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by Daniel DeGasperi

The Ford Fiesta Metal, Suzuki Swift Sport and Volkswagen Polo GTI are entry-level hot hatchbacks. They’re a classic recipe of the automotive world, as simple and delicious as san choy bow. Take one small and light hatchback (the lettuce part, as it were) and stuff a big four-cylinder engine under the bonnet (that’ll be the pork – yum).

Like the iconic Asian dish, these three cars are entrée servings. The $22,990 Ford Fiesta Metal, $23,990 Suzuki Swift Sport, and $27,290 Volkswagen Polo GTI are the cheapest brand new driver’s cars on sale. Each pack enough poke to elevate driving entertainment beyond that of a regular small hatch, yet none will force drivers with modest wallets into the Centrelink queue.

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All come standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, cruise control, climate control, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Only the Fiesta and Polo get an auto dipping rear-view mirror and rain-sensing wipers, while only the Ford gets rear parking sensors and part-leather trim. All three get ‘sports’ seats, with the Suzuki proving the most heavily bolstered and nicely supportive.

All also buck the original hot hatchback recipe by tweaking smaller four-cylinder engines to rev harder or inhale more air, instead of simply getting a larger capacity.

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Top of the tree is the Polo GTI’s 1.4-litre engine, which is both turbocharged and supercharged. The pint-sized Polo weighs around 150kg less than the larger Golf, from which it borrows its engine. With 132kW of power at 6200rpm, and 250Nm of torque from 2000-4500rpm, the 1189kg seven-speed dual-clutch (DSG) auto-only hatch reaches 100km/h in 6.9 seconds.

It’s a sizeable drop to the 1.6-litre non-turbo engines in the Fiesta Metal and Swift Sport – but both are also $4000-5000 cheaper than the Polo GTI.

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Re-tuned with a new air intake and unique exhaust, the Ford four-cylinder now makes 98kW at 6700rpm, and 160Nm at 4250rpm – up 10kW and 9Nm over the regular Fiesta. It now revs harder, too, cutting out at 6950rpm.

By comparison the Suzuki engine makes 100kW at 6900rpm, the same torque but at a higher 4400rpm, and revs to 7000rpm.

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The Swift Sport gets a six-speed manual transmission, however, where the Fiesta Metal only gets five gears. Likewise Suzuki offers the choice of a continuously variable transmission (CVT) as an option, where Ford doesn’t provide automatic availability. Each will get to 100km/h in about eight seconds – a full second slower than the Volkswagen.

These three cars aren’t new to the market, and from past experience we know that they are all excellent entry-level enthusiast’s cars. So take this not as a direct comparison test, but a celebration of full-flavour motoring for bugger-all cost. You could own the Ford Fiesta Metal, Suzuki Swift Sport and VW Polo GTI for a combined $75,970 – or about the price of one BMW 135i coupe, which packs lots more power, many more features, but not quite three times the fun factor.

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We’ve booked the main track at the Marulan Driver Training Centre, around two hours south of Sydney, to test the dynamic credentials of these three hot hatchbacks.

We already know they’re all capable on-road drives, so here we’ll test whether these entry-level hot hatchbacks can handle the odd track day.

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The Marulan circuit is perfect for compact cars – the track is narrow, tight and undulating in places, meaning agility is paramount. A nose-heavy, V8-engined rear-wheel-drive sedan may occasionally get tricked up in places that prove no problem for this bunch.

What we found with the Ford Fiesta Metal, Suzuki Swift Sport and Volkswagen Polo GTI is three distinctly different personalities. Yet while they all follow different routes to providing driving enjoyment, the net result is largely the same – each provides lots of fun.

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Suzuki Swift Sport

First up is the Swift Sport. Driving down to Marulan from Sydney, it’s immediately noticeable that the Suzuki isn’t a relaxed highway cruiser. Most cars with six gears use their tallest gear as an ‘overdrive’, which means at 110km/h the engine would be ticking over at about 2000-3000rpm. In the Swift, it’s more like 3200rpm. At least that puts the engine close to where its peak torque is made, at 4400rpm, so on really steep hills the driver doesn’t need to go searching through gears to maintain speed.

