Same size. Same 147kW of turbocharged power. The new Fiesta ST and Polo GTI are members of a dwindling ‘pocket rocket’ breed of city-sized performance cars. Thankfully, both are great – but for differing reasons.
Ford’s infamous struggles to sell small cars in Australia may one day be the subject of a university thesis.
And in 2018, Ford Australia announced that while it would give up on the next-generation Fiesta released that year – saying it would not import the car for the first time since 2004 – it made an exception for the ST hot-hatch.
Now the new Fiesta ST is here at last – arriving as a successor to the hugely likeable XR4 (2007-2008) and the impressive previous-generation ST (2013-2017).
It also arrives at a time when there are limited competitors. A replacement for the Renault Clio RS has yet to be confirmed, the Mini Cooper S is a fair bit more expensive, the Abarth 595 Competizione is a bit too leftfield, Peugeot’s 208 GTi is discontinued, and Suzuki continues to disappoint us by refusing to build another Swift GTi.
There is one GTI still in the game, though, and it’s another car from Germany (though built in South Africa): the hottest version of the Volkswagen Polo.
Closely matched on price, all but identical in size (4068/4067mm), and sharing 147kW of turbo power, a salivating contest awaits…
Pricing and specs
Fast Fiestas have previously been performance bargains in Australia. The XR4 cost $24,990 before on-roads, while the first ST cost only a grand more when it came out, though had risen to 27,490 by the end of its run.
The new ST’s $31,990 RRP may come as a slight shock, then, though it’s a consequence of it being the only variant available rather than part of a range – and also its status as a singular specification with a fair amount of equipment thrown at it.
Additionally, the ST is now available as a five-door model where the XR4 and previous ST were three-doors. (A three-door is still offered elsewhere.)
Once upon a time, a Clio RS would still have cost you more and it would not have had close to the kind of equipment the ST offers. Make that the Polo GTI, too, which has also increased from its 2018 launch price of $30,990 to its current $32,490.
At the time of writing, however, drive-away pricing works in the VW’s favour courtesy of an end-of-financial-year deal running until 30th June: $34,990 drive-away for the Polo v $35,806 on-the-road for the Fiesta (based on a NSW location).
The ST’s standard-gear advantage includes: 18-inch alloy wheels, LED (low-beam) headlights, Recaro leather/suede-style sports seats, Bang & Olufsen Play audio, factory navigation, digital radio, voice commands, heated front seats, heated steering wheel, blind spot and rear cross traffic monitoring, auto high beam, and rear park sensors.
Options: Just a sunroof ($2500) and metallic paint ($650).
The GTI is offered with three option packages and our test car included all of them – for a grand total of $39,290 before on-roads. It wasn’t long ago that you could have a Golf GTI for that kind of money.
Volkswagen says about three-quarters of Polo GTI buyers opt for the Driver Assistance and Sound + Vision packages, which cost $1500 and $1900, respectively. We would be tempted to tick those boxes, too, which helps match the Fiesta’s features in some areas while also adding some exclusives.
The Driver Assistance Package includes adaptive cruise control with stop/go function, for example, as well as front/rear sensors along with other various things. And Sound + Vision brings a brilliant Beats 300-watt audio, satellite navigation, inductive smartphone charging and a fully digital driver display (though these are all standard on the cheaper but less powerful Polo Style).
The $3900 Luxury Package is more of a conundrum. The 18-inch ‘Brescia’ alloy wheels and LED front lighting give the GTI’s exterior an important visual lift, though we would be less fussed about the ‘microfleece’ comfort sports seats, heated front seats and panoramic sunroof. The bigger wheels are available separately as an accessory item.
Tech and infotainment
While we’re fans of the Fiesta ST’s more classic analogue dials, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the Polo GTI’s 21st-century take on the instrument panel with its fully digital Active Info Display (even if it’s optional).
With intuitive control via steering-wheel buttons, drivers can vary the layout. Options include a ‘traditional’ view with enlarged dials and central info panel, and a full-width navigation map that places the selected gear and digital speedo in the bottom corners.
Fuel and temperature gauges sit permanently on the flanks.
The Fiesta still includes a digital panel between its physical dials, which cycles through compass/phone/audio/settings/trip/speedo via steering-wheel buttons.
Adaptive cruise control should be standard on both cars, considering the technology can be found on cheaper cars, though at least it’s available optionally on the Polo. And at least, unlike the old XR4, the ST has basic cruise and a speed limiter function.
The same applies to full LED headlights – part of an option pack on the GTI and not offered at all on the ST as they in the UK/Europe.
Blind-spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring (which use the same sensors) should also be standard on the GTI.
Both cars feature speed-limit notification, though it’s based on GPS rather than a forward-facing camera.
For infotainment, here we have two of the best two systems found in the city car segment.
The VW’s super-slick display is the class benchmark for presentation, though the absence of standard integrated navigation is disappointing regardless of the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. Digital radio is also missing.
