At last then, and on the cusp of driving the replacement next week, there's an opportunity to bring together the outgoing Ford Fiesta ST and the Peugeot Sport 208 GTI. It's a test we've been meaning to do for yonks, for a host of reasons: it's a comparison you've been calling for off the back of Ben's Fleet updates, it means driving two fantastic hot hatches and, just as importantly, it underlines their respective achievements given what went before.
The previous Fiesta ST was far from a terrible car, but it was categorically not a class leader. Since its introduction in 2013, the Ecoboost ST has banished nearly all memory of that car, offering a devilishly tempting blend of lusty performance, boisterous dynamism and excellent value for money. The Fiesta has forced anybody spending around £25k on some kind of fast car to reconsider - it's that good.
If anything the 208 marks an even larger triumph for its maker, because the 207 GTI represented Peugeot's hot hatch nadir. It was an absolute stinker. Now thanks to some cracking Peugeot Sport creations - this 208, the 308 GTI and the RCZ R - enthusiasts can eagerly anticipate new fast Peugeots, not cower in fear at what might emerge.
More than that, together both Fiesta and 208 present a compelling riposte to the ever more complex world of the hyper hatch. To those who feel that adaptive dampers, four-wheel drive and 1,500kg kerbweights have no place in a hot hatch, this pair will prove a tonic. Nothing has to be configured, the performance can really be exploited away from a circuit and they actually fit on a British B-road. Think of the hot hatch icons that are also around 200hp and 1,200kg - Ford Focus RS Mk1, Honda Civic Type R, Renault Megane R26 - and you'll see why these two are so appealing.
The Fiesta ST, emboldened further here by its run-out ST200 spec with what seemingly amounts to the Mountune MP215 upgrade, makes you wonder why you would ever need anything more in a hot hatch. It was and remains such a perfectly judged package: there's enough power for the weight, sufficient grip for the speed you'll have accrued between corners and just the right response from all areas to make the most of another fine Ford chassis. No single element stands out, instead every dynamic element of the Fiesta ST comes together to ensure a lunatic-style gurn from even the most placid driver.
More often than not, it implores you to drive quickly; the eager throttle response, rorty induction note, darty front end and slick gearshift goad you into carrying a little more speed here, brake a bit later there and generally behave like a bit of an oik everywhere. Which is what the best hot hatches do, don't they?
The Fiesta's success is in not trying to reinvent the wheel, or gratuitously overcomplicate the hot hatch; it takes the simple, endearing appeal of the classic pocket rockets and brings it sufficiently up to date to be called accommodating - all the while retaining a mischievous, cheeky, slightly naughty edge. It's a tougher, faster, sillier version of the best driving supermini out there, with predictably pleasing results. You know where you are with the Fiesta ST from the off, with little to learn and lots to enjoy.
Get into a corner too quick and a lift will tighten the car's line; push on a bit further and you'll find the Fiesta happy to wag its tail has outlandishly as you want, the whole car pirouetting around its gearstick. The balance feels so friendly and so malleable that you just can't help flinging the ST into every bend and flooring your way out. The traction is strong, the brakes are decent and the Mountune kit certainly makes the little Ecoboost turbo more willing. It's a hoot, the ST, a simple and time honed recipe executed with aplomb and setting a very high bar for the next fast Fiesta to match.
What can the 208 bring by way of opposition? An awful lot, in fact, which the Peugeot Sport car deserves more credit for than it has probably received. Certain elements are worse than the Fiesta - the driving position is even more awkward, there's more turbo lag and the gearbox is baggier - but don't discount it: this little Peugeot remains on of the best hot hatches on sale.
How so? Because while it's a more capable car than the Fiesta, possessing more sophistication and finesse, it never lets any of these traits spoil the entertainment. Where it felt like the Ford was turning in quickly, the Peugeot is even more agile; what seemed like decent traction in the Fiesta is exposed as slightly wayward by the 208 and where the grey car can reach a slightly ragged climax, the orange one keeps on delivering. The GTI's behaviour is testament to the engineering work that went into it; detailed tweaks like wider tracks, increased negative camber at the front and a standard limited-slip diff - the kind of stuff that casual enthusiasts wouldn't notice but make a real difference to those who care.
Gah, the Ford is good though. It's just as fast, makes a better noise and never makes you feel like you're missing out - although that's kind of the Peugeot's trick. Drive nothing other than a Fiesta ST and you'd be mightily impressed, but with them back-to-back, the 208 reveals that extra edge. The brakes are stronger, the body control is better yet the ride more compliant and, while there is more lag, the Peugeot's top end rush is more exciting, too.
Put it this way: the Peugeot Sport 208 GTI will almost certainly always be more expensive than the Fiesta ST, yet it feels that way, too. It's a more sophisticated, more accomplished and (very slightly) more entertaining car to drive, as you would hope it to be given the price premium (against a regular ST that is, not this limited edition). Throw in a higher quality interior and what you're left with is an objectively superior hot hatch. Even if it's more costly. So where does that leave us?
For a cheap, cheerful and riotously good fun car, there's still nothing better for the money - considerably less than £10k now, don't forget - than a Fiesta ST. For the best hot hatch this segment has seen since the last Renaultsport Clio, however, and the best fast Peugeot in 20 years, pay more money and get the 208. As for the Fiesta's replacement, if it can combine the effervescence and impish thrills of this ST with an additional layer of chassis expertise - options like the Quaife LSD suggest it might - then it promises to be an absolute corker.
SPECIFICATION - FORD FIESTA ST200
Engine: 1,596cc, turbocharged 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 218@6,000rpm (on overboost)
Torque (lb ft): 236@3,000rpm (on overboost)
Top speed: 143mph
SPECIFICATION - PEUGEOT SPORT 208 GTI
Engine: 1,593cc, turbocharged 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 208@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 221@3,000rpm
Top speed: 143mph
Price: £23,550 (As tested £24,250 comprising £250 for Peugeot Connect SOS & Assistance, £250 for Active City Brake and £200 for Reversing Camera)
Inspired? Search for a used Fiesta ST here, and a 208 GTI here
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