This time last year driving enthusiasts with less than $30,000 to spend on a new hot-hatch had a single option: the Volkswagen Polo GTI.
Okay, technically they could also pick its near-twin, the Skoda Fabia RS, but the sales charts show they didn’t. Meanwhile the Suzuki Swift Sport simply isn’t high enough on the Peri-Peri heat scale to compete.
This year, however, there’s been a small explosion of hatchbacks that require a cold bottle of water kept close to replenish the glands after tasting them. The Ford Fiesta ST, Peugeot 208 GTi and Renault Sport Clio 200 are all properly hot hatchbacks.
We’ve seen a hot Fiesta before, in the form of the 2007-10 XR4, then badged so, and like the Focus XR5 Turbo, to align with the company’s Oz-only Falcon XR6 Turbo.
But with the broad-shouldered local sedan on the way out, the new hot Fiesta, like the new fast Focus, takes on the ‘ST’ nameplate it has long worn in its native Europe.
Available in three-door guise only, the Fiesta ST costs $25,990 – just $1000 more than the old XR4 that used a 2.0-litre non-turbo four-cylinder versus the new car’s more potent 1.6-litre turbo.
We’ve seen many more hot Peugeot hatchbacks in the past, but more recently none of them have been good. The 206 and 207 GTis that followed the demise of the excellent but unreliable 306 GTi at the turn of the new milennium were flawed and awful, respectively.
The new 208 GTi promises to right the wrongs of its recent predecessors, however, and deliver the joir de vivre of its 205 and 306 GTi ancestors.
As with the Fiesta ST, the Peugeot 208 GTi is available as a three-door only, and although it is more costly, at $29,990, it is also better equipped – but more on that later.
As the photos surrounding this story indicate, the new Renault Sport Clio 200 is not part of this test, and nor has the car yet arrived in the country.
When this test took place, Renault claimed its fourth-generation hot Clio wasn’t due to arrive until March next year; moments after the test concluded, it announced the new model will be arriving in December priced from $28,790.
The Clio RS 200 will take on the winner of this comparison test at another time.
As with the Renault, but unlike the Ford and Peugeot, the Volkswagen Polo GTI is only available with a dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Unlike the new Clio RS 200, though, the Polo GTI is available as a three-door hatchback to match the others here, where the Renault is now only available as a five-door.
The three-door Volkswagen would have exactly split the difference between Fiesta ST and 208 GTi with its $27,990 pricetag, but only the $29,190 five-door was available.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
The Ford Fiesta ST sets the new pricing benchmark for the class, so it’s best to start with what the German-built three-door offers and then see how the Polo GTI and 208 GTi justify their higher pricetags.
All three cars get 17-inch alloy wheels, and all examples on-test are equipped with Bridgestone Potenza RE050 rubber, but with different sizes – 205mm wide, 40-aspect (Fiesta), 205/45 (208) and 215/40 (Polo). All get fog lights, but only the Ford gets projector headlights.
The Fiesta ST also scores heavily-bolstered Recaro sports seats, where the Polo GTI and 208 GTi get no-name branded pews, but only the Peugeot adds partial leather trim.
The Ford gets standard climate control, which the Volkswagen matches, but the Peugeot further adds dual-zone functionality.
Eight-speaker audio is included in the Fiesta ST and Polo GTI, but while the 208 GTi ditches two speakers, it uniquely gets a seven-inch touchscreen (above) with satellite navigation. The Volkswagen gets a slightly smaller 6.5-inch touchscreen, but lists sat-nav as an option, while the aftermarket-looking Bluetooth ‘pod’ that attaches to its dashboard is unintuitive and the audio streaming sounds awful.
Although the Ford gets a four-inch screen (below) located deep in the dashboard, it at least offers integrated Bluetooth, in addition to voice control and USB/iPod connectivity.
Other equipment unique to the Fiesta ST includes a driver’s knee airbag; ‘My Key’, which allows the owner to set-up a secondary key to restrict the car to 140km/h and keep the ESC on at all times; and emergency assistance, which, if a mobile phone is connected, calls an ambulance if the airbags fire in a crash.