Ford’s Sync 3 is also presented via an 8.0-inch touchscreen and it too scores highly for graphics as well as the logicality of its menu operation. Digital radio and navigation are standard, it features inbuilt voice control along with access to Siri/Google/Bixby commands, and you don’t need to pay extra for a cranking stereo. The B&O Play audio has great bass.
The Polo’s Beats system sounds equally terrific, though again it would be preferable it was standard – especially as it is included with the cheaper Polo Style (priced from just $25,390).
The Polo GTI is not without its fair share of harder plastics, particularly notable on the doors, yet its cabin is still about as expensive looking as it gets in the city-car class.
Optional features such as the Active Info Display and relatively posh leather/fabric sports seats emphasise this point.
The seats not only look and feel smart but provide plenty of comfort. (But does a GTI look like a proper GTI without the trademark tartan cloth seats?)
A thick, red metallic band that runs across the dash, with matching inserts on the doors, enlivens a Polo interior that can look very conservative in other versions of the range. For buyers who feel the red looks a bit too daring, the sections can be ordered in dark grey for no extra cost.
Additional sporty touches come in the form of the ‘GTI’ honeycomb-design treadplates and the GTI-badged steering wheel with red stitching.
The Fiesta doesn’t look as smart inside as the Polo, and some of the dials, such as the climate controls, don’t twist as smoothly. Yet the Fiesta follows the bigger Focus’s much-needed step up in cabin quality and the ST looks and feels sportier than the GTI.
Hard plastics dominate the doors and some lower areas of the cabin, though softer material is used for main sections of the dash and the fake carbonfibre inserts look good.
The leather/suede-like Recaros are about as racy as sports seats get without actually featuring a six-point harness. You almost expect to turn around to see half a roll-cage.
The bolstering has a vice-like grip (so watch those visits to Maccas), but just as important to the sporty driving position is a front seat that’s noticeably lower than the GTI’s.
Then ahead of the driver is a chubby steering wheel that feels great in the hand.
The ST is one of those cars that suggests it’s going to be great to drive before you even start the engine.
Both cars cover off basic front-cabin storage areas such as cup holders, small console cubbies and door pockets that can take decent-size drinks bottles and some other items.
The Polo’s door pockets are particularly large and its smartphone tray is much better – larger and flatter. The Fiesta’s tray is awkwardly shaped for today’s average smartphone.
Two USB ports sit just above the GTI’s smartphone tray; the Fiesta provides a single port.
The Polo adds another two USB ports for back-seat passengers. Neither car features rear ventilation, which is common for the segment. There are seatback pockets and door bottle holders (again more generously sized in the Polo), though both skip centre armrests.
There may be just a single millimetre separating the lengths of our two protagonists, but the Polo’s longer wheelbase (2560mm v 2493mm) delivers some noticeable extra rear legroom.
The subwoofer for the Beats audio shrinks the Polo’s boot space from 351 to 305 litres, so the Fiesta’s luggage compartment ends up with a very slight capacity edge after increasing from the previous model’s boot space by 35 litres to 311 litres.
The Fiesta’s boot is deeper; the Polo’s boot is longer.
The latest-generation Polo GTI came with a big bonus in 2018: the ‘EA888’ four-cylinder turbo engine found in VW’s hottest Golfs.
While 147kW was the power output being put out by a Mark V Golf GTI from more than a decade ago, the Polo is still a car not much longer than four metres. There’s also a generous amount of torque, with 320Nm produced between 1450 and 4390rpm.
Teamed with the six-speed ‘DSG’ dual-clutch auto’s lightning-quick gearchanges, it’s a combination that can provide both enjoyably strong acceleration during spirited driving and more relaxed motoring – all with impressive smoothness.
Throttle response is well judged in Normal mode and sharpens if Sport is selected (either via a centre console button or the touchscreen).
This also brings a sportier engine note with more noises from the exhaust, though they’re a little too subtle for a hot-hatch.
The DSG auto continues to be a gearbox that works best with the car on the move. It can make braking to a standstill from lowish speeds a slightly jerky process, and the auto can get confused by the stop-start system – delaying response to a press of the throttle when the engine restarts.
There’s no manual gearbox option.
The opposite situation applies to the ST; Ford’s fastest Fiesta is again offered solely with a (six-speed) manual gearbox.
This manipulates a smaller engine yet again. After the XR4’s (non turbo) 2.0-litre and the previous ST’s 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder, the new ST uses a tuned-up version of the 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo found in the regular Focus models.
Power and torque climb – by 13kW and 50Nm – to give the ST an identical 147kW to the GTI and 290Nm that, produced between 1600 and 4000rpm, also promises plenty of flexible performance.
And delivers it, as attested by a quoted 50km/h-100km/h time of 6.1 seconds in fourth gear.
If it’s a very likeable engine in the Focus, it’s a loveable one in the ST – with even more character. There’s the typical thrummy beat of a three-cylinder, though pop the ST into Sport mode and it becomes snarlier at higher revs (even if artificially enhanced). Sport also activates the Active Exhaust, bringing pops and crackles from the exhaust that are more noticeable than with the GTI.
