Remember 2008? The financial crisis was in full swing, Barack Obama was elected US president and Usain Bolt cleaned up at the Beijing Olympics.
It was also the last time that the Ford Fiesta wasn’t number one in the sales charts. Ford’s small hatchback has positively smashed its rivals ever since, finding its way onto more than a million driveways.
Few would bet against this new version continuing that remarkable run, but success in the sales charts doesn’t guarantee victory in a What Car? group test.
This isn’t a popularity contest; it’s about being the best car on a purely objective level, which is going to be incredibly tough for the Fiesta, given the strength of the competition.
Its main hurdle would appear to be the Skoda Fabia. Our current favourite small car and a former What Car? Car of the Year, it has seen off countless challengers since its launch in 2014 and remains staggeringly good value for money – even in the range-topping Monte Carlo form we have here.
A new 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine (replacing the old 1.2) promises better performance and lower running bills, so the Fabia should be stronger than ever. It’s a daunting opponent.
That match-up would be headline-grabbing enough on its own, but throw the all-new Seat Ibiza into the mix and it’s clear that this is the biggest small car battle in a decade.
The Ibiza is built on a brand new platform that will also underpin the next Volkswagen Polo, so it’s not to be taken lightly. And although the Ibiza has a slightly higher list price than its rivals here, a quick look at its list of standard luxuries explains why.
*** Note : £1 = $1.30
What are they like to drive?
The previous Fiesta was an absolute joy to drive; even at the end of its life it was easily the best-handling car in the class. Has Ford dropped the ball with this new version? Absolutely not.
This is still the most agile small car you can buy, gripping harder than any rival through twists and turns and staying flatter while doing so. The thing is, though, whereas the previous Fiesta stood head and shoulders above its peers, the new Fiesta’s dynamic advantage is surprisingly small.
Yep, the new Ibiza comes jolly close to matching it, with the sort of grown-up and competent driving manners you’d usually expect to find in a car from the class above (Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf and so on).
True, the Ibiza isn’t quite as nimble as the Fiesta, but it still holds the road remarkably well and keeps body lean neatly in check through the sort of faster corners that you encounter on a typical B-road. It even nips at the Fiesta’s heels for driving fun.
The Ibiza’s precise steering builds weight consistently when you aim the car where you want it to go, telling you everything you need to know about how well the front tyres are gripping.
When you’re in the mood, you’ll enjoy the Fiesta’s steering even more; it’s just as accurate as the Ibiza’s, but smaller inputs have a bigger impact on direction changes. However, the Fiesta’s steering is a little heavier than we’d like around town and when parking.
We haven’t forgotten that there’s a third car in this test, but the truth is the Fabia is somewhat forgettable to drive in this company. Turn in to a corner and you’ll immediately notice that it leans over more than its rivals, and while its featherlight steering is a bonus for town driving, it doesn’t instil as much confidence as its rivals’ on faster roads.
There’s nothing about the way the Fabia drives that really grates, though, and against most other cars in the class it actually stacks up very well. It’s much the same story when it comes to ride comfort.
The Fiesta and Ibiza trade blows, with the former staying slightly more composed over nasty, sharpedged bumps and potholes, while the latter smoothes over minor imperfections more skilfully and stays more composed on the motorway.
The Fabia has the softest suspension of our trio, something you’d imagine would give it the most comfortable ride. Only it doesn’t, because you can feel the tyres tripping up over bumps that the other two would breeze over, and the Fabia is also the least composed over dips and crests, taking longer to recompose itself.
There’s barely anything in it for outright performance – hardly surprising, given that all three cars weigh about the same and have similarly powerful 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol engines.
By a fraction, the Ibiza was quickest from 0-60mph and the Fiesta from 30-70mph in our tests, with the Fabia bringing up the rear on both occasions, but the differences aren’t big enough to even notice in the real world.
The Fiesta’s relatively short third and fourth gears make it the most eager to build speed at low speeds, though. The Fiesta also has the smoothest and quietest engine.
