Johannesburg - Gone are the days when it was easy to recommend a small hatchback to an interested buyer.

Those wanting neat, but fashionably normal styling, a quiet and supple ride and an uber classy cabin could be pointed to the nearest showroom floor with a VW Polo on it.

Fun loving dudes and dudettes seeking something with racier looks and a driving sensation to match, yet without too many compromises in the way of practicality or refinement, would thank you for recommending the Ford Fiesta, and they’d just have to put up with the Nokia 3310 dashboard.

Dysfunctional family members who suddenly popped out of the woodwork for car advice? They’d soon hear how unfairly underrated the Tata Indica was.

Yet now, with the arrival of new generation Polo and Fiesta in quick succession earlier this year, things are not quite as clear cut. Polo is still the brilliant all-rounder, but with some racier trimmings and snazzy tech for those braving the options list. And Ford’s new Fiesta feels like it has grown up, for real this time.

You get this vibe at first sight. It doesn’t look quite as cheeky as its predecessor, yet the new design is more mature and strikes a neat balance between smart and sporty. The front and side follow an evolutionary path, but it’s markedly different at the back where those shapely vertical taillights that ate big chunks of the C-pillar have given way to more conventional horizontal lamps.

That newfound maturity has also found its way to where it was most needed, on the inside. 

Gone are those buttons that reminded you of your first phone upgrade after The Big Brick with the pull-out aerial and the materials appear to be of a higher quality. It’s not quite enough to out-ambience the Polo, and the Fiesta’s instrument cluster is as plain as a pot of rice (with no salt), but overall it’s a fine effort.

Yet it’s the ergonomics and tech that really impress here.

The dash design appears to take inspiration from its French rivals, with a touchscreen jutting out above mid-mounted central air vents. The screen is positioned high up to minimise distraction and it’s within very easy reach of the driver, while the climate controls thankfully remain analogue, although their movements are duplicated on the screen.

All Fiesta models get Ford’s latest Sync3 infotainment system complete with voice control and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility, but screen sizes differ, measuring 16.5cm in the Trend and 20.3cm in the Titanium, which also gains navigation. The graphics look modern and the system is easy to navigate and operate, no need to elaborate much here - full marks to Ford.

In addition to the aforementioned tech, the flagship Titanium on test here isn’t shy on the features front, packing heated front seats, automatic climate control (single zone), keyless start, cruise control and six airbags as standard.

The Titanium gets the ‘full cream’ 92kW version of Ford’s 1-litre three-cylinder EcoBoost turbo petrol engine, but only if you order it with a manual gearbox. The auto version that we tested is detuned to 74kW, as are the Trend models, but all boast the full 170Nm maximum torque output.

Curiously Ford has replaced the previous dual-clutch transmission with a more conventional torque converter automatic - also with six forward speeds. Gear changes are not particularly snappy here, but smooth enough to go largely unnoticed.

There are no hot hatch ambitions here, but performance is perky and the engine is impressively refined, while the cabin is well insulated and consequently quiet. Ford’s engineers have done well to contain the three-pot motor’s inherent imbalance and unlike in the Polo, you don’t feel any rocking sensations at idle.

Consumption is not quite what it says on the box though. Our car drank 9.7 litres per 100km in town and a more commendable 5.7 l/100 on the highway, but overall it’s still way off Ford’s respective claims of 6.9 (urban) and 4.2 (rural). Clearly it doesn’t like to Eco and Boost at the same time.

As before, this Fiesta’s chassis impresses with the way it offers both a comfortable ride and agile road holding, with sharp turn-in and communicative steering giving it a fun factor that few small cars can match.

It’s not quite as practical as some rivals, however, most notably the new Polo. Despite being almost as big as the VeeDub in overall size it’s still 55mm shorter in the wheelbase, where it really counts. Granted, rear occupants won’t necessarily feel cramped, but there isn’t a great deal of stretching space either. The 305 litre boot is reasonably spacious by class standards.

VERDICT

The new Fiesta is without doubt a top contender in its class. It’s more polished than before yet still good to look at and entertaining to pilot. It gets really expensive at the top of the range however, with our Titanium auto hitting R310 600. Yes it’s well stocked, but we’d say the Trend - from R261 900 - is the better deal here and even that’s not exactly a bargain.

IOL Motoring