The standard Fiesta is the best car in its class, and a big reason for that is how much fun it is to drive, so the prospect of a more powerful performance version is exciting. It follows a similar formula to its predecessor: a potent turbocharged engine and a revised chassis tuned for fun. Can the Fiesta attain instant-classic status for a second time in a row?
There are two new contenders that will have something to say about that. The updated MINI Cooper S is up there with the Ford for delivering fun, while the Volkswagen Polo GTI is based on the latest German supermini, and promises to bring grown-up driving manners and a hi-tech cabin to the class. It matches the Ford for power, but, like the MINI, uses a larger engine to do so. Which car will take the hot supermini crown?
Ford Fiesta ST
|Model:||Ford Fiesta ST-3|
|Engine:||1.5-litre 3cyl petrol, 197bhp|
|Annual road tax:||£140|
Here we’re testing a three-door Ford Fiesta ST in ST-3 trim, which is the top-spec model and costs from £21,495. That means it matches these rivals on price, but the entry-level ST-1 costs £18,995.
As a driver’s car, the ST has a superb basis in the brilliant Ford Fiesta. By adding more power and upgrading the suspension, the company has again created a fantastic hot hatchback.
Most of the ST’s brilliance can be attributed to the chassis: it’s agile and adjustable, while still riding reasonably well over rough roads. It’s firm, but it remains nicely controlled. Clever damping builds plenty of confidence to corner hard, but it’s not so harsh over bumps that it upsets the car’s balance mid-bend; although of the three models here, the Ford’s ride is the hardest.
The front-wheel-drive Fiesta turns in with real enthusiasm, working both axles to rotate itself around each bend. It feels natural and fun, but is also serious enough to satisfy even the biggest driving enthusiasts.
Even better is the steering, which is quick and precise and offers the most information of the three cars here. There’s lots of traction out of corners as well, thanks to the optional limited-slip differential, although it avoids being so tied down as to lose some of the fun factor.
Further, the six-speed gearbox is more precise and satisfying to use than in a normal 1.0-litre EcoBoost Fiesta, and is more involving than the MINI – just.
While the Fiesta’s chassis shines brightly, the engine under the bonnet doesn’t quite match its predecessor for character. The new three-cylinder unit doesn’t relish revs as much as the old four-cylinder motor did, or even the four-cylinder engine in the MINI here. Still, the Ford unit has plenty of pull: the low-down torque means real-world performance is very strong, and the new engine has an entertaining exhaust note.
The Fiesta was the fastest of our three contenders in each gear, going from 30-50mph in third and fourth and 50-70mph in fifth and sixth faster than either the MINI or Volkswagen. But it lagged behind the faster-shifting DSG Polo from 0-60mph, taking 7.1 seconds, compared with the VW’s 6.5-second time.
Testers’ notes: “The Fiesta ST is more serious and focused than ever, but it retains a sense of fun that’s somewhat missing in the Volkswagen. The fun stems directly from its responsive controls and sorted chassis.”
MINI Cooper S
|Model:||MINI Cooper S|
|Engine:||2.0-litre 4cyl petrol, 189bhp|
|Annual road tax:||£140|
The MINI Cooper S is the hottest model in the facelifted MINI range until the John Cooper Works (JCW) arrives, but it’s the least powerful car of our trio here, producing 189bhp from its 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine. While the Cooper S is the cheapest of the three at £20,635, you’ll need to add plenty of options to match its rivals’ specifications.
AS there have only been a few changes to the latest Cooper S, it remains great fun to drive. The MINI’s direct steering and grippy chassis mean barreling down a twisty road is great fun. It responds to your inputs just as you want it to, so you’re able to tighten or open your line around a corner using the throttle as well as the steering. In fact, it’s right up there with the Fiesta ST in terms of B-road thrills.
The MINI’s driving position is also great, which helps with comfort, but the well-developed damping is a big plus for the MINI as well; it gives enough compliance to keep the car composed without feeling unsettled on rough roads.
The Cooper S is slightly more forgiving than the Ford, but isn’t as smooth as the Polo and ultimately is still quite firm – but we reckon it’s worth it for the superb handling.
The engine is less vocal than both rivals’ motors, but the MINI’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit is more characterful than the Polo’s, and smoother than the three-cylinder engine in the Ford. It’s down on power next to its rivals here, but only by a small amount and you won’t feel left behind in the British car. It doesn’t feel significantly slower on the road, but at the track the Cooper S did trail its rivals.
