Some close-fought championship bouts are always likely to end in rematches, which is what is happening here. The Ford Fiesta ST and Hyundai i20N went toe-to-toe in the PH Thunderdome last year, a meeting that resulted in a narrow points victory for the FiST. But that was the hardcore ST Edition version with manually adjustable coil-over dampers and various other dynamic tweaks. Since then the Fiesta has been given a gentle facelift, and both three-door and Edition versions have been dropped. So can a five-door with no options beyond its Mean Green paintwork really repeat the feat?
Consumer journalism and comparison testing has long been based around the principles of impartial analysis and objective scoring. Not today: rational criteria just isn’t going to work in a contest as emotion-heavy as this one. Both cars are excellent junior hot hatches, closely matched on almost every measurable metric. But Ford and Hyundai have very different characters, and personal preference will be largely down to which approach you prefer. It’s like trying to compare beer and milkshake: great, but different.
Design sums up much of the gap between the two cars. The i20’s basic form is as grown-up and sensible as that of the non-N versions; it looks like a slightly scaled-down version of a mid-sized hatchback. The hot hatchy bits also look a bit stuck-on and incongruous on something so obviously sensible, especially the faintly ridiculous rear wing that sits above the tailgate.
The Fiesta is barely shorter - just 7mm - but the way it carries its visual mass and a higher roofline make it look more compact and cuter in the metal. Metallic slime paintwork aside I think it looks great and much more mature than the i20N, even in five-door form, although I preferred the pre-facelift’s version smaller grille.
Cabins are equally different, with the i20 taking the round by a comfortable margin. The touchy-feely quality of the ST’s trim felt a bit marginal when it launched costing less than £19,000. The latest in a series of price rises have taken the official OTR of the ST3 - the only ST currently in the price lists - to a dizzying £27,245. At which the gloomy, low-rent interior feels entirely out of its depth. The thick bezelled 8-inch central display and the wheezy Sync 3 infotainment both feel old-fashioned in a bit of the market where connectivity is high on the priority list. More egregious is noticeable deflection in the switch panel when operating the temperature controls. Starting the three-pot engine introduces some buzzy vibrations through the steering column and seat base, too.
While this isn’t a test of interior décor, the i20N’s cabin feels much nicer all-round thanks to classier materials, sturdier construction and the commanding presence of the crisply rendered 10.3-inch touchscreen in the centre of the dash. Visibility is also better, and the Hyundai’s natural seating position is lower. Subjectively the Hyundai feels like it should be a chunk more expensive, but it’s actually nearly two grand cheaper.
On the move things close up again. In terms of raw performance there is pretty much nothing in it. The Ford’s 1.5-litre turbocharged three-pot makes very slightly less power than the Hyundai’s 1.6-litre turbo four – 200hp plays 204hp – but the ST’s facelift has seen peak torque boosted to an i20N-beating 235lb ft. Both cars have a fair amount of turbo lag when booted at low revs, and even at 3,000rpm a throttle application in the Fiesta creates the sense of boost building for a second or so. But the Ford is keener to rev and its triple sounds more interesting when worked hard, the Hyundai’s motor feeling tighter and turning droney as it gets close to its limiter.
Almost any car would feel laid-back compared to the frenetic Fiesta, but while the i20N is much less steely-eyed under low-intensity use, it really does come good when you start to push. At a gentle pace it feels a bit everyday, the light gearshift lacking resistance and with the lever’s position always seeming further back than my hand expects to find it. There’s a rev-matching function the Fiesta lacks, which engages automatically with the punchier dynamic modes or separately through a big button on the steering wheel. But it doesn’t feel like a rabid beast straining at the leash.
Yet the Hyundai enjoys faster progress and bigger loadings just as much as the Ford does. The chassis has lots of vertical movement over undulations, but the dampers are well able to keep the body’s mass under control without getting to the limits of suspension travel. The i20N will absorb sizeable bumps and dips at what quickly turn to credibility-threatening speeds without being deflected from a chosen line. It takes longer to build confidence in the steering, which lacks much genuine feedback behind the meaty electric assistance, but there is little corruption over big undulations and – once trust develops – plenty of grip from the P-Zeroes. The standard limited-slip differential delivers impressive front end bite, even in tight, scrabbly stuff.
