Ford Fiesta ST vs Volkswagen Polo GTI vs Hyundai i20 N: 2022 group test review
Supercars are the celebrated stars of the performance car world, but hot hatchbacks are the unsung heroes. These are the cars that are quick enough to be exciting, yet right-sized and with the right level of power, so they can be exploited on public roads.
Best of all, these superminis with attitude have perhaps the most exciting quality of all: attainability. All of our challengers weigh in at well under £30,000 – or around £400 per month on a three-year lease.
Two of our favourites have been revised this year. The Ford Fiesta ST has been a clear pinnacle of the sector for several years now, and mechanical and cosmetic upgrades here aim to keep it fresh against one of its oldest foes. As with the Fiesta, the Volkswagen Polo GTI benefits from some subtle upgrades.
So where does that leave Hyundai? The N division first sprinkled its magic on the i30, but it’s the smaller i20 N that we reckon is an even greater hit. We already know that this is a phenomenally appealing and talented trio, so we squared them off to decide which is the real super car.
Ford Fiesta ST-3
1.5-litre 3cyl turbo, 197bhp
Annual road tax:
One of the most obvious changes to the facelifted Fiesta ST is the introduction of the Mean Green paint that features on our test car. It’s a £775 option, which brings the total cost of the ST-3 model in these pictures to £28,320.
Design & engineering
For 2022, Ford has applied a range of updates to the ST which align it with those introduced to the rest of the Fiesta range. Chief among the changes is the styling, particularly at the front, where there’s a reshaped grille with a big Ford logo placed in its centre. The headlights are more slender than before, and on the ST they feature matrix LED technology as standard.
Inside, the key cosmetic change is that the old car’s Recaro seats have been replaced by a pair of Ford Performance items. That and an extra smattering of carbon fibre-effect trim aside, the changes are pretty minimal, but a tech boost comes from the 12.3-inch digital driver’s display taken from the Puma SUV.
There is one subtle powertrain upgrade, too. The 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine has received extra mid-range punch, courtesy of a 30Nm increase in torque. It’s now rated at 320Nm, while the 197bhp maximum remains the same as before. Power is transmitted to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox, with a Quaife limited-slip differential diverting torque to the wheel with the most traction.
Both the Ford and the Hyundai are equipped with high-performance tyres – Michelin Pilot Sport 4s for the former and Pirelli P Zeroes for the latter. The Polo, meanwhile, uses less exotic Michelin Primacy rubber.
Based on grin-factor alone, the Fiesta ST is the star of this group. In fact, it can hold its own against performance cars that cost many times more. The chassis takes the most credit for this; throw the ST into a corner, and the agility of the front axle allows the car to keep up with a very quick steering rack. It’s precise, too, so you can feel the front tyres start to load up and reach their limit, which is well beyond those of most superminis, if just fractionally lower than the Hyundai’s.
The Fiesta ST also transmits the fact that the front end is better tied down than the rear, which means that if you lift off aggressively mid-corner, you’ll need to be prepared to apply some opposite lock as the back axle tries to swing around. At this point you can get back on the throttle and the differential will help haul the car around at staggering speed. Learn to be more sensitive to this response, and the Fiesta ST allows you to adjust its line more precisely than either of its two rivals. As a result, you feel like your inputs – and your driving ability – matter more here than in either the Hyundai or Volkswagen.
The suspension is quite firm around town, but there’s a distinct quality to the damping; the result is that bumps are rounded off effectively, so it never feels unduly harsh. At higher speeds, this sophistication manifests itself through the ST’s ability to shrug off mid-corner bumps more effectively than either of the other two cars here.
It’s a cylinder down on its rivals, but the Fiesta ST’s 1.5-litre triple loves to be revved hard, and it pulls strongly from low revs. It sounds interesting, too; we reckon it’s got the most charm of the three – even if having one less cylinder means that you get a touch more vibration transmitted into the cabin. There’s very little in the shift quality of the six-speed gearboxes in the Fiesta and the i20 – both are great.
Firm low-speed ride aside, the Ford is relatively easy to live with every day. But there’s a little more road noise than in the VW, which makes the German car a more relaxing long-distance companion.
Excitement clearly plays a huge part in the hot hatch experience, but everyday usability is vital, too. And passengers sitting in the back of the Fiesta ST are likely to be the least happy – not only because of its sporty chassis and firm ride, but also because there’s less kneeroom than in either the Polo or the i20.
The regular Fiesta supermini is more cramped anyway, but the deep sports seats up front make things even tighter in this hot version.