Despite the sunshine in our pictures, we carried out our track tests in mixed conditions, and the MINI took 7.4 seconds to accelerate from 0-60mph and 6.6 seconds to go through the gears from 30-70mph, the slowest here.
While the Ford was faster in gear, the Cooper S beat the Polo’s 4.2-second 30-50mph time in fourth by one tenth. It was also faster than the Volkswagen from 50-70mph in fifth and sixth.
The MINI’s gearchange isn’t as positive and enjoyable as the Ford’s. However, it’s still much more engaging and fun than the DSG auto in the Polo.
Testers’ notes: “Adaptive suspension is only £375 and is therefore worthwhile. There’s not a huge difference between modes, but Sport is subtly stiffer. The car has a good balance between ride and handling anyway.”
Volkswagen Polo GTI
|Model:||Volkswagen Polo GTI|
|Annual road tax:||£140|
The Volkswagen Polo GTI is more expensive than its rivals here, at £21,520 in base GTI spec, but it’s also a five-door only, and there’s no manual option yet: it’s DSG automatic only for now. That accounts for the price, but is the Polo able to take class honours in its first group test?
With a 197bhp engine and dual-clutch automatic gearbox, the Polo GTI is by far the easiest car here to extract performance from: just squeeze the throttle, the DSG drops down a few gears, and you’re off. With launch control the VW recorded an impressive 6.5-second 0-60mph time in our tests on a wet track, beating both rivals, and the automated shifts meant it was fastest through the gears from 30-70mph, too.
However, while the DSG box is brilliant at firing up through the gears in a straight line, it feels out of its depth on a twisty road. It’s not as quick to change gear after pulling one of the steering wheel-mounted paddles as we’d like, and often you’re left waiting for the change at a crucial moment pre or post-corner. In a small hot hatchback that’s very frustrating, because maintaining your flow down the road is a huge part of these cars’ appeal. The manual gearboxes in its rivals are so much more fun to use as well.
Still, the VW’s engine has the most torque of the three, with its 320Nm maximum arriving at just 1,500rpm. It’s flexible enough that you don’t always need to change down to make progress. Longer gearing meant that the Polo GTI was the slowest car from 50-70mph in top gear, though, taking 8.2 seconds, which was more than a second down on the MINI and two seconds adrift of the Ford.
However punchy it is, the engine is a bit flat and isn’t as enjoyable to use as the more characterful units in the Fiesta and Cooper S, despite VW engineering in some pops and bangs from the exhaust. The Ford does this, too, but its engine note is more pleasing.
It’s a similar story with the Polo GTI’s chassis: it’s effective but leaves us a bit cold. The upgraded suspension means there’s loads of grip and it’s agile, but the light steering and more neutral cornering stance ensure it’s not as lively as its rivals. The ride is the smoothest of all three, though, particularly at low speed, where the Ford in particular can start to feel a bit bouncy over small bumps and potholes.
At motorway speeds, the GTI is the quietest car inside, so it will be easy to live with day to day. While it will work for some people, the Polo misses out on the crucial fun factor we look for in hot hatches.
Testers’ notes: “We can’t wait to try the manual version of the Polo, as an auto doesn’t make much sense here. It takes away from driver engagement and makes the car’s performance feel more detached than in its rivals.”
First place: Ford Fiesta ST
The Fiesta ST is still the best model in its class – and with it, one of the best cars on sale today. It’s fast, supremely fun to drive, usable every day and above all great value for money. Few sports cars are as much fun as the Fiesta ST on British roads, let alone hatchbacks. It’s just a shame the engine isn’t an all-time great, as this could have been a true fast Ford legend.
Second place: MINI Cooper S
With all the praise being heaped on the Fiesta ST, it would be easy to dismiss the MINI Cooper S. But it’s nearly as much fun as the Ford, while the punchy 2.0-litre engine is brilliant as well. It loses out a little due to higher running costs and pricey option packs that reduce its value for money. It lacks practicality, but if you can afford one, the MINI is a great fun choice.