From outside the car the i20’s high-load cornering frequently looks spectacular – it can be persuaded to cock a rear wheel like a piddling spaniel. Yet from behind the wheel there is much less drama: the line is instinctively trimmed with an eased throttle, but rarely to the extent of actual oversteer. It doesn’t feel as spectacular as the Fiesta, but it is just as quick along a demanding road.
There are still grumbles. The i20N’s multitude of dynamic modes feel like overkill to me, one that is likely to leave drivers chasing a perfect set-up that isn’t quite there. In addition to the Eco mode it’s hard to imagine any i20N buyers using unless staring at a blazing low fuel warning there is Normal and Sport, plus both a full-on N mode (its seriousness indicated by animated flames around the rev counter) and an N Custom mode with free choice among different tweakable settings. Given the i20N rides on passive dampers most of these are window dressing, the only obvious change being steering weight, throttle response and engine noise. Despite their chunky bolsters the Hyundai’s sports seats also lacked upper body support over twisty stuff.
The Ford lacks frills in much the same way that a chainsaw does, but it’s hard to fault the intensity of its dynamic focus. The most obvious difference to the Hyundai, and pretty much everything else, is its ultra-fast steering, this packing more response into its initial few degrees of lock than most hot hatches do in a quarter turn. On a quick, flowing B-road with cambers and frequent direction changes the result is both hectic and thrilling, with the strong sense of hanging onto the steering wheel to prevent unwanted directional changes as much as using it to to deliver guidance. But confidence in the car’s ability to stay on an intended path builds quickly, and although the quickness of the rack denies much in the way of feedback, the ST is easily turned and placed.
Suspension feels busier than it does in the Hyundai; the PH consensus was that the facelifted ST is slightly softer than the earlier Mk8 version, but there is still a harder edge to springing and damper response that the more supple i20N doesn’t have. Yet the result is equally effective when thrown down an undulating road, with enough chassis discipline to prevent unwanted motions even under extreme loadings. As with other STs this one allowed a spectacular level of throttle adjustability, too – a tidy dose of lift-off oversteer easily engendered even in the everyday Normal and Sport dynamic modes. The Track mode that comes with the LSD-packing Performance Pack turns the Fiesta tail-delirious, although maintaining the ability to pull it straight on the throttle.
On a demanding road concerns about the Ford’s cheapo cabin or surreal price tag are soon forgotten. Pretty much everything about it feels right, from the tautness of its responses and obvious enthusiasm for faster progress to details like the weight and precision of the gearshift, and the well-clamped support of the seats. If I had to pick one of these cars for a regular drive along undulating B-roads would be the Fiesta every time. Indeed as a car to tackle narrow, poorly-sighted lanes I’d probably have it over almost anything else.
But for the realer world that hot hatches also have to live in, the Hyundai is the much better all-rounder, no question. The i20N is more refined, which is to say it is even vaguely refined. It is better equipped, better finished, usefully cheaper and – if all-out performance matters – as quick as the ST is, even when it seems to be trying much less hard. If the Fiesta is a zany always-on party animal, the Hyundai is the reliable mate who always has your back. Nevertheless, given the reasons people pick cars like these, I suspect there will always be more i20N buyers regretting they didn’t go for the ST than there will be Fiesta drivers wishing they’d opted for the more sensible Hyundai. The Ford is the hotter hatch here, and that’s why it emerges victorious again.
Specification | Ford Fiesta ST3
Engine: 1497cc turbocharged 3-cyl
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 200@6500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 235@2000rpm - 4000rpm
Top speed: 143mph
Price: £27,245 (Price as tested £28,020: Mean Green £775; test car also fitted with panoramic glass roof which is no long available to order on new cars.)
Specification | Hyundai i20N
Engine: 1,598cc, turbocharged four-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 204@5,500-6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 203@1,750-4,500rpm (224@2,000-4,000rpm on overboost)
0-62mph: 6.2 secs
Top speed: 142mph
Price: £25,250 (Price as tested £26,800: BOSE speaker package £500; metallic paint £550; two-tone roof £500)
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