The boot takes the middle ground in this group with a volume of 292 litres (smaller than the Hyundai’s, but bigger than the VW’s), while there are a couple of bag hooks to secure smaller items. The seats fold in a 60:40 split, although there’s a small step in the floor. With the Polo’s boot floor in its highest position (the only position if, like our test car, an optional spare wheel is equipped) then the load space is level with the rear seats folded.
None of these three brands has covered themselves in glory in our Driver Power satisfaction surveys, but Ford fared the worst in our 2021 poll. Of the 29 brands covered, it took a lowly 25th place, behind both VW (17th) and Hyundai (16th). Its dealers did better, though, ranking 12th of 21 networks, with VW just trailing Hyundai again – the pair took 16th and 15th places respectively.
Get a little too keen with your right foot in any of these three hatches, and fuel consumption will take a hammering. However, settle down and none will be too alarming at the petrol station till, especially if plenty of motorway miles are brought into the equation.
Of the three, the Hyundai is the most frugal, achieving 42.5mpg. Next up it’s the Volkswagen at 41.5mpg, with the Ford bringing up the rear at 38.9mpg.
Cover 20,000 miles at a current average petrol price of £1.65 per litre, and that’s the difference between spending £3,534 for the most affordable and £3,861 for the most expensive.
Testers’ notes: “Delve into Ford’s accessories catalogue, and £1,829 will get you Ford Performance coilover suspension with adjustable settings.”
Volkswagen Polo GTI DSG
2.0-litre 4cyl turbo, 204bhp
Annual road tax:
The revised Volkswagen Polo GTI is priced higher than its rivals here, and that cost can spiral further with a few choice options. With the optional Kings Red paint with black contrast roof (£965), heated front seats (£315) and a Driver Assistance pack that includes lane-departure warning and a semi-autonomous parking system (£520), the car you see in these pictures costs £30,135 – up from the base price of £27,805.
Design & engineering
The Polo’s transformation to full-blown GTI comes with some key mechanical upgrades. The basic layout is much the same as the standard Polo’s – MacPherson struts up front combine with a rear torsion bar – but the ride height drops by 15mm and adaptive dampers are fitted as standard. Unlike the Ford’s mechanical limited-slip differential, the Polo gets the XDS system, which mimics an LSD by using the brakes.
The VW’s 2.0-litre turbo engine is a detuned version of the unit from the Golf GTI, and it has the largest capacity here. The Polo GTI is the only one of these three to have an automatic gearbox, too, a seven-speed DSG. With 204bhp, it’s a touch more powerful than its rivals, and its Fiesta-matching peak torque of 320Nm arrives 1,000rpm lower at 1,500rpm. However, the Polo needs all the help that it can get; at 1,361kg, it’s 81kg heavier than the Fiesta ST, and 171kg more than the i20 N.
The VW’s cabin feels like it’s had enough effort put in to separate it from lesser models in the range. Key to this are the seats – although they’re not as extreme in their sportiness as the other two, the tartan upholstery works well with the subtle red highlights and flat-bottomed steering wheel, and just looks a little bit more special.
It doesn’t feel any more special, though. The facelift has brought in updates to other Polos, including a touch-sensitive climate control console. It’s more fiddly and confusing to use than the previous physical controls, and it’s a backward step.
Perhaps more confusing is that, while all three cars have hard plastics, the Polo was the only car with one or two trim rattles – not great considering it had only covered a couple of thousand miles. In contrast the i20 felt brand new, even though it had roughly 14,000 miles on the clock.
Thanks to that auto gearbox, the Polo is the easiest car of these three cars to drive at a relaxed pace. The DSG transmission can be left to its own devices, shuffling through the ratios with little fuss. The steering
is light and, with the adaptive dampers switched into Comfort mode, the ride is smoother than in either the Ford or the Hyundai. The exhaust gives off a gentle burble, which hints at the performance on offer without being obnoxious about it, although some might find it a little too polite.
While the 2.0-litre engine is the largest here, it doesn’t really feel like it has any more muscle than its opponents. A 0-62mph time of 6.5 seconds is a match for the Ford’s, but just behind the Hyundai’s. However, it’s the way it delivers that power that fails to excite, especially in this company.
The throttle response is keen enough, but the engine feels linear and a little flat as a result; there’s not much incentive to rev the car all the way to its red line. The soundtrack doesn’t add much encouragement, either – beside the gargle of the Ford’s triple and the anger of the Hyundai’s four, the VW sounds subdued.
As with its engine, character is something that the Polo’s chassis lacks. The Primacy tyres don’t deliver enough grip and the VW’s responses are lazier, while its light steering offers little feedback. The traction control is quite restrictive, and the electronic differential doesn’t haul the car out of tight corners like the mechanical set-ups in the Ford or the Hyundai.