Standard keyless auto entry in the Ford further makes the others’ pricetags difficult to justify. That’s particularly the case with the Volkswagen, which, in addition to its dud infotainment, is the only car here to lack automatic headlights and wipers, and rear parking sensors.
The Peugeot gets those features, and at least supplements its $4000 higher price with leather and sat-nav. It could be said, however, that even accepting that the Polo’s $2000 premium over the Fiesta could be for the automatic transmission (below) alone, it is still the least well-equipped car here.
The Polo is also the costliest to service.
All three cars have 15,000km or 12 month intervals, and all manufacturers provide capped-price programs; the Ford’s extending longest to seven years or 105,000km, the Volkswagen’s ending a year earlier, and Peugeot’s finishing after just three years.
After 45,000km or three years, Polo owners will pay $1284, 208 buyers will fork out $1100, and those who choose Fiesta ST will be asked for just $760. Over six years, the Volkswagen will have needed $3003 in servicing to the Ford’s $1680.
The Peugeot 208 GTi at least also helps warrant a higher pricetag by offering the best interior here.
The design is a generation ahead of the Ford’s, and much funkier than the Volkswagen’s, the splashings of piano-black trim interplaying with chromes and reds to cement the French reputation for style.
Debate still rages, however, over whether the tiny steering wheel mounted below the instruments is an ergonomic disaster; some testers hated it because it obscures the dials, but I love it. The seats lack some side support, but they are the softest here.
More grip comes from the tartan-trimmed seats in the Polo GTI.
It otherwise only differentiates itself from lesser models by the thick, flat-bottomed and GTI-embossed steering wheel and bits of black plastic trim – splashed on with seeming tokenism after the generously-applied and well-integrated 208 GTi.
Its monochromatic trip computer screen also pales against the colourful Peugeot screen, although the plastics quality is a grade higher and indeed the best here.
At least the Ford Fiesta ST gets the soft-touch plastics and reach-adjustable steering wheel that indicate it is produced in Germany, rather than Thailand as with the regular range that has hard plastics and only a tilt-adjustable tiller.
Otherwise, its interior is fairly downmarket, with hard and scratchy door trims, a mish-mash of controls for the audio system, and basic instrumentation. At least Ford gets the basics right – there’s terrific seats, nice-sized wheel, a good driving position, and simple ergonomics.
Before the driving, there’s little separating this trio – the Fiesta ST is the best equipped but cheapest inside, the 208 GTi has the nicest cabin but is the most expensive, while the Polo GTI uniquely provides an automatic gearbox.
ENGINES AND TRANSMISSIONS
Their engine specifications continue the hair-splitting.
The most familiar engine here, the Volkswagen 1.4-litre turbo- and super-charged four-cylinder, delivers 132kW of power at 6200rpm and 250Nm of torque between 2000-4500rpm.
Ford and Peugeot, meanwhile, both use 1.6-litre turbocharged fours to achieve almost identical outputs.
In fact the Fiesta ST exactly matches the power of the Polo GTI but delivers that maximum 500rpm earlier (at 5700rpm).
Although it delivers 10Nm less torque (240Nm) the Ford Ecoboost engine delivers its peak 400rpm earlier, and maintains it 500rpm later (between 1600-5000rpm).
The 208 GTi has the healthiest outputs here, but although its 147kW comes in earlier than the others (at 5500rpm), the full 275Nm is plonked on at a flat 1700rpm.
Its Ford rival also has a trick up its sleeve by matching its power thanks to an overboost function that works for 20 seconds at a time, while briefly beating it for torque with 290Nm.
Call it a technical win on-paper for the Blue Oval, but the Fiesta ST also feels the fastest on the road.
That’s despite the 208 GTi listing a 6.8 second 0-100km/h, a tenth faster than what both the claims for the Fiesta ST and Polo GTI.
At risk of sounding like a Rex owner from 1999, it must be the overboost at work with the Ford, because its 1197kg kerb weight also makes it the heaviest here – it lists 9kg more than the Volkswagen and 65kg more than the pert Peugeot.