The gearing of the six-speed manual gives clue to the way the Suzuki Swift Sport will work on the track. Rather than having wide gaps between gears, so the engine isn’t revving hard on the freeway, the Suzuki has quite close spacing between its gears.

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The engine loves to rev, and the six-speed manual keeps the 1.6-litre in its sweet spot almost all of the time. The split twin exhausts, however, don’t sound as fruity as they probably should on a boy racer hot hatch. This 1060kg five-door hatchback is the lightest car of the field, so it generally feels peppy without being genuinely brisk.

Down the main straight at Marulan, which is uphill, you almost feel like winding the window down and cracking the whip on the Swift’s side, horse racing-style. It definitely isn’t fast.

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Turn one is a cresting right-hand corner that almost turns back on itself and plunges back onto a short straight. It’s a joyful corner to drive a Swift Sport through. Stand on the responsive brakes, flick down to third then second gear, right heel bucking the throttle to bring the revs up to match the gears. With the car almost standing on its nose, plenty of weight is over the front wheels, allowing them to grip and turn without much understeer, or front-end push. The Suzuki nails a tight inside line, just hinting at edging its rear-end out on turn in. Brilliant fun.

Turn two is a 90-degree left-hand corner, then turn three quickly crests back right on a long hairpin. It’s here where the Swift Sport trips up. Because a lot of speed needs to be washed off on turn two, the Suzuki doesn’t provide enough power to adequately get itself into turn three – it needs first gear then flat throttle all the way.

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Turn four is quite the opposite. Fast, sweeping and off camber, the Swift Sport reveals that its suspension isn’t hard like many clichéd sports cars – by tightening the suspension engineers can make a car fast through corners, but also a bit dull. Not in the Suzuki’s case. It rolls a fair bit, and tyres start to screech as the throttle is held somewhere near the carpet through the corner. Just as it starts to push its nose wide, lift the throttle completely. The Swift Sport boogies its backside towards the edge of the road, requiring just a touch of opposite lock to not spin out. (That happened only once, and I may have pulled the handbrake…)

A long straight separated by a kink tests the Suzuki’s composure, and it flinches only slightly, a quick left-right of the steering wheel revealing noticeable weight shifting from side to side. But it’s all part of the theatre of this car. It’s not a race car, but rather a brilliantly balanced road car that is more playful than a six-week-old pup at the beach. At Marulan, the Swift Sport felt let off its leash.

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Ford Fiesta Metal

It makes sense to swap to the price point rival next, the Ford Fiesta Metal. Unlike regular Fiestas, this 250-unit limited edition model is a three-door hatchback only, so it’s immediately less practical than the Swift Sport. Compared with a regular Fiesta, the Metal also gets sports suspension, lower ride height, stability control that can be completely turned off, and the same Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres used by Suzuki.

Despite their specification similarities, within a few corners it’s possible to capture the character differences between the Swift Sport and Fiesta Metal.

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Like the Suzuki, the Ford nails a tight line around corner one, but it perhaps isn’t as keen to shift its rear wheels to help the front end point. Instead it presses the front tyres even harder, but gets the same result.

It’s a reflection of how much harder this suspension is compared with the Suzuki’s. There’s much less body roll in the Fiesta, and a lot less understeer through turn two. The steering feels sharper and more precise, and the front end is keener to turn in. The body sits flatter and allows higher corner entry speed. That then means the Fiesta Metal doesn’t have to go back to first gear for the uphill turn three – it’s less frustrating and more fluent.

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Yet on that sweeping turn four, the Fiesta’s firmness works against it. It just wants to grip and turn, adopting a fairly neutral cornering stance, with just a smidge of front-end push. Where the Swift Sport playfully moves around and nullifies its understeer when the throttle is lifted, the Fiesta Metal isn’t as keen to move around.

With the Ford and Suzuki, it’s a case of being faster or more fun, respectively. They’re two very different personalities, each with strengths and weaknesses.

