A cloying autumnal mist hangs over Exmoor as we muster, early doors, for the start of our two-day Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car contest.
The murky conditions, a brisk wind that cuts through to the bone and a shortage of vendors of piping-hot tea should sap enthusiasm, but in fact the opposite is true. You see, not only are these moorland roads epically good, but we’re also going to be driving them in a quartet of cars that prove you don’t need a bank account under the name of Bezos to access a billion-dollar experience behind the wheel.
Speaking of which, you’ll notice we’ve gone for an all hot hatch line-up this year. Well, sort of, because delve a little deeper and you’ll discover that each one stretches this decades-old descriptor in wildly different directions. Crucially, what they do have in common is uncommonly good value. All have prices that come in under £40,000 and a juicy PCP deal could mean paying not much more than £200 a month for the privilege of parking at least one of our contestants on your drive.
First up is the Volkswagen Golf GTI, a 45-year-old legend that originally popularised the pocket rocket phenomenon and is now in its eighth generation. Then there’s a pair of returning but revised champs: the Ford Fiesta ST and Honda Civic Type R. One has been treated to some tasty tuning tricks, the other fettled with the addition of some gumball tyres and a stripped-out, circuit star vibe. Completing our quartet is the Toyota GR Yaris, a car that in size, fourwheel-drive layout and WRC-infused DNA could have fallen through a wormhole from an early-1990s group test with a Subaru Impreza Turbo and Ford Escort RS Cosworth.
So where to start? Well, the Fiesta is the most affordable here, especially in the form tested, which gets the Mountune treatment for its turbocharged 1.5-litre triple, plus upgraded brakes and some cosmetic changes, but not the Essex firm’s choice suspension upgrades. And that’s as it should be, because there was always a sense that the Fiesta ST’s deeply capable chassis could handle more grunt, which is exactly what it gets here. The £890 engine upgrade delivers 232bhp and a punchy 258lb ft.
It’s those engine mods that dominate initially (well, that and the relentlessly firm low-speed ride). A bespoke twin-exit exhaust gives it a deeper and gurglier backbeat, but the thumping mid-range is what really grabs your attention. The Ford accelerates with such muscular elasticity from about 2000rpm that it’s easy to keep the ST snapping at the heels of its more powerful rivals.
There’s a puppyish enthusiasm to the way the Ford goes about its business, rushing for the apex like a hyperactive terrier on the scent, playfully lifting an inside rear wheel as cornering loads grow. It’s laugh-out-loud fun from start to finish. And few front-wheel-drive cars are as throttle adjustable. The Fiesta allows you to tighten or widen your line at will – although buyer beware, because even in its most sensible setting, the ESP gives you more angle of dangle than you’d imagine.
Yes, the ride is unyielding at low speed and some of Exmoor’s more testing stretches result in the odd hop, skip and jump, while the powerful brake upgrade lacks the progression of the standard stoppers. But the basic Fiesta’s package remains as compelling as ever. “I like it a lot,” says editor-at-large Matt Prior. “It’s a fun factory. And actually very capable while it’s at it.” Exactly.