In a choice between equals, there’s only one decision – or is there?
Ever since the giant landcrabs died out at the end of the Hydrolastic Age, Ford has been the UK’s top selling marque. Brits have clutched successive generations of Fiestas and Escorts to their heaving collective bosoms, sometimes despite myriad qualitative horrors perpetuated by the company, especially during the 1990s.
Fast forward two decades and Ford’s continued popularity is perhaps more deserved, Alan Mulally’s global One Ford strategy culminating in what is (arguably) their best range in years. (Their European operation even managed to turn a profit last year for the first time since I was a schoolboy, if you believe their accountants.)
If Brits love Henry’s finest, this goes double for any sort of Fast Ford. So when a dealer friend (car, not drug) suggested she could line up a head to head with a couple of lively Fiestas, I said yeah, why not?
To my eternal gratitude, one of those Fiestas would be an ST. Critically lauded here and on the other side of the pond, I have been trying to wrangle time in one since the model first appeared in 2014. But what to compare it to? The next model down in the Fiesta hierarchy, the Zetec S Red Edition, appeared worth a look. Marrying the ST’s looks to Ford’s multi-award-winning 1-litre Ecoboost engine in 138bhp tune, the Red Edition is a run-out special (a new Fiesta is due next year) that promises to mix economy with warm hatch pace. Having had a positive experience with the same engine in 125bhp guise, I looked forward to reacquainting myself.
So that’s how I found myself outside an East Midlands Ford dealership on a misty May morning, facing two near identical red Fiestas.
Parked next to one another, there is little to visually distinguish the ST from from the Zetec S Red Edition (henceforth referred to as ‘Red Ed’). The ST gets an aggressive one piece bumper with gaping mesh maw, compulsory fake venturi at the back and model specific alloys. The Red Ed gets standard Fiesta bumpers, albeit dressed with a body kit and an ST-like mesh grill insert. Both are lowered and feature large rear spoilers. Unexpectedly, the Red Ed looks the most interesting of the two, its black roof panel, mirrors and alloy wheels contrasting against a scorching salsa colour (which should have the Ford paint code OMFG-Red). Whether you like the Red Ed’s two tone treatment is a matter of personal taste (some might mutter “aftermarket”), but in comparison the ST looks just a touch demure.
Time to start prodding dashboards and slamming doors. Inside, the ST gets a pair of sports seats with just enough bolstering for both thinly, and well-upholstered bottoms. Red Ed features standard Fiesta seats, albeit clad in a rather fetching grey fabric and red trim. Both are comfortable with plenty of adjustment. Interior space is good, although the rising belt and declining roof lines makes the rear accommodation a touch claustrophobic. The boot is surprisingly small, given the car’s length, with a high sill.
The dashboard is largely the same between models, which is no bad thing. The Fiesta’s midlife facelift was surprisingly comprehensive inside, junking a vast expanse of cheap elephant’s-arse-texture plastic for a sweep of deeply matt material across the top of the dash, which sits well against glossy piano black trim. The centre stack was also redesigned to be less intrusive, although a bewildering array of buttons remain (that they are canted towards the passenger seat in a right hand drive car is a small irritation.) The driver’s gauges boast a pseudo-futuristic design that looks a lot better than it sounds.
Crowning the dashboard is a small colour screen for the Ford Sync 3 system, which controls the stereo and standard phone preparation. Roundly maligned by the press, I found Sync easy to navigate if idiosyncratic. Press a button on the steering wheel and you can bark basic commands at the unit like Adolf Hitler having a meltdown in a small hatchback. iPhone owners can also hold the button longer to talk to Siri. More often than not, both Sync and Siri turn a cloth ear to your commands. A touchscreen would be immensely useful here; no doubt one is in the works for the Fiesta’s forthcoming replacement.
Taken in the round, the interior design is cohesive, well finished and looks more expensive than you would credit for a Ford. But enough Autocar. Time for a bit of Evo.
Giving It Seven-Ninths
Considering the bare performance statistics, the ST should romp away with this comparison:
- ST – 179bhp; 0-60mph 6.7 seconds
- Zetec S – 138bhp; 0-60mph 8.7 seconds
But, like having a word count for Great Expectations*, the numbers are not the whole story. Hoping for at least the Reader’s Digest version, I jumped into the ST and hit the road.
First impressions are good. For an overtly sporting car, the ST’s ride/handling compromise immediately impresses, being firm but capably rounding off poor surfaces. The steering is heavy and mute (what isn’t these days?), mid corner bumps under load sending a rubbery shudder through the steering column, but the car feels responsive and composed.
On fast country roads the ST inspires confidence, rolling a touch compared with other hot hatches, but settling quickly. A proper journalist like Chris Harris would probably talk about the ST’s propensity for lift off oversteer, but I limited myself to emitting the odd WHEEEE, like a kid in a go kart. The ST really is that much fun.
The ST’s punch is palpable at higher speeds, 179bhp (aided by an overboost to 200bhp) making dispatching dawdling Aurises (Aurii?) a cinch. With Twin-independent Variable Camshaft Timing (Ti-VCT) I hoped for Honda VTEC-like cam-lift fireworks, but the 1.6’s delivery is smooth and linear. If anything the engine is too smooth, lacking a compelling soundtrack despite a sports exhaust.
That said, rolling refinement is excellent, the Fiesta feeling commendably solid and all-of-a-piece, with not a creak from the cabin despite the firm dampers. Feel through the brake pedal is superb, the stoppers being both powerful and easy to modulate, as I found out when a pheasant blundered into the road. (Stupid birds. No wonder posh people shoot them in numbers.)
All in all, the ST is a hugely entertaining steer. Compared to my nervous Renaultsport Clio 200 Cup, the Fiesta’s talents are markedly deep and wide, its civility making up for the slight loss of scalpel’s edge. Returning to the dealership, I ruminated that the ST could be the kind of vehicle you might never grow tired of. Like the 2015 UK General Election, Red Ed didn’t stand a chance. Or did it?
Putting The Hammer Down
Hopping from one Fiesta to the next, the Red Ed’s 1-litre Ecoboost immediately asserts itself as a charismatic engine, chuntering into life before settling into a throbbing three pot idle. Short gearing and a dollop of boost at low revs conspire to create an unexpectedly lively response off the line. The tiny engine is immensely tractable, requiring only five gears (the ST gets six) and never feeling like it needs more. Indeed, third gear is so elastic you can almost drive the Red Ed like an automatic, such is the spread of easy torque. The gearbox action disappoints, however, the longish throw being more ponderous than the knuckly box of the ST.
Heading back into the countryside, the Red Ed feels softer, bobbing and floating over crests that the pattery, tied down ST simply ignores. But as the miles pass, the junior Fiesta proves itself thoroughly adept at soaking up the patchwork of ruts and bumps that constitute the bulk of British roads, the price being considerable lean through corners, with understeer setting in much sooner through tighter bends.
While a heavier feel to the steering and pedals imbues the ST with a more obvious impression of sportiness, the Red Ed’s lighter controls share positive family traits. Both Fiestas possess the kind of deep level attention to the driving interfaces only Ford seems willing or able to consistently bestow. Everything feels right. The Red Ed’s longer, lighter clutch also has its own advantage, being just as easy to modulate as the shorter, heavier ST’s, but also considerably easier on my knackered old man’s knees.
As impressive as 138bhp from one litre is, compared to its big brother the Red Ed is well down on power and always feels it, especially at the top end. Nevertheless, extracting the most from the Red Ed’s three pots is a compelling sport. I have said it before and I will say it again: the Ecoboost three cylinder has the aural character of half a Porsche flat six, a burr at lower speeds hardening into a howl as the needle whips round the rev counter. Where the ST’s 1.6 whines like a food mixer, the 1.0 has the right ingredients to stir.
Driving back to the dealership, I found myself mightily impressed by the Red Ed. Whilst it lacks the ST’s moonshot thrust and tied down chassis, much pleasure can be had from the car’s engaging manners and soulful engine. What a peach.
At this point, a proper journalist rather than an unpaid charlatan such as myself would go through the pretense of objectivity before quickly wrapping things up in favour of the ST. “Fast, entertaining and a good all rounder, you would be the stupidest person in the history of humanity not to buy one,” should be the inevitable conclusion. Thankfully, no-one actually lives in the isolation chamber of an automotive journalist’s thoughts, if only because they make for tedious after dinner conversation.
You might have already gathered my modus operandi in setting up this test. Plunking down your own cash for a car, “having skin in the game” as our American cousins would have it, is very different from summoning up a rhetorical conclusion. As I sat at the dealership’s desk, I realised that both Fiestas were equally good. Whether I would buy either (or neither) would be dictated almost entirely by the deals offered to me. Time to run some numbers.
Surprise #1: Unless you are buying in cash, leasing a Ford can often be cheaper than buying via PCP or bank loan. Well I never.
Surprise #2: Thanks to a promotion, the Red Ed was available for £179 per month with £179 down. Okay, I thought, that’s not bad. A fag-paper’s thickness between the RRP of the two cars (£16,545 for the Red Ed versus £17,745 for the ST), I anticipated a larger but similar monthly for the ST-2, maybe £50-60 more.
Surprise #3: I was wrong. So very wrong. The ST-2 was £297 per month with £500 up front.
Boom, you’ve sunk my battleship.
Although I enjoyed my time in the ST immensely, it was in no way £118 per month more enjoyable. Ultimately, the Red Ed looked near identical, provided 80% of the pace and 100% of the pleasure, alongside a lower monthly and cheaper running costs. The choice had become a “no brainer”, as people without brains like to say.
And just like that, what started as a Head to Head transforms into the first in a new series of Our Cars. Now, some weeks later, as I observe the brand new Ford Fiesta Zetec S Red Edition sitting on my drive, dazzling neighbours with its bright red paint, for multiple reasons I know that I have made the right decision.
Some might regard the Fiesta as an overly safe choice. They’re right, of course, but to conflate that with “boring” would be entirely wrong. The Fiesta might be the most ubiquitous new car on British roads, but sometimes following the herd can lead to fertile pastures. Ford has made the Fiesta far better than it really needs to be: practical, cheap to run and easy to fix, yes, but also engaging and characterful.
Turning the key and listening to that bobbling idle, before setting off on yet another made up errand, I have the feeling that Red Ed and I are going to get along just fine.
- Long Term Test Introduction – Ford Fiesta Zetec S Red Edition 1.0
- Miles this month: 500
- MPG: 34.4
- Costs: None
*189,225 words. I counted every single one.