Maybe it’s just that the Ford Ecoboost engine is an absolute cracker all over. Hard on the throttle, it delivers a super-sweet single-pitch ‘vworrrpp’ that doesn’t sound unlike that of a base Porsche Boxster 2.7-litre flat six-cylinder. It needs to rev another 500rpm beyond its 6600rpm to prevent occasionally dropping out of its best power zone, and a fruitier exhaust would back the wonderful engine sonics.
But there are few better pleasures than stirring the brilliantly slick six-speed manual and, on corner exit, slamming the throttle and hearing the engine sing.
The pleasure of using your left limbs may be denied in the auto-only Volkswagen, unless you count flexing your fingers on the paddleshifter or wrist on the tipshifter, but the Peugeot manual shifter can’t match the Ford’s either.
It has a longer throw, which is fine, and actually most closely reflects the trait of the 205 GTi that Peugeot so desperately wants to link its new car with, but there’s a rubberiness as each gear is slotted into place and it baulks during fast changes. At least the French have finally fixed the driving position flaws of the 206 and 207 GTi, which both had their clutch pedals positioned higher than the brake to the detriment of under-thigh support. The 208 GTi sits its driver just fine.
Off the line the Peugeot feels as doughy as the Ford is darty, with more turbo lag, and although it sounds quieter at low revs, the PSA/Mini-developed engine sounds too harsh and uninspiring at high revs. After it has scrabbled for traction off the line, though, or when nailing the throttle in most gears, the 208 GTi feels properly hot-hatch fast.
It’s the Volkswagen ‘twincharger’, though, that is arguably the best engine here. It may not sound as deep and sporty as the Ford, but its light and zingy note is still very sweet. It also revs harder, to 7000rpm, and the extra few hundred revs it gives over the others is as much appreciated as the extra gear the ‘DSG’ provides.
Love or hate the Volkswagen dual-clutch automatic, but its seventh gear allows relaxed cruising on the freeway and fills the void between second and third, in particular, that affects the Ford and Peugeot.
But the DSG also doesn’t provide an aggressive Sport mode, but rather a meeker mode that doesn’t adapt well to hard driving. It necessitates the use of the tipshifter or paddles in manual mode, but then it auto-upshifts at redline and occasionally denies a downshift, so it isn’t the most intuitive.
Despite Volkswagen claiming a DSG can match or better the economy figures of a similarly specced engine with a manual transmission, the Polo GTI’s 6.1L/100km claim is beaten by the 208 GTi’s 5.9L/100km.
Both better the Fiesta ST’s 6.2L/100km combined cycle figure.
That economy pecking order played out on our test loop, too – Peugeot first (9.3L/100km), Volkswagen second (9.8L/100km), Ford third (10.7L/100km).
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
Keep that order for ride quality assessment, too, although reverse it completely for the steering and handling podium finish.
It’s initially questionable whether the 208 GTi justifies having that all-important lower-case letter at the end of its name. Its inclusion heightens expectations, but the reality of this car lies somewhere between tourer and hardcore hottie.
This is a Peugeot that rides well, and based on recent poor form that alone deserves a pop of the Veuve. The suspension is inherently firm, ensuring that body control remains tight over sudden dips at speed, but it also delivers less fidgeting than the others and better isolation from big hits.
But the compliancy has also resulted in handling that perhaps isn’t as sharp as a GTi should be. The 208 rolls more than any car here, and is first to understeer when a corner is taken at speed the others brush off.
The steering is light and quick, but without much genuine connection, which suits the way the Peugeot needs to play in corners to keep pace with the others.
It isn’t a point-and-shoot car, but nor will it deliver lift-off oversteer like a champion. It finds a neutral middle ground, which is nice – but is that a word to associate with GTi?
Point and shoot? That’d be the Polo GTI, then.
The oldest car here has always felt in some ways very un-Volkswagen and un-Golf GTI. Pretty much every Volkswagen currently on sale rides well, and the Golf GTI has long been the sweetest-riding hot-hatch; but the Polo doesn’t ride particularly well.
