The Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Up are two outstanding small cars. The Fiesta is our reigning Small Car of the Year, while the Up was our overall Car of the Year in 2012 and City Car of the Year in 2013.
The price gap between our favourite versions of both is around £3000, so is it worth spending extra on the larger, more practical Fiesta, or does the Up’s supreme city suitability make it the better buy?
What are the Ford Fiesta and VW Up like to drive?
The Fiesta is available with a choice of seven petrol and two diesel engines. The entry-level 1.25 petrols are refined and offer decent performance, but the 1.0-litre three-cylinder units make the Fiesta even better to drive.
The 1.0 three-cylinder engine is offered with 79bhp, 99bhp or 123bhp. The 79bhp engine isn’t turbocharged, so while it performs well enough around town, you’ll find yourself having to work it hard at motorway speeds. The turbocharged 99bhp version pulls strongly and smoothly from low revs, so you don’t need to thrash it to make decent progress. In fact, it’s so good that there’s little point in buying the 123bhp unit.
If fuel economy is your priority, you can choose between a 74bhp 1.5 TDCi or 94bhp 1.6 TDCi. The latter is available as an Econetic version, which adds low-friction tyres, lowered suspension, tweaked engine settings and stop-start technology. These modifications slash CO2 emissions to 87g/km and bump up the official fuel economy to 85.6mpg.
Despite the 1.6 TDCi's appealing figures, it’s the 1.5 TDCi we’d recommend. It’s the cheapest diesel on offer, and is more refined.
Finally, there’s also a 180bhp Fiesta ST, which is our 2014 Hot hatch of the Year. It’s an outstanding budget performance model, but makes little sense if comfort, low running costs and good fuel economy are your priorities.
Whichever engine you choose in the Fiesta, you’ll be able to enjoy the sweetest handling small car money can buy. The steering is quick and direct, with tight body control through corners that means it’s a hoot to wring out along a B-road. Stick with the manual gearbox and you’ll get one of the most accurate and slick shifts available at any price.
You don’t pay for the sharp handling with an overly firm ride, either. The Fiesta’s chassis is brilliant at ironing out speed bumps and potholes - not just better than small car rivals, but more impressive than some executive saloons, too. Just be sure to avoid the speccing big alloys.
The three-cylinder petrols thrum when you accelerate, and our preferred 1.5-litre diesel can clatter when you put your foot down, but otherwise the Fiesta is pretty refined.
There’s no diesel option in the Up. It offers a three-cylinder petrol engine, which you can have with either 59bhp or 74bhp. Both versions need plenty of revs, but they’re capable enough around town. The less powerful engine can struggle on the motorway or up steep hills, though, so the 74bhp version is our favourite.
You can get a Bluemotion version of either engine, which adds fuel-saving measures to bring CO2 emissions down to less than 100g/km. The Bluemotion’s fuel economy is better on paper, but in our real-world tests the most efficient version is the standard 59bhp car.
There is also a zero-emission e-Up version, which has an 80bhp electric motor and a potential range of 93 miles. It’s one of the best small electric cars we’ve driven, but costs a whopping £19,250 after the £5k Government grant. It’s hard to recommend the near-£8000 premium over our favourite 74bhp petrol Up, let alone cheaper electric cars such as the Renault Zoe.
The Up’s suspension is just as supple as the Fiesta’s, which makes it perfectly comfortable to drive around patchy, rutted city streets. Body control is kept in check, too, so the Up feels genuinely agile. The steering is light and direct, and the manual’s gearlever snaps sweetly between gears. The whole experience isn’t as entertaining as in the Fiesta, but it’s still good fun.
The Up’s three-cylinder engine sends subtle vibrations through the cabin while stationary and at low revs. Still, once you’re on open roads, it’s smooth and hushed. The Up’s cabin isn’t as quiet as the Fiesta’s at higher speeds, where you notice wind and road noise intruding.
Are they both available with automatic gearboxes?
The Fiesta offers a Powershift automatic transmission as a £1042 option with its 99bhp 1.0 petrol, and it’s standard fit with the 104bhp 1.6. The gearbox shifts up promptly to save fuel, and is generally well behaved when shuffling between ratios. It’s a shame you can’t get steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, but it’s still a decent transmission if you need an auto.
The same can’t be said for the Volkswagen. The Up is available with ASG (Automated Shift Gearbox) - a five-speed ‘box with an electronically controlled clutch. It lowers CO2 emissions by a fraction, but not enough to make a real difference to the running costs. What’s more, the ASG’s shifts are indecisive and jerky. It’s slow to engage when pulling away from junctions, and causes the car to lurch between gearchanges on the move. Put simple, if you need an automatic, don’t buy an Up
What are the Ford Fiesta and VW Up like inside?
From a distance, the materials in the Fiesta look fairly appealing. There are flashes of silver and textured plastics all over the dashboard. To the touch, it’s less impressive. Everything above the steering wheel is soft and dense, but the quality isn’t as good below your knees or around the doors. It’s better than you’ll find in the Renault Clio, but way behind the classy finish in, say, an Audi A1.