The Polo GTI is still a very effective cross-country tool, and one which less experienced drivers will be able to exploit more easily than the other two. If you’re more experienced, you’ll certainly feel like you’ve covered ground quickly, but also maybe that you haven’t had as much fun.
There’s little to separate the GTI from the standard Polo range, and that means it’s still a spacious supermini. Here, it has a small edge over the i20 N and is noticeably more accommodating than the Fiesta ST. Isofix mounting points are not only on the outer two rear seats, but the front passenger seat, too.
That similarity with the regular Polo also brings the same benefits and foibles when it comes to cabin storage. The smartphone shelf is large, and the surrounding lip means that your device won’t fall out easily, but the bin between the front seats is small, and the cup-holders are both tiny and an odd shape, so not much will fit in them.
Both the Fiesta and the Polo achieved five stars when they were assessed by Euro NCAP back in 2017. The VW fared better of the two, with an impressive 96 per cent rating in the adult occupant protection category, compared with the Ford’s 87 per cent score.
The i20 has still yet to be tested by Euro NCAP. The closest indication of what it might achieve is with the i20-based Bayon compact SUV; that car scored four stars in 2021, although the assessment today is more stringent than it was back in 2017.
If you want to get your hot hatch thrills as a company car user, then the Polo GTI’s higher list price means it will be the most expensive car to choose. A higher-rate income tax-payer can expect Benefit-in-Kind deductions of £3,803 for the VW, compared with £3,634 for the Ford and £3,544 for the Hyundai.
Testers’ notes: “As the supposedly ‘posher’ choice of this trio, it seems stingy that VW charges £270 for a reversing camera when the others get one as standard.”
Hyundai i20 N
1.6-litre 4cyl turbo, 201bhp
Annual road tax:
The Hyundai i20 N is the only car of this trio to not have received a nip and a tuck – so is our 2021 Hot Hatchback of the Year still able to hold its own? When it comes to price, it’s off to a very promising start; at £25,250 before this car’s optional Performance Blue paint, its on the road price is £995 less than the Fiesta ST’s and £1,555 cheaper than the Polo GTI’s.
Design & engineering
Some hot hatchbacks use their appearance to shout louder about their performance than others, and the i20 N’s deep front splitter, side skirt extensions, and roof-mounted rear wing make it the most outlandish here. We reckon it looks its best in the Performance Blue shade that is also found on Hyundai’s i20 N World Rally Car.
The blue highlights continue inside. The cabin feels a little cheap in places, but it’s lifted by other details, such as the supportive sports seats and the fantastic tech. Stitching, door inserts and subtle highlights on the climate control switches all get that Performance Blue shade, but it’s the big colourful buttons on the sports steering wheel that are most intriguing.
One accesses N mode – the most driver-focused of the five drive settings (known collectively as the N Grin mode). The other allows the driver to tailor the characteristics of the throttle response, steering, stability control, and exhaust note to their own taste. The Ford’s driving mode buttons are also on the wheel (albeit smaller) while the Polo’s can be scrolled through via a switch beside the gear selector.
The transformation from regular i20 into hot N model includes a mechanical overhaul led by a 1.6-litre turbocharged engine. Its 201bhp splits the other two contenders here, but with 275Nm, it has the least torque. The exhaust sounds very fruity in its extreme mode, while engine noise is augmented through the car’s speakers. As in the Ford, there’s a mechanical limited-slip differential to send torque to the front wheel with the greatest traction, and there’s also a launch control system to achieve optimum standing-start acceleration.
The chassis has been reinforced at 12 different points beyond the standard supermini, while at the front there’s increased negative camber, a new anti-roll bar, plus revised springs and shock absorbers. The rear gets a stiffer torsion beam axle, too, while the front brake discs measure 320mm in diameter, which is 40mm larger than the standard i20’s.
The Hyundai isn’t quite as playful as the Ford, but it’s still thrilling and is even more effective point-to-point. The N division has managed to engineer a front end that’s as keen as the Fiesta ST’s, but the back tyres hold on gamely, making the i20 N feel a little more neutral.
That may sound like a slight on its enjoyment, but it isn’t; there’s still plenty of adjustability in the chassis, it’s just that it’s not quite as playful when you reach the limits of its grip. On public roads, there’s not a hint of understeer to suck the fun out of a drive. Some will prefer that tiny extra degree of security, while others will prefer the Ford’s lairy character.
Both the Ford and Hyundai feel firm at low speeds – the i20 is marginally less compliant, and certainly less forgiving than the Polo.