The differences are tiny when you’re driving sedately, but accelerate hard and you definitely feel and hear more of a buzz in the Fabia and Ibiza. Despite a fair amount of tyre slap, the Ibiza is the quietest at a steady motorway cruise. There’s less road roar in the Fiesta but lots of wind noise – a problem exacerbated by our test car’s optional panoramic glass roof.
The Fabia is the least peaceful at lower speeds; you can hear its suspension working away noisily along any road that isn’t perfectly smooth and there’s almost as much wind noise as in the Fiesta. You’ll appreciate the Ibiza’s slick gearchange and positive clutch pedal in all situations but particularly when you’re pootling around town; it’s an incredibly easy car to drive smoothly.
The Fiesta’s gearshift and clutch pedal are almost as impressive, and it has the sharpest and most feelsome brake pedal here. The Fabia’s gearshift is superlight, but it’s the least precise and the brake pedal is slightly less reassuring than its rivals.
What are they like inside?
Behind the wheel
If you like a low-slung driving position, the Ibiza will definitely suit you best. You sit much higher in the Fabia and Fiesta, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it won’t appeal to all tastes.
We have no major qualms with the driver’s seats in any of our contenders, though. The Fiesta’s hold you in place most securely through corners and it’s the only car here with adjustable lumbar support. And while the Ibiza’s seat could do with chunkier side bolsters to stop you sliding around when cornering, it does have the most under-thigh support. The Fabia’s driver’s seat is worst for lower back support, although it still provides just enough to prevent backache on longer journeys.
The relatively boxy Fabia gives you the best view out in all directions but particularly when you’re looking back over your shoulders, thanks to lots of glass and slim rear pillars. Although it’s by no means terrible, the Fiesta is worst for all-round visibility, yet curiously it’s the only one of our trio that doesn’t have any standard parking aids.
The Fabia comes with reversing sensors as standard, while the Ibiza adds front parking sensors and even a rear-view camera to make backing into spaces that bit easier. Good-sized, clearly labelled buttons and dials are the order of the day in each of these cars, so you won’t be left scratching your head when you need to adjust the air conditioning or switch on the headlights. That said, the Fiesta’s steering wheel-mounted cruise control switches are a bit fiddly.
There isn’t a great deal between our contenders for interior quality. The bits you touch regularly – the steering wheel, gearknob and indicator stalks – feel plushest in the Fiesta, and it’s the only car here with some (vaguely) soft-touch plastics on its dashboard. However, the Ibiza’s interior is actually more consistently high in quality, with fewer flimsy plastics on show and a more solid-feeling construction.
It’s also important to note that the Ibiza in our pictures is a relatively lowly SE model; Xcellence trim gets a classier gloss black dashboard face and partleather, part-Alcantara seats. Despite its budget price tag, the Fabia doesn’t feel at all cheap inside. In fact, it’s just as well screwed together as the Ibiza, although the shiny texture of its dashboard and the lightweight air conditioning controls do make it feel the least upmarket.
Space and practicality
These are small cars in the grand scheme of things, but you might be surprised by how much you can squeeze into them. And equally surprising, given Seat’s history of prioritising chiselled looks over practicality, is that the Ibiza is the roomiest by quite some margin.
True, you won’t have a problem fitting in the front seats of any of our contenders unless you’re extraordinarily tall, but the Ibiza’s extra leg and head room, along with its wider interior, make you feel less hemmed in – almost like you’re in a car from the class above. Opt for a panoramic roof (£600) in the Fiesta and front head room shrinks considerably, but without this it’s roughly on a par with the Fabia.
The Ibiza becomes even more compelling if you need to regularly put people in the back. A six-footer will enjoy a gap of several inches between their knees and the back of the seat in front of them, whereas the same person would have to sit bolt upright in the Fabia and Fiesta or put up with their knees wedged against the front seatback.