The ST sounds best from outside, too, according to our photographer, Sal.
Its short-geared for more aggressive acceleration, though this isn’t necessarily helpful if 0-100km/h are important to you. The ST’s run is slightly hampered by a need to grab third gear to reach three figures (second gear runs out at 92km/h).
We also struggled to match Ford’s 6.5-second claim. After multiple runs (on regular bitumen) using both manual and assisted (launch control) techniques, the best figure on our timing equipment was 6.9 seconds.
The Polo GTI edged it with 6.8 seconds despite having a slower claimed time (6.7 seconds) of this pair.
On the road
Straight-line performance is all very well, but the very best hot-hatches have always entertained drivers predominantly with the way they tackle a sinuous set of curves.
There’s an enjoyable neutrality to the VW’s handling. Aided by strong grip from the Bridgestone Turanza tyres, this permits quick cornering speeds without quickly verging into understeer.
The chassis offers minimal adjustability, however, and the light and numb steering limits the interaction between car and driver.
Hard acceleration out of tight corners is also hindered by the so-called electronic diff lock’s struggles to contain wheelspin from the inside front wheel.
Jumping out of the GTI into the ST brings chalk/cheese and night/day analogies into play.
At less than two turns lock to lock, the ST’s steering is ridiculously sharp – even in the car’s Normal mode as Sport mode simply adds some extra weight.
It takes some adjustment initially, especially if you’ve just jumped out of the GTI, but with the smallest of steering inputs bringing a response from the ST’s front end, you know you’re in a car that’s been engineered for maximum fun.
The Fiesta ST is incredibly agile with fabulous body control and a greater sense of the car sticking to terra firma and pivoting around you as you fling it through corners – a feeling accentuated by the closer proximity of the dash and those body-hugging Recaros.
It feels even grippier with its Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres, is even more resistant to understeer, and the mechanical limited-slip diff ensures brilliant traction out of corners – with only minimal torque steer.
Faults are extremely limited; the steering could feel more natural (it’s a touch elasticky) and the brake pedal could have improved feel (though they slow the car effectively in hard on-road driving).
Car ownership is a broader experience than a weekend fang, of course, and the GTI balances the ledger a bit for the more mundane side of motoring.
While both cars are impressively quiet on the freeway, the Polo’s longer gearing means the engine isn’t working as hard at 110km/h (2000rpm v 2500rpm), the GTI’s broader seats are more comfortable for longer drives, and unlike the ST it offers adaptive cruise control as part of an option pack.
Its firm suspension is also relatively relaxing (in Comfort setting) compared with the even-stiffer ST, and the Ford’s turning circle isn’t great.
It’s always worth factoring in running costs when considering a vehicle purchase. And if you plan to own your new hot-hatch for more than three years, maintenance costs for the Polo GTI are notably higher than those for the Fiesta ST’s.
Where Ford will charge you the same $299 every year (or 15,000km) to service the ST (plus $115 for brake fluid at the third service), Volkswagen charges between $366 and an eyebrow-raising $1246 for each visit. Five years of Polo GTI ownership will set you back a total of nearly $3000 in servicing costs.
Both manufacturers add complementary annual roadside assistance – renewed with every official service – and provide five-year warranties.
Official fuel consumption figures point to the GTI as the slightly more frugal hot-hatch, with 6.1 litres per 100km versus 6.3L/100km for the ST. Our testing suggested a varying advantage for the Ford, which can run on two cylinders (imperceptibly) when only very light throttle is needed.
After a main test drive involving freeways, suburbs and winding roads, the ST was marginally more efficient: 7.3L/100km v 7.4L/100km.
A separate (long) inter-suburb drive produced lower figures with a wider gap: 5.3L/100km for the Fiesta ST versus 6.1L/100km for the Polo GTI.
Both engines run on 95RON fuel as a minimum.
What do you want most from a hot-hatch priced from below $35,000? It’s a key question, because the Fiesta ST and Polo GTI appeal in quite different ways.
The Volkswagen can delight owners with its techy and relatively spacious cabin, its strong engine, and its dual-setting suspension that can deliver more than acceptable comfort.
And, in the history of hot Polos, the latest model gets closer than ever to feeling like a junior Golf GTI.
It’s not quite as fun to drive as its bigger brother, though, and the Polo GTI needs more standard features and servicing costs that are friendlier to budget-conscious enthusiasts.
The Fiesta ST is no longer the super-affordable pocket rocket it once was, either, though we should at least be grateful Ford Australia imported this singular variant. And it’s loaded with more kit, more quality and more doors.
Yes, the ST’s suspension is again very firm and there may be times when front-seat occupants would like the Recaro seats to relinquish some of their vice-like grip, but the ride is certainly tolerable.
And the rewards are bountiful when you head for your favourite piece of road, with dynamics that are in another league to the GTI’s and supported by an engine with more character.
Ford has built yet another cracking small performance car – worthy of a High Distinction.