Ford’s most successful compact car, the Fiesta, was originally launched in 1976 and has sold in excess of 16-million units around the world. It is still one of the bestselling nameplates in the UK.

Now the sixth generation of the nomenclature has made its debut in SA, although it has taken quite some time to arrive locally and it debuts without any plans for the Active crossover version or the more luxurious Vignale derivative.

From a design perspective, the new model has evolved but still features the distinctive grille, while the headlights take on a more horizontal and less swept-back design. Viewed from the rear the tail lights are more horizontal in design, which gives it a more generic look compared to the edgier forbear.

It is 71mm longer and 13mm wider than its predecessor, while the front track has increased by 30mm and the rear by 10mm. The wheelbase is 4mm longer, which has contributed to a 16mm increase in knee room for the rear passengers, an area where the previous model was compromised. Boot space measures 303l (984l with rear seats folded).

Slip into the driver’s seat and you are greeted by a simple, sparse even, cabin layout dominated by a floating infotainment screen (6.5-inch on Trend models and eight-inch on Titanium variants) and a three-spoke steering wheel that is ergonomically well thought out with decent adjustability and I quite like its thick padding in the Titanium models.

There are a few areas where the model has not quite upped the ante. These include the plastics used on the door and dash, which are below par of the Volkswagen Polo and the instrument cluster still has elements of the outgoing car such as identical fuel and temperature gauges.

Inside the layout is simpler with a floating touchscreen. Picture: QUICKPIC
Inside the layout is simpler with a floating touchscreen. Picture: QUICKPIC

These might seem trivial, but for a vehicle that has been in a longer gestation period than its rivals, I was expecting a more premium and modern finish.

Those anomalies aside, the Fiesta has a great deal going for it, the main drawcard being it is still the most fun-to-drive vehicle in its segment by quite a margin, but more on that later.

The model line-up comprises the entry Trend model with either a slick-shifting six-speed manual or automatic gearbox, paired to the familiar 1.0l, three-pot Ecoboost engine making 74kW and 140Nm.

Then there are the flagship Titanium specified models: the conventional six-speed automatic transmission making 74kW and 170Nm, while the six-speed manual version gets the full quota of 92kW and 170Nm. For diesel fans, there is a 1.5l TDCI Trend model with 63kW and 175Nm mated to a six-speed manual gearbox.

The launch took place in Gauteng and we drove to Sun City in the North West. I first commissioned the Trend automatic variant, which displayed a fairly smooth engine and equally buttery transmission, a far cry from the previous model’s horrendous Powershift gearbox.

The Sync 3 infotainment system works well. Inside the layout is simpler with a floating touchscreen. Picture: QUICKPIC
The Sync 3 infotainment system works well. Inside the layout is simpler with a floating touchscreen. Picture: QUICKPIC

The engine had a flexible disposition, while the transmission ensured constant power delivery right through the rev range. Unfortunately, there was no Titanium 1.0l Ecoboost manual to sample at launch to ascertain whether it warranted a higher premium over its lesser-powered Ecoboost siblings.

Nonetheless, the 1.5l TDCI Trend manual I drove the following day seems the more pleasing vehicle to drive, thanks in part to the six-speed manual and the 175Nm of torque on offer, which render the vehicle effortless to drive and decidedly more fun.

That brings me to that driving aspect. The previous Fiesta was such a keen vehicle to be driven with gusto and the latest model is no different. In fact, it ratchets things up a few notches.

The damping is supple for the most part, yet the vehicle enjoys playing corner tugging when hurled into bends, something that is perhaps not inherent in this segment save for the performance variants.

Best handling

Without fear of being misquoted, the new Fiesta is unequivocally the best handling vehicle in its segment and conveys a message to the driver that the ST (just launched internationally) is likely to be even more sublime in this regard.

"A fun-driving experience is central to the Fiesta’s appeal, and our all-new Fiesta remains true to the character that has delighted generations of drivers, with the sharpest, sportiest and most balanced performance yet," says Ford SA marketing manager Tracy Delate and I have no reason to contest that sentiment.

Priced from R261,900 for the 1.0l Trend manual and rising to R310,000 for the 1.0l Titanium automatic, the model manages to undercut the Polo by about R20,000 depending on model derivative, making the Fiesta excellent value for money.

However, the Polo does have better premium finishes than the Fiesta and I would still vote for the German offering, which has raised the bar even higher for compact hatches.