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
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.
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