However, it’s worth noting that in non-Monte Carlo form, the Fabia gets different seats and would comfortably beat the Fiesta for rear leg room. The Ibiza provides the most rear head room, too, followed by the Fabia and then the Fiesta. However, even with its standard panoramic glass roof, the Fabia has enough head space to accommodate tall adults, whereas we’d advise against adding this feature if you’re buying the Fiesta; it reduces head room considerably, to the point that six-footers will have to cower.
Infotainment was always one of the previous Fiesta’s biggest flaws. Not any more: the 8.0in touchscreen is bright and relatively simple to use, although it isn’t as intuitive or quick to respond as the Ibiza’s. It’s also a pity there are no phyical shortbut buttons to make it easier to hop between functions. The upgraded Bang & Olufsen sound system is seriously punchy and well worth considering if you love music. The Fiesta is also the only car here available with a CD player.
The Ibiza’s glass-fronted 8.0in touchscreen is crystal clear and responds without delay when you prod it. The menus are also logical and easy to navigate, and you can shortcut straight from one feature to another by using touch-sensitive shortcut buttons that flank the screen. We also like the fact that the screen is angled towards the driver. Our only complaint? It’s a touchscreen, which means you inevitably have to take your eyes off the road to make sure you accurately hit the icons.
There’s nothing wrong with the Fabia’s infotainment system; it’s actually one of the better offerings in the class. However, in this company the screen is quite small, and the fact that you have to fork out extra for sat-nav is galling. We wouldn’t bother, because the Smartlink system lets you use your phone to run a basic sat-nav app through the car’s screen. The stereo’s sound quality is acceptable rather than great, and you can’t upgrade it like you can with the Ibiza and Fiesta.
The Ibiza has the longest, widest and ultimately biggest load bay. However, the Fabia isn’t far behind, and both cars comfortably swallowed five carry-on suitcases without us needing to fold down rear seats or remove parcel shelves. The Fiesta, meanwhile, could only accommodate four cases, mainly because its boot is several centimetres shorter than its rivals’.
Need to carry more? All come with 60/40 split-folding rear seats as standard, which you drop by pressing buttons next to the rear headrests and pulling the seatback forward. Do this and you’ll be left with an annoying step in the floor of all three extended load bays, although the Fiesta and Ibiza are available with false boot floors to iron this out and also reduce the similarly big drops at their boot entrances.
Need a big boot? The Fiesta probably isn’t for you. Don’t get us wrong: you won’t struggle with the weekly shop, but airport runs might be an issue.
Boot 292-1093 litres Suitcases 4
The biggest and most usable boot here, albeit by a small margin over the Fabia. A £160 storage pack includes a false boot floor and boot nets.
Boot 355-1540 litres Suitcases 5
The Fabia has the narrowest boot, but it makes up for that with length and height. It has the widest opening of all our contenders, too.
Boot 330-1150 litres Suitcases 5
What will they cost?
Value for money has always been one of the Fabia’s strongest suits, and the new 1.0-litre engine hasn’t spoiled that. The Fabia is easily the cheapest of our trio, no matter whether you look at brochure price or Target Price (the latter being what you can expect to pay if you’re prepared to haggle).
The Ibiza is the most expensive to begin with, but relatively healthy discounts mean it’ll actually be nearly £500 cheaper than the Fiesta after bartering. The Fiesta remains the most expensive option when you factor in running costs, assuming you buy outright and sell after three years. That’s partly because it’s predicted to lose you the most in depreciation, but also because of its comparatively high servicing bills.
Meanwhile, the Fabia is cheapest to own in the long run, losing the least in depreciation and being the cheapest to insure and service.
This hierarchy remains if you’re buying on PCP finance, something the vast majority of small car buyers opt to do. Choose the Fabia and, over a three-year term, your repayments will be around £50 a month cheaper than they would on the Ibiza, whereas the Fiesta is the priciest option by around a tenner a month.
Mind you, it’s the other way around if you’re a company car driver: the Fiesta, by a fraction over the Fabia, will net you the lowest benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax bills, whereas the Ibiza is the most expensive option for businesspeople by around £13 per month (all assuming you’re in the 40% tax bracket).
