It might not look much on paper, but the first Ford Fiesta Zetec S is an enormously popular warm hatch that offers plenty more than its stats might suggest. Buying one today is a sound move, particularly for anyone who fancies something fun and insurance-friendly, or who's seeking a <smart-looking hatch on a limited budget.
What do I need to know?
During the ’90s, hot hatches became deeply unpopular. Increasing numbers of thefts and frequent accidents resulted in soaring insurance premiums, while early hot hatches, now available obscenely cheaply, were falling into the hands of reckless boy racers who tarnished their image. Nobody wanted to pay a fortune to insure a car that’d make them look like a yob, and for a time, it looked like the era of the hot hatch was at an end.
Not least for Ford. Weak security had left its RS- and XR-badged models prone to being stolen and joyridden, and with Ford’s lairy image now distinctly passé in the late ’90s, the company, like many others, made a gradual but definite move away from overtly sporting hot hatches to more lukewarm models.
As a part of this shift, the Fiesta range went from featuring three sporting models in 1990 to just one in 1995 – the significantly toned-down RS1800. A year later, when the Mk4 came along, a sporting model was no longer a part of the Fiesta range – the first time this had happened since the Mk1 Supersport of 1980.
It was, therefore, a fallow time for lovers of fast Fiestas – but all was not lost. In 1999, the Mk4 received a heavy facelift to become the Mk5 – and a new sporty model was released. Called the Zetec S, it was shod with an aggressive bodykit and smart, multi-spoke alloy wheels, and was available in Imperial Blue, a colour that had previously been made famous by the Escort Cosworth and unavailable since. This, in other words, was the first fast Ford to be unequivocal about its intent for many years.
But there were some doubts about the Zetec S’s ability to cash the cheques that its looks had written. Its 1.6-litre Zetec SE powerplant – or Sigma, as it’s also known – kicked out just 101bhp, not a patch on the class-leading Renault Clio 172, or even the 120bhp of the smaller, lighter Peugeot 106 GTi that was nearing the end of its life. The result was a leisurely 9.9-second 0-60 time, making the Zetec S a very definite entry into the ‘warm hatch’ camp.
And yet, its figures didn’t tell the whole story, because although the Zetec SE engine didn’t develop an awful lot of peak power, the way it delivered that power made it stonking good fun to drive. Ample torque right the way through the rev range led up to a bubbly, rev-happy crescendo that urged the driver to grab the next gear, plant the throttle, and stretch the engine right out to the red line once again. But it was the Zetec S’s chassis that was the real star; supple, lithe and responsive, it rode the bumps well but also felt alive and agile in a way that no Fiestas before had done.
That handing won the Zetec S many fans, and as a result, there are still plenty around, meaning prices are at the bottom end of the market these days. What’s more, that low power output has a big advantage in the form of reasonable insurance premiums, making the Zetec S a favourite with many a young driver.
What do I need to look out for?
Generally speaking, Fords aren’t the most reliable cars in the world, but neither are they the least reliable, either. What they do have on their side, though, is that they’re easy to mend, and easy to find parts for – and both of those facts make them cheap to maintain. The Fiesta Zetec S is no different, although there are a few common problem areas you’ll need to keep an eye out for.
First up, and most serious, is the bottom end. The Zetec SE is extremely reliant on the correct amount and sort of oil being used, and if that doesn’t happen, it responds in a pretty catastrophic way: big end bearing failure. This happens when the bearings between the crank and the pistons seize due to lack of lubrication, and it’s essentially a terminal fault. An engine rebuild – or most likely, a replacement – is the only repair option. So make sure you listen hard for any ominous bottom end knocks, and make sure you quiz the previous owner on the type of oil the car’s had and how regularly it’s been serviced. ‘Phase 2’ cars, which were introduced in 2001, had stronger bottom ends and were more resistant to this phenomenon, so these are the ones to aim for. Look for a black plastic cam cover; ‘Phase 1’ cars had a silver metal item.
Rust is the second most common problem to strike the Zetec S; sills, floopans, rear arches and battery trays are all problem points, though remember to check thoroughly throughout. Other common faults include sticking heater control valves, which aren’t too costly to sort out but can help you to haggle; coil packs, which are a little pricier to fix and result in misfires and poor running; and worn steering wheels, which discolour after only a small amount of time and require re-dying to sort.
How much should I pay?
Prices for the Mk5 Zetec S are on the floor at the moment, and there are plenty still around, so don’t pay over the odds. There are lots of modified examples around, but a standard car will always fetch more money and is less likely to have been subjected to a lifetime of abuse. At the bottom end of the scale, a respectable, tidy Phase 1 car with average mileage like this one can be yours for as little as £600. If you’ve a little more money to spend, though, £1,000 will get you a solid Phase 2 car, again with average mileage and plenty of history, while even a low-mileage Phase 2 with service history shouldn’t set you back more than around £1,500. Pay up to £2,000 only for the absolute best of the best – for this sort of money you need be looking for a faultless, immaculate example with seriously low mileage and full service history.
What can I do with it?
One of the Zetec S’s biggest appeals is its modifiability. The standard car might be down on power, but that can easily be solved with the transplant of a 1.7-litre engine from the Ford Puma. Other avenues, such as throttle bodies, uprated camshafts, new engine management systems and even turbocharger kits are also available.
There’s also a thriving community of owners and enthusiasts in the shape of the Zetec S Owners’ Club, a huge online community with regional groups and events as well as attendance at most national Ford shows.
Whatever you choose to do with your Zetec S, you can be assured that it'll provide huge thrills for a teeny, tiny cost - and as a way to get into a slick, entertaining and good-looking little hatch on a budget, it's a hard proposition to beat.