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Used test: Ford Fiesta ST vs Hyundai i20N

The Fiesta ST and i20N are both small and speedy, but which paints the bigger smile across its driver's face and which is the better two-year-old used buy?...

Hyundai i20 N vs Ford Fiesta ST noses

The contenders

Ford Fiesta ST 1.5 Ecoboost 200 ST-3 3dr

List price when new £24,580
Price today £20,000*
Available from 2018-present

A lively engine meets entertaining handling in the popular Fiesta ST

Hyundai i20N 1.6 T-GDi 204

List price when new £24,995
Price today £23,000*
Available from 2021-present

It has similar on-paper credentials to the ST, but is the i20N as thrilling as its rival?

*Price is based on a 2021 car in good condition with an average mileage for the year and a full service history bought from a franchised dealer. 

A hot hatch, in the traditional sense, should be an ideal mix of bigs and littles. First and foremost, you want big driver engagement and big fun, followed by big performance. Then, you'll want to wrap it all up in a small car that costs relatively little to buy and run. One model that's always got this mix perfectly right is the Ford Fiesta ST

However, a couple of years ago, the Hyundai i20N arrived. Like the Fiesta ST, it ticked all the right hot hatch boxes, and that sparked plenty of debate as to whether the Hyundai had actually become the new class leader. 

Ford Fiesta ST 2021 front

Fast forward to today and we're about to reignite the discussion, although under the spotlight of the used car market.

Here, we've brought along two-year-old examples of both the i20N and the Fiesta ST. Our aim is to find out which one makes the most sense in this hotly contested class when bought at this age. 


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

While these two cars are broadly on a par for power, their engines are quite different. The ST’s 1.5-litre motor has three cylinders and much more shove low down in its rev range, so it responds more keenly when you put your foot down.

The i20N’s engine has an extra cylinder and, in some ways, a more traditional power delivery. It’s not as gutsy at around 1500rpm, instead building to a crescendo as you head towards the limiter. It requires you to drop a gear to bring the revs to the boil more often than you might in the ST. That’s fine, though, because it’s part of the fun of driving a small hot hatch. It does mean the i20N loses out to the punchier ST for in-gear zip, but both accelerated from 0-60mph in a swift 6.5sec.

Hyundai i20 N 2021 front

What’s less appealing is the i20N’s turbo lag (the second or so delay between flooring the accelerator and the delivery of oomph) and the way the engine continues to surge for a moment when you take your foot off the accelerator. Those lazy responses aren’t ideal in a quick car, where fractional control is key.

Do they sound like a couple of road racers? Well, neither sounds particularly authentic, with a digital enhancement that gets more acute as you switch their driving modes from softer to the more aggressive settings. Beneath all that, there’s a traditional hot hatch bark from the i20N’s engine, while the ST’s is underpinned aurally by a swashbuckling thrum. Which one is better? The truth is, both fit the bill.

Manual gearboxes are a dying art form these days, as more and more performance cars go for paddle-shift automatic ’boxes, so it’s great to have two analogue cars that let you swap cogs yourself and give you the tools to do it well. The ST’s ’box is slightly notchier, but its stubby lever is still a joy to flick every which way in search of gears. The i20N’s shifter is longer but more precise and meshes the gears more cleanly.

Ford Fiesta ST 2021 rear

Their clutch bite points are finite enough to feed the drive in smoothly, although the ST’s point of engagement is much closer to the floor. That takes a bit of getting used to. Both cars’ brake pedals feel reassuringly firm, but the i20N’s has more of an effect, shaving four metres off the ST’s stopping distance from 70mph. It’s not all good news, because the i20 N’s nose dives more acutely when you stamp on the brakes, causing the back end to go light and weave a little. Let’s just say that’s not exactly confidence-boosting.

So, the ST has better braking stability, and to go with it there’s less lean in bends, slightly better body control over undulations and a more playful balance between its front and rear wheels. That’s all about the spread of grip and, at its limits, the little movements that make the car feel agile and alive. For example, you can provoke the rear wheels into a little slide on the way into a bend. But why would you? Because it helps the car turn and find the apex, that’s why. Oh, and it’s fun to do.

The problem is the steering. Like a disobedient child that won’t sit still, the ST follows furrows in the road rather than your exact line, and jinks this way and that as the front wheels are corrupted by the shove from the engine. You find yourself holding the steering wheel tightly with a sense of trepidation, trying not to make any overcorrections because the steering is fast and you can easily overdo it. Because of that, the ST isn’t a car that flows easily down a narrow country lane that requires absolute accuracy.

Hyundai i20 N 2021 rear

The i20N is calmer. Yes, the steering still twitches, and for all the reasons the ST’s does, but far less aggressively. The steering isn’t as hyper-quick, so you find yourself guiding the car with your fingertips rather than clenched fists. It has a good dollop of front-end grip, too, so you can carry at least as much speed through turns as in the ST, even though there’s a bit more body lean and a less playful handling balance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; you might prefer the i20N’s more neutral nature. For us, though, the ST ekes out the slightly wider grin.

Hot hatches generally have firm rides, but these two bring that characteristic into vivid focus. Overall, the i20N is easier to live with, because it’s better at dealing with smaller bumps and feels more settled on a typical motorway. Just avoid potholes and, more so, sharp ridges, because boy do you get a pounding over those. The ST is easier going over the nastier notches, but it fidgets more the rest of the time, and in many ways that’s even more irritating.