However, the Fiesta’s driving position is hard to beat. There’s a wide range of adjustment for the steering wheel and seat, plus well positioned pedals ahead of your feet. In the back, there’s room for adults on shorter journeys, although legroom is a mite tight.
The Up’s funky cabin is head and shoulders above every other city car, and even some models in the class above. The glossy panels and high quality plastics look great, and the simple dashboard layout is much more intuitive than the Fiesta’s.
The seats in the Up are flat and firm, but certainly comfortable enough for longer journeys. Most drivers will be able to find the right driving position easily, although none of the models have reach adjustment for the steering wheel.
Like in the Fiesta, you can get two adults in the back of the Up as long as they’re not too tall - especially if you choose the five-door model for easier access to the rear seats.
Which car has the most practical boot?
There’s plenty of room in the Fiesta’s boot for the weekly shop, but the fixed rear seat bases mean you don’t get a flat load bay when they’re flipped down. You can add an adjustable boot floor as an option.
The Up’s boot is one of the biggest in the class, but unsurprisingly isn't as roomy as the Fiesta’s. As long as you don’t go for entry-level Take Up trim, you get a variable boot floor that gives you a flat load bay when the rear seats are folded down.
Which trim should I go for?
The Fiesta comes in six trims: Studio, Style, Zetec, Zetec S, Titanium and Titanium X. The ST hot hatch is offered in three standalone specifications.
Studio trim is available only with the entry-level 59bhp 1.25 petrol and it’s very basic. Style adds remote central locking and air-con, and gives you a choice of three engines.
You need to upgrade to Zetec trim to get our favourite three-cylinder petrol, though. This trim is the best value as it adds alloy wheels, a heated windscreen, trip computer and leather-trimmed steering wheel. If you love little luxuries, Titanium trims come with big-car features including cruise control, automatic lights and wipers, a rear view camera, parking sensors and keyless entry and start.
If you want to add sat-nav to the Fiesta, it costs £500 on our favourite Zetec version. It has a five-inch colour screen, but it isn’t the most intuitive system.
The Up is offered in three standard trims: Take Up, Move Up and High Up. The e-Up has a unique specification and there are two pricey special editions: the Groove Up and Rock Up.
Take Up models come with four airbags, ABS and an MP3-compatible CD player. Choosing Move Up trim adds a variable boot floor, split folding rear seats, electronic stability control, remote central locking, air-conditioning and electric windows. Top-spec High Up is our favourite trim, because it includes alloys, removable sat-nav infotainment system, heated front seats, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and heated door mirrors.
The Maps and More sat-nav and infotainment that’s standard on High Up cars can be added to the lower spec models for £325. It’s a brilliant system, and we think it’s a bargain.
Are there any other options I should be looking to add?
If you want to spend a bit more to boost practicality and comfort on your Fiesta, adding the adjustable boot floor (£75) and adjustable lumbar support for the driver (£50) is a good idea. Heated front seats cost £175. A DAB digital radio is standard on top-spec trims, but it’ll cost you another £100 on a Zetec car.
There aren’t many city cars that are available with a folding front passenger seat, so spending £85 to add it to the Up makes sense if you’re likely to carry longer loads on occasion. The e-Up is the only version that gets a digital radio as standard - with every other model you’ll need to spend another £200 to add it.
I want to keep my family safe. How do the Ford Fiesta and VW Up compare here?
The Fiesta and Up were both awarded a five-star rating by Euro NCAP, but the Ford is certainly the most appealing if safety kit is high on your list of priorities. All versions come with stability control and seven airbags, including full-length curtain ’bags and a driver’s knee ’bag.
You can add Ford’s Active City Stop collision avoidance system to Zetec and Titanium spec cars for £200. It’s a worthwhile extra if you spend a lot of time driving in town.
A low-speed collision avoidance system is also available on the Up. All versions can be specified with VW’s City Emergency Braking for an additional £225 - an addition that’s just as worthwhile as in the Fiesta.
What about running costs?
The Up holds on to much more of its value over time than the Fiesta. In fact, after three years, there’s only a couple of hundred pounds between the retained value of our favourite versions - despite the Fiesta’s higher starting price.
For private buyers, discounts of around £2000 for our favourite Fiesta are achievable. You’ll be lucky to get more than £800 off any version of the Up, though.
The fuel and insurance costs are more comparable - neither car will cost a lot in this regard. Both offer engines that slip under the 100g/km CO2 tax threshold and have very good official fuel economy figures, but these aren’t the models we recommend. Our favourite, well-equipped petrol versions of the Fiesta and Up should still manage around 40-45mpg in real-world driving, though.
So which should I buy?
If you want to spend as little as possible on a classy small car, you should go for the Up – the three-door 74bhp High Up model is your best bet.
However, if you can afford to spend a bit extra, a five-door 99bhp 1.0 Fiesta is a better car. It has the edge over the VW when it comes to overall practicality and equipment levels, not to mention that it’s the best driving small car you can buy.
In face, hefty discounts and low service and repair costs mean that in real-world terms you won’t have to spend much more to buy our favourite small car. It excels in all the important areas and remains terrific value for money.