Currently reading: Affordable fun special - Ford Fiesta ST3 Mountune versus VW Golf R
It's the battle of the hot hatchbacks as one of our favourites from the field, the 212bhp Ford Fiesta ST, faces off against the 296bhp Volkswagen Golf R

On the face of it, the Ford Fiesta ST and Volkswagen Golf R seem a strange pair to throw into the ring together.

Would anyone with the necessary £31k for a near-300bhp, four-wheel-drive mega-Golf really be likely to settle for a front-driven Ford Fiesta ST – even if it did come for two-thirds of the VW’s price? Or what about Mr Fiesta? Could he really find the extra £11,000 and manage the higher running costs of the Golf – even if we urged him to? In the latter case, perhaps not - but the former isn’t the craziest suggestion we’ve ever heard.

That is, of course, because the Fiesta ST is brilliant to drive. It enters this particular fray as defending affordable fun champ, having done enough 12 months ago to see off the challenge of a Caterham Supersport, a BBR-tuned Mazda MX5 and other rivals hailing from nearer the new Golf R’s price point than its own. It’s got pedigree, then.

And it’s appearing here in enhanced form – with the niceties that the new ‘ST3’ trim brings and the extra power and pace delivered by official tuner Mountune’s engine makeover.

Even so, upstaging a 296bhp VW Golf R should surely be too much to expect of a 212bhp Ford Fiesta. There are almost two clear seconds between their 0-62mph stats (4.9sec vs 6.6sec) and a world of difference between them on desirability. When classy German technical sophistication comes up against indefatigable blue-collar get-up-and-go, there is usually only one winner. But not in this case.

Drive them back to back out on the road, though, and you may at first be very glad you spent your £31,315 on the roomy, comfy, expertly constructed and DSG-dual-clutch automatic gearbox-equipped Volkswagen.

In simple, tangible terms, the Golf R offers much more than the Ford. It’s seriously fast anywhere and everywhere, relative to a Ford whose performance begins to feel a bit less generous on the motorway. On an open B-road, you could drive the Golf away from the Fiesta without trying too hard; chuck in enough corners and the Ford could live with the Volkswagen’s pace, but only for a while.

Key to the Golf’s pace is its unconditional grip and stability. This is probably the most usable hot hatchback of them all. The car’s gearbox is quick to kick down and always ready with plenty of torque, and its four-wheel drive system never fails to put every morsel down onto the road.

Read the full Ford Fiesta ST review

Picking up big speed and carrying it from point to point is superbly easy, thanks to a chassis tuned with enough compliance for it not to jolt you out of your seat or trouble your concentration when the surface turns nasty. The car handles keenly enough, but isn’t so pointy that it’s ever directionally hyperactive or misbehaved. Bump steer, torque steer and tramlining all are familiar dynamic foibles in most powerful hatchbacks. Not so in a Golf R.

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Move to a track and the VW continues in the same vein, providing simplicity through invisible sophistication. It isn’t interested in loutish provocation or showing you how much power it can throw at its rear wheels by way of a long powerslide. Nor is it a machine to hustle into the apex on the ragged edge like an old-school Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.

Instead, it just encourages you to drive properly; to get your entry speed and track positioning right, to be smooth and well timed with pedals and wheel and to take full advantage of the car’s slight bias for stability and unflinching traction.

Where the Golf R flows from apex to exit with fluent, sure-footed ease, the Fiesta ST storms its way around corners with hilarious abandon. On a B-road the Ford can occasionally require more from you than the VW.

It’ll surprise you now and again by tugging at your fingertips through a cambered bend, or by darting through a change of direction a shade quicker than you were expecting. Its balance of grip is much more lively and playful than that of the Golf and its rear axle is quite easily cajoled into a few degrees of slip angle when unloaded – but instinctively brought back into line.

Read the full Volkswagen Golf R review

And to drive the ST on track is to instantly understand the full extent of its dynamic genius. Though direct, the Ford never feels nervous or poorly resolved. You can drive it like the Golf if you want to; grip levels are high, stability is good, and the ESP system unintrusive and reassuring. It’s no slouch, either – particularly over the last 1500rpm of the rev band, where Mountune’s engine mods make for great flexibility. 

Within three laps, you’ll be doing things in the Fiesta you simply couldn’t contemplate in the Golf – and while these things don’t necessarily make you quicker, they certainly paint a broader grin on your face. They’re the kinds of things hot hatchbacks used to do before wheel sizes and power outputs got out of control. Mid-corner lift-off oversteer is on demand through the slower corners while it delivers a perfectly predictable adjustability of attitude through the faster stuff.

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It’s made possible by excellent steering precision and by enough feel to know how much grip is left at the driving wheels all the time, by brilliantly juggled grip levels that allow you to chuck the car into a corner with amazing confidence, come what may, and by superbly habitable margins between grip and slip.

The Golf wants to go fast, and makes going fast easy; come rain or shine, it does both very well indeed. The Fiesta’s a fast car, but it isn’t so bothered about your prevailing speed so long as you’re enjoying yourself. The former is incredibly capable and effective, the latter trades a bit of stability and ease of use for riotous, scrabbling involvement and fun. And when push comes to shove, we’ll take ‘fun’ every time.

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bowsersheepdog 8 July 2014

any vw in fact

i wouldn't just take this golf over a ford, i'd take any. i have owned a few golfs and a polo in the past, and since then, unfortunately, a ridiculously unreliable mondeo which brought me into too frequent contact with the unhelpful-to-the-point-of-ignorance local main franchised dealer, before eventually the engine spat out it's oil and destroyed itself on the m6. the golf will still be a fabulous and desirable car giving pleasure and satisfaction to it's owner when half the fiesta has fallen off and the rest is a heap of failed parts and rust. about 18 months from now probably. over thirty years i've owned a fair number of cars from several makers but none gave such an awful ownership experience as that mondeo. once bitten i shall never buy a ford again.
Citytiger 7 July 2014

I will take

The Fiesta, because after discount the difference will be a lot more than £11k
Shrub 5 July 2014

Hmmmm, so...

Why would I buy the Fiesta?

1. It's cheaper to buy and run.
2. It may be more 'fun' in certain situations.

Why would I buy the Golf?

1. It is more refined.
2. It rides better.
3. It looks better (subjective I know and so no need to come back at me).
3. Far superior material quality.
4. Four wheel drive security/traction/stability.
5. It has a classless image.
6. It is more powerful and significantly faster.
7. It has much more interior space.
8. It is available with DSG (Yes, some DSG boxes have gone wrong but most don't so I'd take the risk).
9. It's safer (not just Euroncap but IIHS in America where the Fiesta fails the small overlap test but the Golf sails through).
10. More reliable/higher customer satisfaction rated manufacturer (according to the latest JD Power 2014 survey VW 5th, Ford 15th).

At the end of the day I would want to own the Golf whereas I might just want to have a drive in the Fiesta now and again.