I probably spend too much time moaning about inline-three engines. Actually, scratch that, I definitely do. I even wrote a whole article complaining that these engines - which aren’t as eager and revvy as their inline-four counterparts thanks to the crank working against a balancing shaft - are ruining the fun of underpowered cars. But what about performance cars? Can a quick car work with a cylinder count as modest as this?
Both VW and Ford seem to think it’s possible. VW this year launched the Up GTI with its teeny-tiny 1.0-litre, and a few months later, Ford followed suit with the 1.5-litre Fiesta ST. They may be from different segments, but regardless, we couldn’t resist bringing these two together to see how three-pot engines have worked out for them.
Let’s kick off with the Fiesta since it’s the one we haven’t driven in the UK before now. At the launch in Spain it was astonishing, but over here it’s…much the same story, actually. The front end is extraordinary - turn in is super sharp and there’s a seemingly endless amount of traction on the way out of every corner thanks in part to the (optionally-fitted and highly recommended) Quaife differential, which is very rarely grabby like a Torsen or Drexler can sometimes be.
What’s happening at the rear axle is even more impressive. More than any other front-wheel drive car I’ve ever driven, you can feel what’s going on back there. It tripods constantly, and if you lift off at the right moment, the car starts to rotate beautifully. I’d love to take one of these on track and really start to play around with this tail-happy nature.
Pleasingly, the surprisingly heavy steering delivers genuine feedback. It’s extremely aggressive off-centre, but it doesn’t take long to get to grips with that. In any case, this fits the attitude of the car - it’s an angry thing, while also being up for some fun. It’s the car equivalent of Patrick Bateman.
The only thing new I’m learning here is the low-speed ride - over in Britain with our cratered roads and speedbump infestation - it’s extremely choppy. It’s just as bouncy as the old one, if not more so.
Importantly, that inline-three doesn’t dampen the experience. If anything, it enhances it. The 1.6-litre four-pot in the old one was never a remarkable unit, and was part of the equation you tended to not think about, so distracting was that marvellous chassis. But this 1.5 makes a throaty little racket out of its twin tailpipes, as though it’s doing its best Porsche impression. It’s a wicked noise.
It seems far punchier in the mid-range than the engine it replaces too, which is probably why I don’t mind that the ideal upshift point is a not exactly zingy 5500rpm. It’s also the most responsive three-pot I’ve ever experienced - it doesn’t have that lethargic, reluctant feeling as you rev it up.
All this is cause for concern, though. Isn’t the Up GTI - which is in fact ‘our’ Up GTI longtermer - going to feel a trifle meh after stepping out of Ford’s slice of hot hatch perfection? That’s what I’ve been expecting, but after eagerly ploughing through the first corner this plucky little hatchback serves up a pleasant surprise.
Yes, it leans a lot more and I’m able to make in understeer immediately - where the ST’s front end just refuses to budge - but that’s the fun. The point at which you’re on the ragged edge is much lower, and yet the GTI is still capable enough to dispatch a wiggly bit of road at a decent rate. Just don’t expect wonders from the steering - it’s fast but devoid of any feel.
The Up is an exercise in giving you just enough. Just enough grip. Just enough poke. Just enough suspension stiffness. Turning any of those aspects up any further would be beside the point - as it is, the car hits a real sweet spot that isn’t really being exploited by anyone else right now.
As for the engine, it doesn’t - as I previously thought it might - feel gutless after sampling the ST’s mighty 1.5. With 113bhp and 147lb ft of torque it trails the Ford’s 197bhp and 214lb ft, but it still feels nicely brisk.
It’s just a shame the over-zealous traction control system doesn’t even have a partially off mode. The Up has just enough power to spin up the wheels after you shift into second, at which point the electronics dramatically cut the power, frustrating your progress. And unlike the Ford engine, the Up’s doesn’t offer up a particularly exciting din. It’s more of a bored drone, really.
Unlike when I’m in the Ford, when I drive the Up, I’m left wondering what it might be like with an extra cylinder and a little more displacement. Perhaps a lack of turbo too. The Lupo GTI had a revvy 1.6-litre N/A engine, and you can’t help but wonder what the hotter Up would be like with a similar arrangement.
Ultimately you can forgive the VW for its less-than-inspiring engine - it’s hard to imagine anything else fitting in that dinky engine bay without a massive R&D bill. It was always going to be a three-pot car, this.
For Ford though, it feels like the company took quite a risk with downsizing the ST. I can’t imagine an inline-four would have been too hard to fit, and all of its main competitors are still on four-bangers. It’s a risk that’s paid off, though, with that new engine becoming a key part of what makes this car so exciting to drive.
Perhaps, then, it’s time I relaxed my stance. Three-pots: they’re not so bad, after all…