Our reigning Top 12 Best Buys titleholder faces its first real challenge as the new Fiesta enters the ring: yes, it's the Ford Fiesta 1,0 EcoBoost Titanium AT versus the Volkswagen Polo 1,0 TSI 85 kW Highline DSG...

The two have been going at it for generations, trading blows in the local market and in CAR magazine comparative tests. Where the Polo would win the contest for buyers’ attentions, the Fiesta would often land a knockout punch in this publication.

Lately, though, the Volkswagen has extended its dominance to these pages; the previous generation was our favourite small car in the Top 12 Best Buys awards five times in its seven-year model cycle, while the newest iteration tested here reasserted its dominance earlier this year by taking the trophy once more.

A drive of the new Fiesta in Spain last year showed signs the Polo would have a fierce fight on its hands, however. Ford’s new small hatch displayed great composure on the European country’s roads, and the EcoBoost engine again impressed with its punch and panache. Would that early promise translate to local conditions? With the recent launch of the new Fiesta to our market, it was time to find out.

The contenders

These are the respective flagships of the current Polo and Fiesta ranges (if one excludes the GTI hot hatch, that is). In the German corner is a 1,0 TSI mated with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and trimmed in Highline grade. The little triple offers 85 kW and 200 N.m and boasts a three-year/45 000 km service plan.

The British-American counters with a 74 kW/170 N.m triple of the same displacement, lavish Titanium specification and a six-speed torque-converter transmission. Its service plan runs an extra year and 15 000 km.

On paper, then, and despite its shorter service plan, the Polo appears to hold the advantage. However, if you’re a regular reader of CAR, you’ll be aware we had some reservations about this model when we tested it in April, citing drivetrain roughness and calibration concerns on the DSG transmission. Does that leave it vulnerable to the Fiesta?

Design, outside and in

For the first time stretching more than four metres long – 4 040 mm, to be exact – the new Fiesta is a notably larger car than before, yet thanks to taut surfacing and a great balance between glasshouse and sheet metal, the Ford appears compact and taut. Sporting 17-inch wheels as standard on this Titanium variant, as well as a chromed grille to distinguish it from Trend models (the only other trim grade available), it certainly appears upmarket.

That said, the Polo takes that premium impression even further. The vehicle in these images sports an R-Line kit (a R17 149 option), which adds to the vehicle’s static appeal, sure, but even in standard Highline form the Volkswagen’s geometric shaping, restrained application of brightwork and classy 16-inch Las Minas alloy wheels (17s on R-Line) saw it garner warm praise from the CAR team.

Jump inside and the German hatchback’s advantage grows. It boasts more overall room for occupants than the Fiesta (the rear leg- and headroom figures are notably bigger) and more comfortable seating all-round. Whereas the Polo’s classily upholstered front chairs are big enough for most body shapes, the Fiesta’s slightly narrower pews (sports items on Titanium models) are a touch too small for those broad of beam. They’re not uncomfortable, though, and the range of adjustment for the pilot’s chair and steering column means setting a comfortable driving position is a cinch … that is, if the passenger behind you is small or willing to origami their legs into place. As mentioned, legroom is at a premium – although 16 mm more generous than before – and headroom is just sufficient for a six-footer.

The Polo, on the other hand, has near-Golf levels of rear-passenger space, which means it can actually stand in as a family car. Its boot, however, is 32 litres smaller than the Fiesta’s deep, uniformly shaped one. The German car’s driving position is widely configurable, too, and both vehicles provide clear sight lines out (although the Ford’s side-mirrors are a little too small).

We’ve been critical of the outgoing Fiesta’s button-festooned facia, so we’re happy to report Ford’s designers have joined the modern age by relegating much of the controls to a new eight-inch touchscreen system with Sync3 operating software (although they’ve kept the comically small trip-computer screen in the instrumentation). Latency is excellent and the design is logical and user-friendly, even more so than the Polo’s Composition Media system with an equally sizeable screen. Thankfully, Ford has retained physical buttons and knobs for often-used functions such as the automatic climate control and volume/tuning controls, as has Volkswagen.

In terms of perceived build integrity, the Polo has the edge but there’s not much in it. The uniform quality of the Volkswagen’s plastics is slightly more impressive – the Ford has one too many cheaper-looking trim bits on the door handles and seat adjusters – but both vehicles feature slush-moulded facia tops, cloth trim on their door cards and smudge-prone gloss-black plastic. Both test vehicles felt impressively solid on nuggety tar.