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It was expected that the more expensive, more powerful Polo GTI would hammer its two rivals around the track, and to an extent that was the case.

But the Volkswagen was also flawed in ways the Ford and Suzuki weren’t…

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Volkswagen Polo GTI

For dashing around the entire circuit quickly, the Polo GTI is the one. In the uphill sections where power is required it storms through without delay.

But its (also 17-inch) Dunlop SportMaxx tyres don’t have the grip of its rivals’ Bridgestones. Combined with 90Nm more torque going to the front wheels than its rivals, on corner exits the Polo GTI smokes like a property tycoon wearing gold jewellery sitting behind a cedar-wood desk. The inside wheel howls as soon as you go close to the throttle after the corner apex. Volkswagen says the car is equipped with an Extended Electronic Differential Lock (XDL), which is a fancy way of saying the car brakes a spinning inside wheel to focus traction on the outside wheel. Doesn’t really work on the track – the Polo GTI desperately needs a proper limited slip differential.

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There are a few more caveats with the Volkswagen’s otherwise excellent and hugely fun track manners. The stability control can’t be fully turned off as in the others, so in the sweeping fourth corner that the Swift Sport loves, the Polo GTI stability control clamps down when you try to exploit the lack of tyre grip.

Drive smoothly and tightly, as the Fiesta Metal prefers, and the electronic stability control (ESC) in the Polo GTI will stay silent. But attempt to play with it, and aggressively flick it around, and the ESC shuts down the fun. At least in the following ‘kink’ the Polo GTI musters enough speed to slide (and squeal) through it – huge fun.

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As the only car here with an automatic gearbox, the Polo GTI also lacks a layer of driver involvement compared with its rivals. The seven-speed dual-clutch auto shifts faster than any driver can swap gears in a manual, however its dedicated Sport mode isn’t aggressive enough for track use. In the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart or forthcoming RenaultSport Clio, for example, a dedicated race mode can be enabled to bring the best out of the twin-clutch gearbox. The VW Sport mode is far too relaxed for hard driving.

It necessitates using the paddles behind the steering wheel. But going into turn one after a long straight, the Polo GTI is in fourth gear, when really you want second. But the VW won’t give you second until you’re hard on the brakes, leaving the driver slapping the left paddle until enough speed is washed off and it permits the downchange. In the manual-equipped cars, you simply heel ‘n’ toe to match revs and grab second gear.

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Those frustrations are offset by the fact that, when driven around its flaws, the Volkswagen Polo GTI is the fastest and most fun. It feels tight, its steering is meaty and communicative, and it does lap after lap without fail.

Perhaps because it has more power than the others, its brake pedal went soft early, with the Ford’s softening soon after. The Suzuki Swift Sport has brilliant brakes.

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So there we have three very different cars that will suit very different people. Depending on your priorities a case could be made for each.

The Swift Sport blends huge fun with decent practicality for an affordable price. The Fiesta Metal trades a bit of laugh-out-loud fun for poise and pace; it offers lots of equipment, though being a three-door it isn’t as practical as the Suzuki. The Polo GTI is a real diamond in the rough – all it needs is switchable stability control, a proper front limited-slip differential and a manual gearbox to make it a hot hatch superstar.

You can choose with confidence that any of this trio of entry-level hot hatchbacks will plaster a huge smile on the dial of those who really love to drive.

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This comparison review first appeared in the April issue of the CarAdvice iPad magazine app. Head to the Apple App Store to download the entire issue.

Ford Fiesta Metal
Price: $22,940
Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 98kW at 6700rpm
Torque: 160Nm at 4250rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel consumption: 6.0L/100km claimed
CO2 emissions: 140g/km

Suzuki Swift Sport
Price: $23,990
Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 100kW at 6900rpm
Torque: 160Nm at 4400rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel consumption: 6.5L/100km claimed
CO2 emissions: 153g/km

Volkswagen Polo GTI
Price: $29,190
Engine: 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged and supercharged petrol
Power: 132kW at 6200rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 2000-4500rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel consumption: 6.1L/100km claimed
CO2 emissions: 142g/km