bad, but they have long trailed those of its Focus sibling, which is a bigger car for not a lot more money.
But in Europe, where gas is expensive and times are tough, the Fiesta has been getting a lot of love lately.
Fiesta topped the Euro small-car sales charts
Ford said on Tuesday that the Fiesta was Europe's top-selling small car in the first quarter. The Blue Oval sold more than 77,800 Fiestas in Europe during the quarter, it said – over 41,000 of those in March alone.
Those seem like big numbers. For comparison, Ford sold 16,028 Fiestas here in the U.S. during the same time period. As I said, it was way outsold by the Focus – Ford moved 61,898 Focuses here in the first quarter.
So what drove those big numbers in Europe? Well, the truth is, they're not such a big deal in context. While the Fiesta was just refreshed for 2013, getting a version of Ford's handsome Aston Martin-inspired grille and some other upgrades, that wasn't exactly a big driver of sales.
At least, not in and of itself.
Not an unprecedented win for Ford
The Fiesta has been one of Europe's top-selling cars for some time, and a big sales spike in March isn't unprecedented. Two years ago, in 2011, Ford made a similar announcement, saying that the Fiesta was the top-selling small car in Europe in the first quarter of that year. And back then, just as now, March sales accounted for a big chunk of the quarter's total sales.
But the numbers were bigger back then: Over 100,000 European Fiestas found new owners during that quarter. The difference between now and then is that European auto sales have dropped steeply, thanks to tough recessions in many European nations.
A great sign for Ford amid very tough sales conditions
Ford has actually been losing ground in Europe in recent months. Late last year, the company shifted its strategy, cutting fleet sales and reducing discounts in an attempt to improve its margins and residual values, as part of a larger plan to restore its money-losing European operation to profitability by 2015.
Reducing discounts put Ford at a disadvantage against some rivals, like Volkswagen (NASDAQOTH:VWAGY), which has used price cuts to gain market share at cash-strapped rivals' expense.
As a result, Ford's sales have declined more than the overall industry average. But the success of the Fiesta shows that Ford is still competing well in Europe – and that bodes well for the company's long-term recovery plan in the region.