TERRIER†TERRITORY

HOT†HATCHES

WORDS TRENT GIUNCO

COMPARISON

HUGELY HYPED FIESTA ST SEEMS BOUND FOR GREATNESS. FIRST CHALLENGE: DEFEAT THE MIGHTY POLO GTI AND SVELTE SWIFT SPORT...

ITíS SAFE TO SAY THAT 2020 is a year Marty McFly would never input into a time machine. Right now, the world is in desperate need of a bit of fun and if any newcar segment is ripe for the challenge, itís the diminutive hot hatch class. Its remit is to excite and delight in all facets, whether youíre grimly hanging on at ten-tenths or hanging on grimly to the last bottle of hand sanitiser on your way home from Coles. This trio, then, could be the perfect antidote to the doom and gloom.

If youíre going to be so fashionably late that you almost miss the entire party, then you had better bring the goods. Luckily for Ford Australia, the $32,290 Fiesta ST does just that and more. Wheels first drove this second-generation car on European roads two years ago, so the waiting game has been a long one for Aussies. But at least it has all the ingredients for success; a thrummy three-cylinder turbo with 147kW/290Nm, a trick mechanical limited-slip differentual and a six-speed manual.

Weíre pitting it against the Ďhoney I shrunk the Golfí Mk6 Polo GTI. Now flush with MQB underpinnings, the $32,490 Volkswagen is the most expensive of this trio by a few hundred dollars, but factor in the $7300 worth of options fitted to our test car and that number blows out significantly. Still, it feels premium thanks to a beautifully appointed and tech-rich cabin, and its proven EA888 2.0-litre boasts the highest outputs at 147kW/320Nm. A six-speed dual-clutch is the only gearbox available Down Under.

At $25,490 the Suzuki Swift Sport is a whopping 20 percent less expensive than the Ford and VW. And with Ďonlyí 103kW and 230Nm to play with from its 1.4-litre turbo, it might seem a surprise inclusion. However, while it lacks the firepower of the other two, the plucky Swift (here in manual guise) weighs only 970kg, meaning its power-to-weight ratio isnít as far behind as you might expect. It could very well spring a surprise.

Itís no secret weíre fans of the Fiesta ST here at Wheels. To date our road test experiences have been remarkably positive, though†editor Inwood stresses that fresh eyes need to be instated. This comparison is far from a foregone conclusion.

Our test loop is short and sweet, but one section in particular is brilliant. It comprises an almost 90-degree right-hander before a short uphill shoot where you can either bung it on redline in second or shift into third before a heavy heel-and-toe downshift in the manuals. At that point you arrive at a technical left-hand hairpin; one that coaxes you into braking as late as possible given it opens up past the apex as the gradient significantly ascends. Thereafter the climb continues into a fast left before a right-hand hairpin. It certainly highlights any dynamic flaws.

Spoiler alert, the Fiesta shines. It has a level of intent and competence that outstrips the competition here. Barrelling into the first left-hand hairpin with ambitious pace sends all the weight to the outside front, meaning the ST cocks its inside rear wheel like a crazed canine thatís finally been let off the leash. Go in too hot and it will push, but the threshold is high and you can feel the Quaife LSD driving the outside Michelin Pilot Sport 4 (205-section) out of the corner.

The highly developed twist-beam rear suspension and forcevectoring Ďbananaí springs have added control to the traditionally playful ST rear axle, but it hasnít forgotten how to oversteer. The quick steering and confidence-inspiring front-end help when you feel like wagging the tail, and the rear-end now breaks away with greater progression than the old ST. Thereís a new-found sense of maturity to the ride quality, too, with the mono-tube dampers rendering an adaptive setup largely unnecessary. Itís firm but controlled, resulting in a set-up thatís bearable for daily use.

While the VWís fun factor is never quite turned up to 11 like the Ford, the GTI is often harshly branded as a bit too dull. You just have to search harder within the layers of its refined persona to find its joie de vivre. Get the GTI onto its toes and itís an engaging thing, and its punchy 2.0-litre ensures it covers ground at a surprisingly rapid rate. However, the un-killable electronic†nannies are annoying, with the sometimes over-eager ESC and traction control calibration combining to cut power to the 215/40 Bridgestone Turanza front hoops. And through the lefthand hairpin, the GTIís electronic braking system canít fake the effectiveness of the STís fully mechanical unit.