It has very firm suspension, which makes the ride on smooth surfaces more unsettled than it should be, and bigger hits thump through the cabin. The firm ride may indicate that the Polo GTI is set up for track days.
Indeed, up to eight-tenths the Polo GTI feels boring in the bends: grippy and stable. It demands working those extra couple of tenths, where it reveals stunning pace between bends and – finally, right at the limit – play between its axles.
Right at the upper limit this Volkswagen is a ball to drive hard, and definitely the quickest car here. Even the steering, which seems too needlessly weighty at low speeds, feels meaty and direct at the limit.
But right at the moment where its chassis steps up, its stability control inteferes – and it can’t be fully switched off – the auto gearbox fails to allow a downshift, and the lack of a mechanical limited-slip differential (LSD) means it starts smoking its inside wheel on full-throttle corner exits.
The Fiesta ST, meanwhile, also lacks a proper LSD. It, like the Polo GTI, gets an electronic system that brakes a spinning inside wheel to help minimise inner-wheel spin on corner exits and enhance traction. The difference between them is the Ford system actually works; moreover, it works better than in almost every other front-drive hot-hatch we’ve tested, including its big brother, the Focus ST.
The steering is perfect, so quick and immediate, yet natural and progressive on centre. It makes the 208’s seem too light and loose, and the Polo’s seem too slow and heavy.
Its stability control can be switched to a Sport mode that is also perfect. The front-end of the Fiesta chases apexes with hound-like determination, yet its rear-end dances and pivots like a cat oversteering on lino (Youtube it, it’s worth it…)
With the rear-end teetering on the edge of grip, grab a lower gear, pin the throttle and hear that wonderful noise. Even with lock still applied, the electronic differential hooks up and fires the little hatch towards the next bend, leaving the mildly understeering GTi and GTI eating fumes.
The innate balance between front and rear of the Fiesta ST remains the reserve of exotics, not mere hot-hatches.
So good is its dynamic repertoire that it easily justifies its hard urban ride – hard, occasionally lumpy, but never genuinely harsh, though – where the Polo GTI does not. There again, ride quality is the reason the Ford doesn’t get a perfect five stars.
The Fiesta ST is worthy of comparison with the costlier Megane RS265 and Focus ST class. It wins this comparison test, easily.
At the other end, the Volkswagen Polo GTI takes third because although it offers a cracking engine and excellent dynamics, it is also lacks the front differential it sorely needs, or the gearbox and stability control calibration to back its focus. It’s also expensive to service and lacks equipment.
The Peugeot 208 GTi, meanwhile, represents a fine return to form for the brand. A car badged with those three evocative letters should arguably be superb to drive, rather than just sweet, but it is a fast little hatchback with a fantastic interior, and probably has the best balance of ride and handling here.
The next challenge for the fantastic Ford Fiesta ST will be the Renault Sport Clio 200, but the newcomer will be facing both one of the best hot-hatches of all time and one of the finest-driving cars currently on-sale regardless of price.
This comparison review first appeared in the October/November issue of the CarAdvice iPad magazine app. Head to the Apple App Store to download the entire issue.
Photography by Easton Chang.
Ford Fiesta ST
Engine: 1.6 litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 132kW at 5700rpm
Torque: 240Nm at 1600-5000rpm
Transmission: 6-sp manual
0-100km/h: 6.9 seconds
Fuel consumption: 6.2L/100km claimed (10.7L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 145g/km
Peugeot 208 GTi
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 147kW at 5500rpm
Torque: 275Nm at 1700rpm
Transmission: 6-sp manual
0-100km/h: 6.8 seconds
Fuel consumption: 5.9L/100km claimed (9.3L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 139g/km
Volkswagen Polo GTI
Engine: 1.4-litre 4-cyl turbo/supercharged petrol
Power: 132kW at 6200rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 2000-4500rpm
Transmission: 7-sp dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h: 6.9 seconds
Fuel consumption: 6.1L/100km claimed (9.8L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 142g/km