Under their stubby bonnets

With three cylinders each, a displacement of 999 cm3 and a turbocharger aside providing delicious glugs of low-down torque, you’d think the TSI powertrain and the EcoBoost unit would be closely matched. That proved not quite to be the case.

On paper, the Polo has a distinct lead. Its engine develops a whole 11 kW and 30 N.m more. Weighing 10 kg less than the Ford and firing through VW’s generally slick and quick seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, the Polo reaches 100 km/h from standstill 1,20 seconds earlier. In-gear, it thrashed the Fiesta, leaping from 60-100 km/h in 1,77 seconds less and needing 7,48 seconds to sprint from 80-120 km/h versus its rival’s 10,54 seconds.

Drive them sedately, however, and the contest switches. As we mentioned earlier, the Polo’s engine and transmission feel at odds with one another. To conserve fuel, the DSG transmission shifts to the next ratio between 1 500 and 1 800 r/min, dropping the TSI engine into revs where it feels and sounds coarse before smoothing out at 2 000 r/min. Every single member of the nine-strong CAR test team commented on this characteristic, mentioning the need to set the transmission to sport mode in order for it to shift higher in the rev range.

There were no such qualms with the Ford. Despite its clear performance disadvantage, the EcoBoost engine is a more cultured power unit than the German rival’s. Its transmission, too, shifts early but because the Fiesta’s unit is smoother and quieter, it goes unnoticed. At higher revs, meanwhile, the EcoBoost has an appealing warble against the Polo’s grumble.

On the road

Here’s a chance for the Polo to claw back some lost ground. Up until now, no small car has felt as mature as this. From its nicely weighted electrically assisted power-steering system, to the suspension’s ability to dampen away most road scars to a distant thud, and its commendable suppression of road and wind noise, the Volkswagen flows down a road. This is a car in which you can do big mileages and still feel decently fresh, and that’s not a quality that even some midsize cars possess.

The Fiesta, however, performs an even better dynamic juggling act. Despite riding on 17-inch wheels wrapped in 45-profile tyres, its ride is more composed than the German’s. Ford’s engineers have a knack for developing cars that do their job brilliantly on rougher roads like ours and the Fiesta is another one of their successes. Its body control is slightly tighter than the Polo’s, yet rolling comfort is supremely impressive. Coupled with a steering system that feels more plugged-in and equally excellent NVH characteristics, the Fiesta sets a new benchmark for how small cars can drive.

In terms of our emergency-braking test, the Polo stopped on average slightly earlier than the Fiesta. The VW’s ABS was deemed a touch too sensitive versus the Ford’s more measured pedal response.

The specs

Highline spec in the Polo adds such nice-to-have items as that larger infotainment screen with app connect, voice control and two USB sockets; deeply bolstered seats with classy cloth trim; and a front centre armrest.

Titanium trim, however, knocks Highline out of the ring. In addition to the Polo’s specification, the Fiesta adds climate control, keyless entry and start, rear parking sensors, auto-dimming interior mirror, auto lights and wipers, heating for the front seats, an upgraded sound system with seven speakers, plus sat-nav.

Despite both being brand-new, neither vehicle boasts the latest advanced active safety systems as standard aside from six airbags, ABS with ESP, and traction control. VW does offer an optional safety package that includes blind-spot detection.



TEST SUMMARY

When we assess small cars such as the Polo and Fiesta, we favour driving manners in a variety of environments as well as value for money over ultimate performance. Along those criteria, the Ford strikes a knockout blow in this comparative test. It’s simply more enjoyable to drive than the Volkswagen, its standard-features tally is more generous and, despite lagging behind in performance testing, has a drivetrain combination that’s a pleasure to use instead of feeling somewhat compromised. Only its interior space could be better. Ford has done an impressive job in updating a segment stalwart and we applaud its efforts.


That’s not to say the VW exits this fight disgraced. We know there are better Polos in the range and, having recently also experienced a 1,0 TSI 70 kW Comfortline DSG, we’d say that model and its less-stressed powertrain hits the brief better than the Highline variant. If the Ford is too cramped – or if you’ve set your mind on a Polo and nothing else will do – that’s the one to get.


*From the July 2018 issue of CAR magazine


ROAD TEST SCORE

Fiesta Ford 1.0T Titanium auto
80 / 100
  • Price: R319,900
  • 0-100 km/h: 12.2
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 74 KW @ 4500-6500
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 170 N.m @ 1500-4000
  • Top speed: 180
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 5.2 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 118 g/KM