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Ford Fiesta vs Volkswagen Polo: TG's supermini super-test

TG's verdict on two of 2018's most capable superminis: little cars, big fight

  1. What was your first car? Probably a Ford Fiesta, if you’re British. It’s a phenomenon. Been a national treasure for longer than Helen Mirren. Boadicea used a division of them to drive off the Romans. I believe they were leased from William the Conqueror.

    The 12-year old Fiesta that I stuck my L-plates to had a spec list that was pretty much lifted from the first Fiesta of 1976. No air conditioning, windy-down windows, an iron-block 8-valve 1.3-litre engine with 50 horsepower (I claimed to my mates) and plastic wheeltrims from Halfords. Give or take a tape deck, some dodgy power steering and an airbag, its equipment was a relic from a bygone era.

    Twenty-eighteen’s Ford Fiesta shares more with a Mercedes S-Class. This top-spec 1.0-litre Titanium model has cruise control and anti-crash braking. It’ll watch your blind spots, read road signs, warm your backside, heat the steering wheel, broadcast crystal-clear digital radio while navigating via satellite, defrost its windscreen and beep at you before you back into a wall. Sure, some of that’s optionally extra. This Fiesta isn’t even fully specced.

  2. It’ll need every single trick, gimmick and flourish to take down the new VW Polo. The Polo is the might of the VW Group – its vast economies of scale, and an R&D budget that rivals the entire GDP of some continents – distilled into a supermini. The Fiesta is Top Gear’s reigning favourite, but it was a mighty close run thing to see off the new Seat Ibiza, which shares its platform with the new Polo.

    And while Seat has to make do with sloppy seconds switchgear and a brand hierarchy that says its interior must be as inviting as a Sunday night festival port-a-loo, the Polo oozes polish. Pity its styling is so frumpy. Plain, yet fussy, it’s like a styling buck for a doorskin-pressing machine, which VW forgot to design the back and front of. It’s failed to convert the dull new Fiesta’s design open goal.

  3. Life is better inside. Check out the pictures of these cars’ interiors. Isn’t it interesting how Ford and VW have reached such similar conclusions? Both shun virtual dials, and plump for superbly clear instruments bookending a central data screen. The Fiesta’s is multicolour, to the Polo’s monochrome, but more cluttered. Look left. Eight-inch touchscreen right in your eyeline, and vents relegated to nipple-height as a result. This means the climate controls have to live by your knees, which is another win for the Fiesta, because its bigger, more juvenile-looking switchgear is less of a fiddle.

  4. Both of these cars swelled in their latest guises, but it’s the VW’s MQB-AO platform that out-spaces the new Fiesta’s enlarged chassis. It’s the size of a Mk4 Golf on the outside, and roomier inside. The door cards are impressively thin to carve out crucial elbow room inside, yet as we’ll discover when we go for a drive, the soundproofing that lurks within them must have been pinched from AC/DC’s recording studio.

    While the Polo’s cabin is sharper and more modern than the last car, it’s hardly a surprising set-up. The Fiesta had a lot further to come from its horribly fussy last outing. VW’s approach is all about refining what wasn’t broke before.

  5. So, if you’re one of the legion of people who hate modern cars with touchscreens that look like lost iPads floating in mid-air, the Polo’s neat, dash-integrated housing will appeal. The flush gloss black panel it lives in is very slick and smart, and yep, a fingerprint haven. At the bottom of the stack lives your rubberised cubby hole with wireless phone charging – which wasn’t at all happy to juice my iPhone 8, and constantly flashed up warning messages to remove my device. Below that, the central tunnel is fashioned from horribly brittle plastic. So, if you put anything that’s not a cup in the teeny cupholders (spare change, a charging cable, loose M&Ms, et cetera), it rattles. Irritating.