Through the hairpin, the Suzukiís inside front smokes up quicker than an unattended barbie

The ride quality is impressive, though, thanks to adaptive dampers which are now included as standard. In Comfort mode the VW isnít as restless as the Ford over broken surfaces, endowing the Polo with an effortless cross-country cruising vibe. The steering isnít as quick either, and while it might lack the Fordís tactility and connection, its lighter weighting and level of fluidity are appreciated when you just want to cruise to the shops. The Polo doesnít always feel Ďoní like the Fiesta can, and its duality of character will please some buyers more. Yet, when the red mist descends, it lacks that final sharpened edge.

Still, the level of polish and competence VW has injected into the Polo is remarkable. It feels a notch above the Ford when it comes to perceived quality, and a gulf beyond what you find in the Suzuki. The problem the Swift faces is that, in isolation, the Sport is a fantastic $25K hatch with accessible performance.†But put it up against two more expensive and talented players and thereís no escaping it feels out of its depth. Through the demanding left-hand hairpin the narrow 195-section inside front smokes up quicker than an unattended barbie despite the grippy Continental ContiSportContact 5 rubber. The Swiftís body control isnít as taut as the others, either.

However, like a 1.5-litre Mazda MX-5, there is a level of pitch and lateral movement that, once you learn how to work with it, can be hugely enjoyable. The ride quality, too, benefits from the softer fixed-rate set-up, and a balance that errs on comfort†is appreciated within city limits. The steering does suffer some kickback under load, however, and while the travel of the brake pedal is progressive, it feels spongy and doesnít inspire the same level of confidence during hard driving as the other two.

In terms of powertrains, the Fiesta might be down a cylinder compared to the others but itís certainly not down on performance. In fact, it feels the strongest thanks to a torquerich bottom end. Weíve managed 6.5 seconds to 100km/h previously, but itís the meaty torque that surprises; this is a car that feels significantly quicker than its numbers suggest. The sixspeed manual is decent, if not brilliant, thanks to short throws and nicely judged ratios that marry well with the 1.5-litre triple. And yes, it sounds mega. Close your eyes and squeeze your ears a little and those Porsche 911 dreams almost become a realityÖ

VWís venerable EA888 2.0-litre means it can be difficult to remember youíre in a Polo and not a Golf, but thatís no bad thing. A previously tested 6.4 seconds to 100km/h is testament to its straight-line prowess and this application has its own character, too, with a subdued but pleasingly hearty soundtrack. There are even turbo whistles and muted pops on the overrun. Yet, revving the four-pot out to redline doesnít offer a meaningful return, so shifting up early via the steering wheelmounted paddle is the best option. And yes, the six-speed DSG is great on the run, but can still be confused at slow speeds.

Youíd think the Swiftís BoosterJet 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder would be outgunned in this company. However, thanks to the lithe sub-tonne kerb weight (the Polo is 1285kg and the Fiesta 1208kg by comparison), the Sport feels pleasingly swift. There are no rorty exhaust or induction noises, however, and the party is definitely over by about 5000rpm, so there is little reason†to search for the 6000rpm cut out. But the small turbo spools up early and it still feels quick, even though it will take you an extra 1.0sec or so to hit 100km/h. The benefit to the Swiftís small capacity and heft is a tested fuel consumption figure of 6.9L/100km, which is thriftier than the Poloís 7.6 and Fiestaís 8.4L/100km results.

However, the golden ticket for a small hot hatch doesnít just lie in its ability to raise its leg on an apex. A hot hatch also has to be pragmatic. Thankfully the old Fiestaís smartphone-style buttons have gone and the quality of the materials has risen for this new generation. The body-hugging Recaro bucket seats, with great side bolstering and comfort, have been lowered for a better driving position, while the thick-rimmed steering wheel is heated. The B&O sound system drowns out what road noise there is, but general NVH levels arenít too high. Little guards pop out of the doors to prevent you causing dints, the rear seats fold in a 60/40 fashion and the boot is middle of the road at 311 litres.

If the Fiesta hits the highest notes dynamically, itís the Polo that wins for interior comfort and polish. Itís definitely head and shoulders above in terms of fit and finish, and while the optional digital instrument cluster is undoubtedly expensive at $1900 as part of the Sound and Vision pack, itís money well spent if your budget can stretch that far. Weíre less convinced by the comfort seats (part of the $3900 luxury package), which are a little too flat and lack lateral support. If you opt not to have the spacesaver spare, the cargo capacity of the GTI is the biggest here at 351 litres Ė that shrinks to 305 litres with the fifth wheel. The Polo is the only one to offer dual rear USB charging points.