Build the speed up, however, and the stiffer pair show real sophistication to their damping, while the Polo begins to feel a little more flustered. At 6.2 seconds, the i20 N has the quickest 0-62mph time here. That’s in part helped by long gearing – it’ll just crack that benchmark in second gear, but with third running to over 90mph, we feel that a closer-ratio gearbox would make things even more exciting.
Bringing things to a halt is no worry, though. The Hyundai feels powerful and stable when braking. The Ford’s more mobile rear axle makes it feel slightly less secure, while the Polo’s brakes, though strong, feel over-servoed, which is at odds with its other controls.
A supportive driving position has an important part to play in any performance car, and from this perspective the i20 feels great – the pedals are well aligned and there’s plenty of adjustment in the seat and wheel. The Polo has the least sporty position, but is comfortable, while we’d like the Ford’s heavily bolstered seat to adjust just a fraction lower.
If load space is as much of a consideration for you as the drive, then the i20 N is the one to have. At 352 litres, its load bay offers up 60 litres more storage than the Ford’s and 67 litres more than the VW’s. That’s impressive when you consider that the Hyundai is the shortest car here.
It’s great for back-seat passengers, too. Knee and headroom are a match for the Polo’s, while the i20 N has a smaller central hump that makes it a more comfortable place for a third passenger on the soft middle seat.
Living with the Hyundai will most likely offer the greatest peace of mind out of these three, given that a five-year, unlimited-mileage warranty is standard on the i20 N. Both the Ford and VW come with three-year agreements limited to 60,000 miles. All three have a single year of breakdown cover included from new.
As desirable yet reasonably affordable performance cars, all three contenders manage to hold on to a strong proportion of their original value. The Fiesta is the only one to lose more than half of its value after three years; the Polo depreciates at a marginally slower rate, while the i20 N is the best of all and is expected to lose roughly 44 per cent of its value over the same period.
As the cheapest car here, that means you stand to lose the least cash with the Hyundai – an estimated £11,125 over three years compared with £13,855 for the Polo and £13,862 for the Fiesta.
Testers’ notes: “A big, red button on the steering wheel lets you switch off the rev-matching downshifts to allow you to master your heel-and-toe technique.”
First place: Hyundai i20 N
Victory goes to the Hyundai by the narrowest of margins. True to the hot hatch formula, its sharp handling and strong straight-line speed make it hugely thrilling – yet it still feels special even on a regular drive. It backs up its engine and powertrain with the i20’s usual strong points of a spacious cabin and great infotainment tech. Throw in a long warranty and strong residual values, and it’s a worthy winner.
Second place: Ford Fiesta ST
Based on pure driving enjoyment alone, the Fiesta ST still edges the i20 N. Its chassis remains the benchmark: enormous fun on the limit, yet with the sophistication and feel that mean it’s always on your side. Now that it only comes in ST-3 trim following the facelift, it’s not quite as good value as it once was, but if you’re willing to spend the extra cash, then it remains a hot-hatch great.
Third place: Volkswagen Polo GTI
The Polo GTI is the hot hatch for those drivers who are more concerned about everyday usability than outright grin-factor. The auto gearbox will help the average driver cover ground quickly, but this, plus the safe chassis set-up, will leave keener hot hatch fans feeling cold. In this contest the Polo GTI lacks a little character, and if you head into the options list, it becomes expensive, too.
New: MINI Cooper S
The Cooper S succeeds where the Polo doesn’t quite hit the mark, because it offers both a premium interior and an exciting chassis. Its rivals here are more powerful, but try not to be drawn into the options list and it’s surprisingly good value for money.
Used: Honda Civic Type R (2018)
The Civic Type R sits a size up from these superminis, but still deserves consideration – it will go down as one of the greatest hot hatches ever produced. Incredible straight-line speed combines with wonderful handling, steering and gearshift.
Hyundai i20 N
Ford Fiesta ST-3
Volkswagen Polo GTI DSG
On the road price/total as tested
Residual value (after 3yrs/36,000)
Annual tax liability std/higher rate
Annual fuel cost (12k/20k miles)
Cost of 1st/2nd/3rd service
£435 (2 years)
£330 (2 years)
£386 (2 years)
Fuel tank capacity/spare wheel
40 litres/repair kit
Boot capacity (seats up/down)
Basic warranty (miles)/recovery
Driver Power manufacturer/dealer pos
Auto Express economy/range
Actual/claimed CO2/tax bracket
Auto box/lane keep/blindspot/AEB
Met paint/LED lights
Keyless entry & go/power tailgate
DAB radio/connected services
Wireless charge/CarPlay/Android Auto
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