Third place: Volkswagen Polo GTI
If you’re looking for a hot hatch you can drive easily in comfort every day, the Polo is worth a look. It’s practical, fast and mature, but in pursuit of those goals, the Polo is missing a sense of humour that’s desperately needed in a car like this. The others are brilliant fun all of the time, while the Polo is refined and relaxed – but for us that misses the point of the supermini hot hatch.
Other options for similar money…
New: Renault Clio R.S.
Engine: 1.6-litre 4cyl, 197bhp
There aren’t many supermini hot hatches that feature auto boxes like the Polo here, but the Clio R.S. does without a manual. It’s a shame the dual-clutch unit is sluggish, although the Renault has plenty of power and fun handling.
Used: Ford Fiesta ST 200
Price: From £16,000
Engine: 1.6 4cyl, 197bhp
The previous Fiesta ST is an all-time great, and you can get a used version of the most powerful ST 200 run-out model for around £16,000. It’s stiffer than the new car, but has a more exciting engine and is just as much fun to drive.
|Ford Fiesta ST-3||MINI Cooper S||Volkswagen Polo GTI DSG|
|On the road price/total as tested||£21,495/£24,515||20,635/£28,950||£21,520/£23,155|
|Residual value (after 3yrs/36,000)||£9,043/42.1%||£9,975/48.3%||£9,185/42.7%|
|Annual tax liability std/higher rate||£1,189/£2,378||£1,223/£2,445||£1,148/£2,296|
|Annual fuel cost (12k/20k miles)||£2,095/£3,492||£2,172/£3,620||£2,114/£3,523|
|Insurance group/quote/road tax||28/£367/£140||28/£423/£140||26/£435/£140|
|Cost of 1st/2nd/3rd service||£530 (3yrs)||£299 (3yrs)||£164/£329/£164|
|Engine||3cyl inline/1,497cc||4cyl inline/1,998cc||4cyl inline/1,984cc|
|Peak power/revs||197/6,000 bhp/rpm||189/4,700 bhp/rpm||197/N/A bhp/rpm|
|Peak torque/revs||290/1,600 Nm/rpm||280/1,350 Nm/rpm||320/1,500 Nm/rpm|
|Transmission||6-speed man/fwd||6-speed man/fwd||6-spd DSG auto/fwd|
|Fuel tank capacity/spare wheel||42 litres/repair kit||44 litres/repair kit||40 litres/repair kit|
|Boot capacity (seats up/down)||311/1,093 litres||211/731 litres||305/1,079 litres|
|Turning circle||11.0 metres||10.8 metres||10.6 metres|
|Basic warranty (miles)/recovery||3yrs (60,000)/1yr||3yrs (unlimited)/3yrs||3yrs (60,000)/1yr|
|Driver Power manufacturer/dealer pos.||16th/20th||19th/14th||5th/18th|
|NCAP: Adult/child/ped./assist/stars||87/84/64/60/5 (2017)||79/73/66/56/4 (2014)||96/85/76/59/5 (2017)|
|0-60/30-70mph||7.1/5.5 secs||7.4/6.6 secs||6.5/5.2 secs|
|30-50mph in 3rd/4th||2.6/3.6 secs||3.2/4.1 secs||2.8/4.2 secs|
|50-70mph in 5th/6th||5.0/6.3 secs||5.7/6.9 secs||5.8/8.2 secs|
|Top speed/rpm at 70mph||144mph/2,700rpm||146mph/2,500rpm||147mph/2,000rpm|
|Auto Express econ. (mpg/mpl)/range||33.8/7.4/312 miles||32.6/7.2/316 miles||33.5/7.4/295 miles|
|Actual/claimed CO2/tax bracket||193/136g/km/28%||200/145g/km/30%||195/134g/km/27%|
|Auto box/lane keep/blind spot/AEB||No/yes/£475/no||£1,660/no/no/£800^||Yes/no/£255/yes|
|Clim ctrl/cruise/leather/heated seats||Yes/yes/yes/yes||£325/£185/£485/£250||£415/£285/n/£285^^|
|Metallic paint/LED lights/keyless go||£745/£600/yes||£525/yes/£215||£650/£850/£310|
|Nav/digi dash/DAB/connected apps||Yes/no/yes/no||£900*/no/yes/yes||Yes/£325/yes/yes|
|Wireless charg/CarPlay/Android Auto||£69/yes/yes||£2,000**/£900*/no||No/yes/yes|