If the Swift is a step behind dynamically, it feels a class below inside. Thereís no escaping this is a car based on a $16,990 budget hatch. Plastics are hard, the design isnít as modern (thereís no digital speedo, though it is fitted to an imminent update), a lack of centre armrest grates and the road noise is the most intrusive. Yet itís by far the roomiest. The Swift will easily accommodate four adults, though its boot is small-ish at 242L.†Still, the Suzuki Swift Sportís inclusion here is valid. Itís the cheeky runt of the trio that you just canít help but love Ė and itís a worthy choice if your budget can only stretch so far. It might be 20 percent less expensive than the others, but itís certainly not 20 percent less car.

Which leaves the Polo and Focus. If duality of character is a high priority, then the Polo GTI is the grown-up that still knows how to party. And while it might be the most expensive, itís also the most multi-talented of this trio. The chassis offers a sophisticated dynamic base and the EA888 four-pot delivers proficient punch, plus youíre ensconced in an almost Audi-style ambience. Itís a remarkably rounded performance hatch, but itís missing something the feisty Ford has in droves Ė engagement.

For those with a more optimistic outlook, 2020 could be remembered as the year we finally got the Fiesta ST, not a global pandemic. Cars of this calibre are rare and although it lacks the final layer of polish you get in the VW, Ford has perfectly judged the trade off between performance and comfort. If youíre in the performance market, thrills donít come much better than this.†So yes, in uncertain times like these, the Fiesta ST is exactly the escape we all need.

REAR ROOM

One size does not fit all

Swift is the shortest of the trio at 3890mm (Polo 4067mm, Fiesta 4068mm), but it easily has the roomiest rear seat (shown above, middle). Headroom is also best in the little Suzuki. Fiesta (far left) has the tightest rear seat, though the cushions are excellent. All three lack a middle arm rest and rear air vents.

Ford Fiesta

1. HOT TILLER

Despite having a rather thick rim, the Fiesta STís steering wheel is the only one to offer heating (the front seats are, too). Itís also logically laid out with easy-to-use controls.

2. BE SEATED

Fiestaís heavily bolstered Recaros are top notch. The position of the driverís seat has also been lowered compared to the previous gen ST, though is still a smidge high.

3. IDIOT PROOF

The ST has guards that pop out when you open the door to prevent denting a car, before retracting as it closes.†If you donít know theyíre there, the sound will bug you until you do!

Suzuki Swift

1. DIGITAL WORLD

It seems like a small gripe, but the lack of a digital speedo is annoying. Instead you get a boost and an oil gauge. A soon-to-be released update rectifies this.

2. RED RULES

No matter which exterior hue you choose (and there are six), the Sport is littered with red accents inside. Be it on plastics, stitching or instrumentation, youíll be seeing red.

3. FEATURE PACKED

It might be the cheapest, but the Swift hasnít lost out on kit. Adaptive cruise and LED headlights are standard (optional in the Polo), as is AEB and lane departure warning.

VW Polo

1. SCREEN TIME

$1900 Sound and Vision brings a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster Ė VWís version of Audiís Virtual Cockpit. Wireless phone charging is also included.

2. DISC JOCKEY

Donít like the GTIís mechanical soundtrack? Sound and Vision pack adds a 300W stereo with eightchannel digital amp and subwoofer courtesy of Dr Dre.

3. COOL RUNNINGS

If your personal thermostat runs to a different level, the Poloís dual-zone climate control is a boon. With a digital display, it also fits in with the sophisticated, ergonomic cabin.

PAY & DISPLAY

PAYING upgrades

The Volkswagen Polo GTI offers the best in-car tech and infotainment, but there is a caveat Ė to get the full digital experience you have to pay $1900 for the Sound and Vision pack which upgrades the conventional dials to a fully configurable 10.25-inch display. If the Poloís infotainment is fast and intuitive, the Swiftís smaller 7.0-inch touchscreen is easily the laziest and is hard to see when wearing polarised sunglasses. The Fiesta sits in the middle; not as flashy as the Polo but SYNC3 is fast and logical to use. All three offer Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity.