Fun is the essential ingredient of any hot hatch, but what exactly is it that makes a car fun to drive? Nippy acceleration and plenty of grip certainly help, but the most telling factor is how involved you feel in the action. This is down to a number of factors, such as the feedback you get through the steering wheel, how satisfying the gearbox is to use and what the engine sounds like when you rev it hard.
All these reasons are precisely why, for the past couple of years, the Fiesta ST has been top of the hot hatch pile. It’s never been quite the quickest or the grippiest of its breed, but no other rival puts such a big smile on your face.
The Fiesta’s reign at the top could be about to end, though, because Vauxhall’s new Corsa VXR doesn’t just look the part, but it also packs more power than its rival and is similarly well equipped, and all while costing less to buy. If it’s as much fun to drive, the Ford could be in trouble.
Ford Fiesta 1.6T 180 Ecoboost ST-2
Great to drive and cheap to run, the ST-2 is our current Hot Hatch of the Year
Vauxhall Corsa 1.6i 205 Turbo VXR
Cheaper and more powerful than the ST-2, but is the VXR as much fun?
What are they like to drive?
Both cars have 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engines and deliver their power in broadly similar ways. The Fiesta is slightly more eager at low revs, but the Corsa claws back that advantage by having more power on hand when you really thrash its engine.
That extra power no doubt explains why the VXR is slightly faster according to the official figures. However, in our tests, it was actually the Ford that sprinted off the line quickest, hitting 60mph from a standstill in 7.0sec and beating the Vauxhall to that yardstick by a tenth of a second.
The Fiesta sounds so much more enticing, too. Both cars have sports exhausts, but the ST’s silky smooth motor and rorty exhaust warble goad you into revving the engine at every available opportunity. Meanwhile, the VXR’s engine sounds coarse at high revs and its uninteresting exhaust note leaves you rather underwhelmed.
It’s not just the way the ST sounds, either; it’s the way it drives. The Ford’s steering, for example, is super-precise and streams information to your fingertips whether you’re pootling around town or carving your way along a twisty B-road. This allows you to place the Fiesta exactly where you want it on the road, while thoroughly enjoying every moment at the wheel.
By comparison, the Corsa’s steering feels light and vague around dead-centre and never quite builds enough resistance as you turn the wheel to attack corners. This means you can never be as precise, and you won’t attack corners in the VXR with the confidence you can in the Ford. In the same vein, the Fiesta’s gearbox and pedals feel positive and fulfilling to use; the Corsa’s less so. The VXR’s gearchange is notchy, its clutch has an overly high and vague biting point and there’s too much travel in the brake pedal before the car starts to slow its progress. All of this blunts the driving experience.
Throw the VXR in to a bend and there’s also a surprising amount of body lean. If you strike a bump mid-corner the rear axle of the car is also prone to hopping sideways in a rather disconcerting fashion. Thankfully, these aren’t issues you’ll experience in the ST. It stays flatter as you turn in to bends and always feels more stable and composed no matter what the road surface.
As you might expect from two hot hatchbacks, both cars have a firm ride, which some will find wearing – particularly over long distances. There’s not a great deal to choose between the two in this respect; the Corsa is slightly more compliant at high speeds, but does generate more a bit wind and road noise on the motorway.
What are they like inside?
Whatever your size, the Fiesta has a driving position to suit. The range of adjustment from the steering wheel and seat, plus the amount of headroom on offer, is excellent for such a small car.
You sit slightly higher in the Corsa and the seat doesn’t slide as far back, which can prevent very tall drivers getting comfortable. It’s also disappointing that there isn’t a footrest next to the clutch pedal.
Both cars have Recaro sports seats that impress in different ways. The Fiesta’s fit more snugly around your sides and as such offer better lateral support – particularly around the shoulders – but the Corsa’s are more comfortable over long distances.
The Fiesta’s main bugbears are still its dashboard ergonomics and cabin quality. Its small infotainment screen looks old-fashioned compared with the Corsa’s 7.0in touchscreen and isn’t as easy to use. Most of the switches and buttons feel a bit low-rent, too, although the ST’s dashboard is soft to the touch.
By comparison, the VXR’s interior looks smart and modern. Chrome highlights and gloss black surfaces help differentiate it from lesser models in the Corsa line-up, and the materials throughout the cabin – with the exception of the cheap-feeling air-con controls – feel that bit more premium.
However, it’s a pity that, apart from the seats and aluminium pedals, neither car looks overtly sporty inside.
Head room is similarly generous in both cars’ rear seats, although the Corsa has marginally more rear leg room. However, the VXR’s front seats don’t tilt forward as freely, which makes it trickier to get in to the back to start with.
Annoyingly, too, after letting someone in or out of the rear in either car, the front seats don’t return to their original position; you have to reposition them manually each time.
The two cars have similarly sized boots that will easily swallow a couple of weekend bags and 60/40 split-folding rear seats for those occasions when you need to carry bulkier items.
What will they cost?
In mid-spec ST-2 form, the Fiesta costs a few hundred pounds more than the Corsa. However, haggling with your Ford dealer should snag you a deal for £17,238, whereas discounts on the Vauxhall will be much smaller for the first few months. In fact, our Target Price team weren’t able to find any savings at the time of writing.
Our real-world fuel economy tests show that the VXR will cost you an extra £400 in fill-ups every 12,000 miles, and because of its higher CO2 emissions you’ll pay an extra £75 a year in road tax. Factor in all the costs you’re likely to face during the first three years and the VXR works out nearly £3000 more expensive to own.
The Fiesta is also far cheaper to run as a company car, courtesy of that lower CO2 output, and for those taking out a PCP finance deal the ST offers lower monthly repayments.
Both cars are reasonably well equipped, with a heated windscreen, DAB radio, Bluetooth and air conditioning fitted as standard. On top of that, the Corsa adds xenon headlights and cruise control, while the Fiesta counters with heated front seats and rear privacy glass. You’ll need to pay extra for sat-nav in either car; it’s cheaper in the Corsa but uses an app on your smartphone.
The VXR is quick enough but feels more like an overpowered Corsa than a cohesive hot hatchback. It just isn’t enough fun to drive, not only compared with the Fiesta ST but also other similarly priced rivals.
The vague steering is the VXR’s biggest dynamic flaw, but its gearchange and poor body control also disappoint. The Vauxhall doesn’t sound particularly tuneful, either, and works out a lot more expensive than the Fiesta to own – no matter how you’re buying.
Ford Fiesta 1.6T 180 Ecoboost ST-2
ForBrilliant fun to drive; superb engine; driving position; cheaper to own
Against Ordinary interior; poor dash ergonomics; firm ride
Verdict Still our favourite hot hatchback by a country mile
Vauxhall Corsa 1.6i 205 Turbo VXR
For Gutsy engine; lots of grip; decent interior quality
Against Vague steering; too much body roll; dull-sounding engine
Verdict We're fans of the regular Corsa, but not this hot VXR model
Ford Fiesta ST
Vauxhall Corsa VXR