  6. The Fiesta uses some naff trim too: the door handles in particular, which isn’t clever when you touch them a damn sight more often than you’ll fondle the pillowy upper reaches of the dashboard. But it’s so much tidier than the old car, it’s easy to forgive. The dials look great – just as clear as the Polo’s, but with niftier fonts. Its touchpoints – steering wheel, gearknob, softer, comfier seats (everything except the brittle handles) are high quality without being overdesigned. The touchscreen is – at last – a Ford system that doesn’t make you wish a plague on the houses of Blue Oval software boffins. Giant, vaulting leaps have caught the Fiesta up to the Polo’s cabin in one measly generation.

  7. Unless you’re shopping for an easy-to-park minicab. The Polo feels a bigger, boxier object from behind the wheel, and your passengers will thank you for it. The VW’s roominess is compounded by it binning off a fashionable rising windowline, like the Fiesta’s. More light, more sensation of space, and a slightly bigger boot. But the VW is no TARDIS – it’s just a big little car.

  8. As a result, it could use less vague, glassy steering. The 6th-gen Polo is a supermini genetically engineered like a turbocharged Ivan Drago to be as clinically perfect as humanly (or robotically) possible. In many ways, this makes it an impressive car. It cruises quietly and the maturity of its ride over big compressions is just sublime. Proper ‘big car’ refinement and dexterity. Wind noise has been cancelled out. Its body movements are tightly controlled and very, very slick.

  9. But the Polo’s calculating po-faced seriousness also shows up its shortcomings more brutally. When the finish is so tight, the noise levels so serene, the clunking, recalcitrant gearshift of manual models sticks out. This £1,350 DSG is genius for urban work, hurrying into seventh gear by 28mph without laboring the 1.0-litre, 113bhp three-cylinder motor. The changes are vanishingly smooth. But that same uber-eco trait is a pain out of town, where you’ll find holes in the response.

    The Fiesta has a great gearshift. Satisfying and accurate. And that matters, because elements like that elevate the Fiesta into feeling premium.

  10. Let me explain. When every carmaker is scrapping to exist in a ‘we’re posh too’ niche, scrambling out of the mainstream, punters get fatigued by mediocrity being dressed up with soft-touch this and quilted, hand-stitched that. We’re not stupid. While the Polo’s materials are just ahead of the vastly improved Ford’s, the Fiesta counter-punches with thoughtfully set up controls that feedback a quality of engineering that’s been hollowed out of the polite but binary Polo.

  11. The Ford’s steering has more feedback texture, the shift is sweeter, its own three-pot engine is smoother under load than the VW’s, and it rides – genuinely – like a Jaguar. Ride and handling isn’t something to be neutralized into submission in the Ford. Like a good Jag, it informs you about what the wheels are up to, but expertly filters out the noise and chatter. As a result, it encourages you to enjoy yourself a little more. To feel that a big, teched-up modern supermini can still be an agile little companion. Like all great Fords from my lifetime, the Fiesta handles about twenty per cent better than it actually needs to in order to sell by the boatload.

  12. There are two winners here, but only one is a car. The other one is you. The 21st Century supermini buyer. You’ve never had it so good. What the modern £16-£20k small hatchback can do for you on all roads in all conditions is a marvel of automotive excellence. Having travelled around in these two for a couple of days, I left them behind wondering why we buy anything else. The talent is stratospherically high.

  13. The Fiesta is a more complete machine, and it’s cheaper. This Titanium model with 123bhp is £17,714, and just over £19k with the toys. A Polo SEL manual is £18,180, but its stronger residuals mean our third party finance calculator rates the VW cheaper to lease (£235 per month plays £251). Both achieved a respectable 44mpg.

  14. The Ford edges the victory for us, because it’s more rounded. Ford identified where the old Fiesta cocked up – interior, road and wind noise, technology – and rectified it all, while keeping the handling smarts, with a layer of maturity missing in the old Fiesta. It’s caught right up to the Polo’s maturity, while the VW is powerless to match the Fiesta’s sheer verve. Greetings, fellow kids. One of these as your first car? You don’t know you’re born.

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