However, consider what you get for your money and the Ibiza looks a steal, however you slice it. That’s because, in range-topping Xcellence trim, it comes with a list of creature comforts that puts some luxury cars to shame. The Fiesta isn’t poorly equipped by any means, but you’d need to spend around £1200 on options just to match the Ibiza’s standard spec.
That figure rises to more than £1500 with the Fabia, and you’d still have to do without power-folding door mirrors, which aren’t even available as an option. Mind you, the Fabia is the only one that has a panoramic glass roof as standard, and it also offers a choice of two free paint colours (red and white), whereas you’ll need to pay extra if you want your Fiesta in anything other than bright red or your Ibiza in something other than dark blue (pictured).
As you’d expect, each of our protagonists comes with automatic emergency braking (AEB) as standard. The Fiesta’s system can even be upgraded to detect pedestrians (for £200, which also brings adaptive cruise control), while blind spot monitoring is also on the options list.
These options aren’t offered on the Fabia or Ibiza, although at the time of writing only the Fabia had been properly appraised for crash safety by Euro NCAP. It was awarded five stars (out of five) overall with an above average score by class standards for child protection, although whiplash protection for adults sitting in the back seats was rated as poor.
The agonising thing for Ford will be that this new Fiesta has overcome every rival that existed when it was conceived. It’s great to drive, its interior and infotainment have taken big steps (they needed to) and it’s reasonable value for money, especially as a company car. Ford simply couldn’t have foreseen the quantum leap Seat would make at the same time.
Make no mistake, then: the new Ibiza is a brilliant small car that genuinely has no real weakness, being superb to drive and, apart from the MPV-shaped Honda Jazz, easily the most practical car in the class. That it’s cheaper than the Fiesta to privately own or buy on PCP, despite coming with much more kit, is merely a bonus. So, the Fabia slips from first to third in the small car rankings – although that’s hardly shameful in a class of nearly 30 models. We’d go for SE or SE L trim, although even in this top-end Monte Carlo spec the Fabia is keenly priced and a fine all-rounder.
1st – Seat Ibiza
- For : Grown-up driving manners; great driving position; roomiest in the back; biggest boot; loads of standard kit; best infotainment
- Against : A bit too much road noise; limited optional safety kit
- Must-have options : Storage pack (£160)
Specifications: Seat Ibiza 1.0 TSI 95 Xcellence
- Engine size 1.0-litre petrol
- List price £17,310
- Target Price £15,810
- Power 94bhp @ 5000-5500rpm
- Torque 129Ib ft @ 1500-3500rpm
- 0-60mph 9.9sec
- Top speed 113mph
- Gov’t fuel economy 60.1mpg
- CO2 emissions 106g/km
2nd – Ford Fiesta
- For : Wonderful to drive; cheapest company car; lots of advanced safety kit on options list; six-speed ’box
- Against : Priciest on PCP; most cramped in the back; smallest boot; no rear parking sensors
- Must-have options : Adjustable boot load floor (£75)
Specifications: Ford Fiesta 1.0 Ecoboost 100 Titanium 5dr
- Engine size 1.0-litre engine
- List price £16,795
- Target Price £16,297
- Power 99bhp @ 6000rpm
- Torque 125Ib ft @ 1400-4000rpm
- 0-60mph 10.0sec
- Top speed 113mph
- Gov’t fuel economy 65.7mpg
- CO2 emissions 97g/km
3rd – Skoda Fabia
- For : Cheapest to buy and own privately; lowest PCP repayments; decent boot
- Against : Unsettled low-speed ride; suspension noise; worst equipped
- Must-have options : Auto lights and wipers (£200); third rear headrest (£50)
Specifications: Skoda Fabia 1.0 TSI 95 Monte Carlo
- Engine size 1.0-litre petrol
- List price £16,100
- Target Price £14,913
- Power 94bhp @ 5000-5500pm
- Torque 118Ib ft @ 1500-3500rpm
- 0-60mph 10.1sec
- Top speed 115mph
- Gov’t fuel economy 64.2mpg
- CO2 emissions 101g/km