Ford Fiesta ST ($25,990)
Volkswagen Polo GTI ($27,490)
Fast and fun for less than $30,000 – this is the reason entry-level hot-hatches are worth embracing.
The $25,990 Ford Fiesta ST has reigned supreme in this category since its 2013 launch, thanks to a turbocharged engine in a light body and magic steering and handling.
Up against it is the just-facelifted $27,490 Volkswagen Polo GTI.
The Polo GTI only just now picks up a six-speed manual option, teamed with a more potent 320Nm 1.8-litre turbo that replaces the previous 250Nm 1.4-litre turbo/supercharged unit.
Meanwhile, the Fiesta ST sits firmly on its (admittedly considerable) laurels. Its 2008-era cabin lacks new-age connectivity options, and it only gets single-setting suspension. Even with a 10-second 290Nm overboost function, the Polo GTI now surpasses the little Ford’s 1.6-litre turbo for torque.
The Fiesta ST remains a three-door, manual-only proposition, where the Volkswagen is five-door-only (which absorbs the majority of its $1500-higher base price) and offers an automatic if manual is not your ‘thang’ (though with 250Nm from the same engine) for $2500 extra.
The stage is set for a showdown, then.
On paper, the Polo GTI looks fitter than ever, but we know the Fiesta ST works brilliantly beyond a printed specification sheet.
For showroom appeal, the Volkswagen Polo GTI is miles ahead of its rival.
The bright, high resolution 6.5-inch colour touchscreen glows around nicely finished plastics and licks of piano black and silver trim.
Connect a USB cable and the ‘mirroring’ capability with an Apple or Android device works brilliantly, the highlight being the ability to display satellite navigation clearly and work it without touching your phone on the run.
Select reverse gear, and a rear camera aids backing up.
The Ford Fiesta ST lacks a rear camera or sat-nav capability, and its tiny 4.0-inch colour screen is accessed only via a multitude of Sony audio buttons scattered across the dashboard.
At least rear sensors, that are optional on the Volkswagen, are standard (in lieu of a camera, however).
Plastics quality and fit-and-finish in the Fiesta is also lacking, although its cabin is well equipped for the price.
Its single-zone climate control and auto on/off headlights and wipers matches its rival, while it exclusively scores auto keyless entry with push-button start, auto-fold door mirrors and mirror/footwell puddle lights.
Get beyond the initial styling and ergonomics impressions and the Fiesta ST then strides ahead. Its standard Recaro sports seats are beautifully bolstered and comfortable, and the driving position is low and sports-car-like.
In the Polo GTI, by contrast, you sit ‘on’ rather than ‘in’ the car.
Its driving position is flawed, particularly for taller people (personally, two tall friends to whom I’ve recommended Polo have struggled to fit properly). All drivers will find the seat sits up too high, even in its lowest position.
The tartan cloth trim is nice, however the front seats are not as deep and thickly padded as its rival’s.
Many buyers may, however, love the way the Volkswagen can be optioned up.
Packaged together for $3300 are leather/Alcantara seats with front heating, a panoramic sunroof and sexy LED headlights. The Ford is a basic, no-options affair and it lacks each of those items.
Rear riders in the Polo GTI will also love the easier access to a back seat that – in a double whammy – is more comfortable and spacious than its rival’s. The Fiesta ST counters with a larger, 290-litre boot versus just 204L for its foe.
In this battle, the round-one interior contest really comes down to a call between the sportiest, most driver-focused cockpit – the Fiesta ST - and the highest quality cabin with the most technology and features – the Polo GTI.
ON THE ROAD
Rare is there a hot-hatchback to make a Fiesta ST feel slightly slow, but the Polo GTI does just that.
Volkswagen claims 0-100km/h in 6.7 seconds, which officially is two-tenths faster than the Ford. Unofficially, by a seat-of-the-pants stopwatch, the gap feels wider.
The 1.8-litre turbo delivers its 320Nm between 1450rpm and 4200rpm, before 141kW of power takes over between 4300rpm and 6200rpm.
It’s a seamless transition and there is grunt everywhere, whether the light six-speed manual is rowed or left in taller gears.
The ability to sprint of the line then plug traffic gaps becomes addictive.
Avoid pressing the Sport button on the dashboard and the GTI engine is quiet, the suspension comfortable (more on that later) and, together with light and fluffy steering, it all gives the impression of being just a very fast, standard Polo.
Press that button and the engine makes a deeper, rortier noise, the suspension hardens and the steering firms up on-centre.
But jump into the Ford and suddenly driving to the shops becomes an event.
There’s no Sport button to press because the engine always makes a sound – a deep, single-pitch burr – that is more seductive than its rival.
The six-speed manual is flawlessly defined and slick where the Polo’s is excellent if slightly rubbery. The Fiesta’s steering is immediate and natural, beautifully mid-weighted everywhere. Along with its lower driving position, it simply feels more special and sporting.
Just driving to the shops, though, also requires putting up with a suspension that is very firm. Not harsh, but ever busy and jolting.
Both cars get 40-aspect, 17-inch Bridgestone Potenza rubber – the Polo’s is 10mm wider with 215mm tread – which makes for a near-ideal ‘control’ element. Yet, even in its Sport mode, the Volkswagen’s suspension is as controlled as the Fiesta ST, yet far more compliant.
On a twisty road at speed, the Fiesta ST deploys its brilliantly sharp front-end and impeccable balance. It has a Sport mode for its stability control, and it is terrifically tuned to allow some movement and fun while keeping a catcher’s mitt at the ready if you really overcook it.
With 240Nm between 1600rpm and 5000rpm, and 134kW at 5700rpm, it might seem a little undernourished compared to the Polo, yet every time you pin the throttle for 10 seconds you get 147kW (overtaking the Polo by 6kW) and 290Nm.
Weighing 1197kg, the Ford is also 37kg lighter overall. In short, when you get stuck into it, the Fiesta ST then feels as fast while sounding sweeter.
Thanks to its comfortable manners and dorky driving position, we expected the Polo GTI to crumble in the face of its rival on a country backroad. The new suspension is so good, however, that the opposite happened.
The latest, smallest GTI gets better the harder you work it.
It lacks the front-end point and natural balance of the Fiesta ST, however it is beautifully grippy and adjustable. Finally, in corners, the steering chats away, the suspension demolishes any bump and the engine just keeps on giving.
The electronic front differential no longer turns an inside front wheel to smoke, and the Sport stability control no longer robs the fun.
The Volkswagen is a superb-handling hot-hatchback.
For performance and handling prowess, the Volkswagen and Ford trade blows right to the end. Their unique strengths and weaknesses make them virtually inseparable.
Even on-test fuel economy can’t split them (Polo’s 8.1l/100km being just 0.1l/100km off), although only the Fiesta can run on regular unleaded and it is cheaper to service ($780 versus $1320 over three years).
Unexpectedly, around town is where the Fiesta ST reveals its greatest charm, because, anywhere and everywhere, it feels connected and special rather than distant and generic.
Yet around town is also where the Polo GTI strides ahead with superb ride quality.
This is almost too close to call.
However, because the Volkswagen is now a handling-match, and yet also offers so many other strengths (five doors, better connectivity, infotainment) it really can’t lose this contest. Your move, Ford…