Ford Fiesta: Still number one
The Ford Fiesta is a perennial top seller in Northern Ireland. William Scholes finds out if the new version can keep its crown
EVEN if you don't own a Ford Fiesta, you will know someone who does, writes William Scholes. Or maybe you owned one in the past. There's probably one in your street, and there'll have been a bunch of them in the car park the last time you went shopping or did the school run.
The Fiesta is ubiquitous. It's been a best-seller in the UK for 40 years. Its perennial dominance of Northern Ireland's sales charts may have slackened slightly in recent years, but one feels that Ford was only lending the Hyundai Tucson and Volkswagen Golf the top spot while it readied a new Fiesta.
That car is with us now, replacing the long-serving version that launched in 2008.
Being the most popular doesn't mean you are the best, of course. Arguably, the 2008 Fiesta was above average only for its handling verve, but as a well-rounded package it was hard to beat - as those registration figures demonstrated year after year after year.
The enthusiast might have found a Mini or Mazda 2 even better to drive; a Volkswagen Polo might have felt posher, the Skoda Fabia more commodious, the Renault Clio more stylish and frugal... but few have managed to consistently best the Fiesta's blend of managing to be good enough at everything that matters while also being excellent value for money.
Things have moved on from 2008 and in the face of fresher opposition, the Fiesta's shortcomings were harder to excuse.
As you would expect from one of the car industry's global heavyweights seeking to design a new version of its most important model, Ford has met these head on.
The chief failing of the last car was its dreadful interior. To sit in just about any rival car and then climb into a Fiesta felt like stepping back 10 years.
For example, the dashboard featured more buttons than a 1986 hi-fi system, only with a more haphazard layout. Ford had even managed to make it all feel just about as pleasant to operate as one of those old stereos.
Digital read-outs, in that odd fluorescent blue colour that Ford favours, were like something from an old calculator that grandparents might show to children to show them what life was like before smartphones and iPads.
None of it felt of particularly high quality, either, with some jarring juxtapositions of nice-to-the-touch plastics with obviously cheaper looking mouldings.
Nor was the old Fiesta what you could call roomy on the inside.
Few have managed to consistently best the Fiesta's blend of managing to be good enough at everything that matters while also being excellent value for money
As already mentioned, none of this seemed to do much harm to the Fiesta's sales. The Ford's all-round ability and strong value-for-money meant that its failings faded in importance; customer loyalty and, dare I say it, perhaps a lack of imagination to look at alternative models meant that the smarter interior of a Mazda 2, Renault Clio, Volkswagen Polo or whatever didn't get a look in.
But, reflecting a general trend in the market, Ford has made the new Fiesta posher and a little more expensive than its predecessor.
There is no longer a bargain basement Fiesta, with Ford now pointing those customers in the unfortunate direction of the so-called Ka+.
It's much, much better news for Fiesta customers, though. The new car's interior is eons better than the old Fiesta's. The most obvious upgrade is a large touchscreen of remarkably clarity and ease of use.
The dashboard instruments are clearer, too, and though Ford still hasn't completely excised its button obsession - the switches for the various heater controls at the bottom of the centre console are too small and bunched too closely together - this now feels like a properly modern driving environment.
Bluetooth connection is easy and fast, the stereo sounds good and it all feels of good quality.
The seats are better, too, with, for this driver at least, none of the slightly cramped feeling I felt in the old car.
This latest Fiesta is marginally bigger than the old car but, as we have come to expect with every new model, those marginal gains have turned into noticeable improvements; no adult or long-limbed teenager is ever going to thank you for being put in the back of any small hatch like this on a long journey, but there is more space for every passenger and the back doors on five-door models open more widely than before. The boot is usefully larger, too.
The old Fiesta was always good to drive, especially when it had one of Ford's lovely little three-cylinder 1.0-litre turbo engines under the bonnet.
There are rivals which can do some things better, but it is hard to think of one that is as rounded and as complete as the Fiesta
That engine returns for service here in various states of tune, and though Ford offers other petrol and diesel engines, I really don't know why anyone would buy a Fiesta with anything else.
The test car had the 123bhp version of the 1.0-litre 'Ecoboost' engine - 99bhp and 138bhp flavours can also be had - and it is a cracking unit.
Smooth and quiet, it is also deceptively potent. The Ecoboost's beefy torque is the key here; 125lb.ft is the official figure, but today's smart engine tuning and turbo tweaking means that it actually makes more than that in different gears, so it actually gives you up to 133lb.ft in second gear, 148lb.ft in third and 155lb.ft in fourth.
This engine is paired with a six-speed manual gearbox, so that fourth gear torque comes into its own when, for example, joining a motorway. It also gives the Fiesta some good overtaking punch.
Drive like that, of course, and you wouldn't expect to get near the claimed combined fuel consumption of 65.7mpg; still, you would hope to get better than the 41mpg-odd that I managed with a lighter foot in mixed driving conditions. These discrepancies are not unusual for small, turbocharged engines, of course.
The engine's refinement also means the Fiesta is a quiet car in which to travel, adding credibility to Ford's hope that it has pushed the car upmarket.
As one would expect with a small car, the Fiesta is light and pleasant to drive. It is still good fun to hustle along a favourite road, though I wonder if some of the edge of the last car has been softened.
In terms of how the major controls are weighted and interact, it doesn't feel quite as cohesive as the last car. A new Suzuki Swift or Mazda 2 feel more of-a-one.
For example, there is an imprecision around the steering's straightahead position which the old Fiesta didn't have and a sharpness at the top of the brake pedal's travel which can lead to unintentionally abrupt braking. The gearbox is a fine device to operate, if lacking the ultimate feel and precision of the Mazda 2's transmission.
In the round, these are trifling criticisms. Others include tiny wing mirrors, which could have been modelled on those from a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, and the headlamps still aren't as strong as I would like for dark Irish roads.
Ford hasn't done anything radical with the new Fiesta, but it has improved it where it needed it most - on the inside. It is roomier, feels better built and more refined than before, and is still great to drive
The new Fiesta is more expensive than the car it replaces, but then again it is a resolutely better car. But it is also pricier than some key rivals.
Dealers will, inevitably, still be keen to 'do a deal', but it speaks volumes for the ambitions of Ford, that most mainstream of mainstream car-makers, that it has the confidence to charge more the humble Fiesta.
It feels worth it, though. Ford hasn't done anything radical with the new Fiesta, but it has improved it where it needed it most - on the inside. It is roomier, feels better built and more refined than before, and is still great to drive.
There are rivals which can do some things better, but it is hard to think of one that is as rounded and as complete as the Fiesta. It seems likely that the Fiesta will retain its position as Northern Ireland's favourite new car.
AT A GLANCE
Ford Fiesta 1.0T 125PS Titanium five-door
Price: £17,745. As tested £19,315. Options included 'premium' paint £495, 16-inch alloy wheel style pack £250, 14-inch spare wheel £100, keyless locking £300, rear parking sensors £200, comfort pack with heated front seats and heated windscreen £225
Engine and transmission: 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 123bhp, 125lb.ft (see text)
Fuel consumption and CO2: 65.7mpg (EU combined), 37.6mpg (real world), 98g/km
Car tax: £120 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 18 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (87/84/64/60), 2017