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Road Test: Ford Fiesta 1.6 Zetec S 3dr (2000-2002)

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Hoping not to build up the hopes of Max Power readers too high, whilst trying not to alienate the more sensible and more numerous older Fiesta buyers, and trying to divert the eye of the insurance companies all at the same time, Ford doesn’t want its latest car confused with the old hooligan’s favourite XR2i. The risk, of course, is that this Zetec S will end up all sensible and frankly, dull. But it’s not - no really, it’s not.

Inside, the seats have been ripped from a Puma and sport bodycolour-matched upholstery, whilst the questionable wood-effect trim from the lower models has thankfully given way to a far more pleasing metallic finish. Leg room up front is good, with the passenger-side dashboard cut away to leave enough space for a large family. Unfortunately the large family are more likely to be struggling to squeeze into the less impressive back seats, where space in all directions is at a premium. If bigger kids are already none-too-keen on long drives in the back seat, they’ll be plotting your violent overthrow after a trip in the new Fiesta.

Taking a look at the outside, a more purposeful, aggressive front replaces the almost morose appearance of the outgoing model. One customer commented that the last Fiesta ‘looked as if it had had a bad day’, and Ford were alarmed at how quickly the look dated.

Not much has changed out back, but aggressive spoilers and sills all round, coupled with the Bentley-like…ahem, mesh grille, leave little doubt as to the Zetec-S’ bad intentions.

The 1.6 litre plant is an evolution of the Zetec-SE range, and whilst acceleration is useful rather than scintillating with a 0-62mph time of 10.2 seconds and 113mph full whack, the unit pulls energetically from anywhere across the rev range. A tap on the accelerator is rewarded with an instant and surprising surge in progress, which should be enough to please most and frighten none. Dialling into the power is a real pleasure as well, thanks to the snappy action of the short-shift gearbox and a sensible amount of clutch pedal travel.

Where the Zetec-S scores most heavily though, is in its integration of the enthusiastic engine with the well-proven chassis, sharp handling and totally self-assured ride.

Even the lower 1.25 Ghia model is now extremely well composed through the bends, but the Zetec S has undergone further tweaks to reduce body roll and provide an entertainingly sporty ride, without jarring the teeth from your skull over bumpy terrain. Meanwhile, steering is reassuringly neutral and it takes some effort to dissuade the Fiesta from its line through a corner.

Even where the route gets really hairy, the Fiesta takes everything in its stride and perhaps just as importantly, feeds every step of the way back to the hands of the driver. Once the limit is reached, there is only very gentle and totally predictable understeer to greet the badly behaved, and the Zetec is forgiving of ham-fisted efforts to draw the car back into line. Add to this the first head and chest side airbags in its class, and it’s a reassuring package.

This enthusiasm for fun, whilst always stopping short of becoming a handful, is apparently exactly what Ford set out to achieve with the new Fiesta. The overall appearance now sits comfortably with that of its futuristic stablemates, and should see the car through to an expected replacement in 2002.

Of course, stiff competition is easy to come by in the Fiesta’s market - the new Gti Polo weighs in with an 125bhp, and the hottest Peugeot 106’s are arguably more fun than either of the above. Despite this, the Zetec is nimble, keen to please and a general joy to drive, which should keep Ford customers happy. It’s not an XR2i though.

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