Ford Fiesta 1.25 82 Zetec 5dr
List price when new £13,095
Price today £5000
Available from 2008-present
The most popular used small car going, and great value too – but is it the best?
Kia Rio 1.25 2 5dr
List price when new £12,495
Price today £5500
Available from 2009-2017
With a seven-year warranty and smart looks, the Rio is a tempting used buy
Peugeot 208 1.2 VTi 82 Active 5dr
List price when new £12,795
Price today £5500
Available from 2012-present
The stylish 208 has a radical dashboard, and this 1.2-litre engine is efficient
Volkswagen Polo 1.4 Match 5dr
List price when new £13,365
Price today £6500
Available from 2009-present
It’s the classiest small car around – but the Polo is also the priciest
Price today is based on a 2012 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing
As a nation, we love the Ford Fiesta. Through seven generations, it’s provided cheap transport for millions, and in the process, become Britain’s top selling car, both new and used.
But just being popular doesn’t necessarily mean something’s good. And with the used small car market now providing access to some pretty desirable machinery, the Fiesta has a fight on its hands if it wants to be top of the pack.
Take the Volkswagen Polo. Like the Fiesta, it’s been around for several generations, and like all Polos, this latest version offers a classy, upmarket interior and a comfortable, grown-up driving experience, both of which make it feel like a car from a class above.
Then there’s the Peugeot 208, with snappy styling and a dashboard which does away with convention in favour of a radically different approach. What’s more, an efficient engine range makes it a car that won’t just tempt the heart.
But if you’re buying with your head, the Kia Rio stacks up, on paper at least. From new, it came with a seven-year manufacturer’s warranty, which means all but the earliest examples will still have a year or two left to run – something that can’t be said of any other car here.
Up against this stiff competition, the Fiesta will have to be pretty special if it’s to go from being merely a best-seller, to being the best.
What are they like to drive?
The Peugeot is the slowest car here – and by some margin. However, its three-cylinder engine is fairly flexible, so it can pull its taller gears from low revs without labouring. There are a couple of flat spots in the power delivery, but the Peugeot only really feels short of puff when you need a sudden burst of acceleration.
The Fiesta is ultimately much nippier. Unlike the peugeot, though, you need to really rev its engine to get the most from it. That’s great fun when you’re in the mood, but the shortage of low-down pull can be frustrating when you just want to get to where you’re going without drama.
It’s the same story with the Rio, which posted similar times to the Fiesta in our in-gear flexibility tests when they were new. Again, you need to work the engine hard to make swift progress, and the Kia’s relatively tall gearing means you often find yourself changing down into second for roundabouts – the Peugeot and VW can usually pull third in the same situation.
In this company, the Polo’s 1.4-litre engine feels strong. It might only have slightly more power than the other three, but it has much more torque, so it pulls harder lower down the rev range. This means you don’t need to thrash it to make snappy progress.
Because it’s the lightest car here, you’d be forgiven for expecting it to feel darty and agile. Sadly, that isn’t the case, because while sharp steering and strong grip mean the 208’s front wheels are eager to turn in, the rest of the car isn’t so keen to tag along. Sloppy body control means the front end flops over on the way into a corner, then the rear follows suit, before the whole process happens in reverse as the road straightens up.
This may be understandable if the Peugeot was blessed with a limo-like ride, but it’s actually the least comfortable car here. The suspension struggles to cope with patchy road surfaces, while mid-corner bumps cause the whole car to hop sideways before it regains grip. Things smooth out on the motorway, mind you, while the 208’s light steering is also handy for low-speed manoeuvres.
At least the Peugeot does a fine job of isolating occupants from road roar; there isn’t much wind noise at motorway speeds, either. Unfortunately, some of that good work is undermined by the three-cylinder engine, because too much of the off-beat thrum finds its way into the interior when accelerating. Still, it’s quiet and smooth on the motorway.
The Kia also suffers from an unsettled ride, no matter what speed you’re doing. However, unlike the Peugeot, the Rio stays relatively upright in bends, thanks to its tighter body control. In fact, if it weren’t for the slow-witted and lifeless steering, the Kia would be quite good fun.
However, turn the Rio’s ignition key and the boomy engine note immediately puts you on edge, and things only get worse on the move. At higher speeds, the drone from the engine is joined by the relentless sound of the tyres slapping on the road.
The Volkswagen has the softest suspension of all four cars, and does a superb job of mopping up bumps and potholes in urban areas. The Polo is a comfortable high-speed cruiser, too, ironing out minor imperfections that would trouble the Kia. However, the soggy set-up means the VW tends to pitch and sway on twisty and undulating roads, although it never does so in an uncontrolled (or uncontrollable) manner. The Polo’s slow steering means it requires plenty of arm work in town, though.
The Polo isn’t just comfortable, but quiet, too. The cabin is simply better insulated from outside noises than the others. Granted, at cruising speeds, the VW isn’t that much quieter than the Peugeot, but the difference is that the Polo stays hushed even when you work the engine hard, and hardly any vibration finds its way into the car.
But out on the road, it’s the Fiesta which really shows the others how it should be done. Its steering is ultra-responsive and beautifully weighted, which means it turns in sharply and you always know exactly where the front wheels are pointing. The Ford also has the tightest turning circle of the bunch. Pick up the pace and things get even more impressive – there’s loads of grip and such a small amount of body roll that you can tackle any bend with total confidence.
Despite this, the ride is supple and brilliantly controlled, and while the Fiesta suffers from a reasonable amount of tyre noise, there’s otherwise little to complain about. The engine stays smooth and hushed, even when you work it hard, and there isn’t much wind noise to disturb the peace.
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