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Ford Fiesta 1100L
Surprisingly, the Fiesta was the slowest of our three cars but as there was a slight misfire at times we feel it was down on its normal performance. Even so, a 0-60mph figure of 18.8 seconds is not disgraceful and it will more than hold its own on the road.
The engine is relatively quiet for an 1100 except when cruising at 70mph and then it does become a trifle raucous. The engine is very smooth at all times and is surprisingly flexible, allowing the car to pull away smoothly from 20mph in top.
Gearchange and clutch
Front wheel drive transmissions are not always easy to use but the Fiesta's is indistinguishable from a rear wheel drive car. Gearchange is light and positive and the synchromesh is unbeatable. The change pattern is the normal H-layout with reverse reached by pressing the lever down and moving it to the left and forward. Early Fiesta's had a very sharp, jerky clutch engagement but this has now been cured.
The mixed disc/drum braking system with diagonally split circuits works very well, although our test car suffered from a slightly spongy pedal. In fact, with 60% of weight over the front wheels the Fiesta might well be a bit skittish under braking, but in reality it pulls up all-square with little nose dip.
Most drivers would barely be aware that the Fiesta has front wheel drive. There is little or no tug from the wheel under hard acceleration and the rack and pinion steering, geared 31/3 turns lock to lock is light and accurate. Self centering action is not brilliant but the car goes where it is pointed and only at high cornering speeds does typical front wheel drive understeer become noticeable. Lifting off the throttle quickly brings the car back into line, but the Michelin ZX tyres can lose their grip at the front on wet roads if the car is cornered hard. The reason for this is hard to fathom as the same tyres work very well on the Polo and the front-to-rear weight ratio is not much different. However, on dry roads the Fiesta is exceptionally safe and only hard driving shows up any tendency to lose grip.
Opel Kadett LS
With its 1.3-litre 60bhp engine the Kadett is just about the fastest of the group in terms of top speed and acceleration to 70mph, although the lighter Polo with the same power almost matches it. For a brand new design the engine is very smooth and torquey, pulling really well at all speeds. It starts well and warms up very quickly in cold weather. The engine does suffer from a vibration period which gives the impression that it is revving harder than it actually is. Several times we went to change into top and found it was already there! Certainly we feel the 1300 Kadett could easily pull a higher final drive ratio.
Gearchange and clutch
For a first time effort at a front wheel drive car, Opel have done well with the gearbox. The lever requires firm pressure and there is some notchiness in the action, accompanied by slight baulking of the gears. However, our test car had done a fairly low mileage and might well free off in time. There is no sign that the synchromesh might be beaten and the clutch is both light and progressive. The gearchange pattern is the normal H-layout with reverse being engaged by lifting a sleeve around the gear lever and pushing it to the left and alongside first.
The servo assisted disc/drum braking layout with diagonally split layout is perfectly attuned to the Kadett and pulls up the car repeatedly from high speed without judder or pulling to either side. This is certainly the best braking layout of the three cars in the group.
The Kadett corners very well with very little roll and only slight traces of the usual front wheel drive understeer. The steering is light when on the move, having 4 turns lock to lock, but the turning circle is rather poor for a small car and the steering is slightly heavy when parking. There are virtually no road shocks transmitted through the steering, but there is some slight instability in cross winds. On the whole the Kadett's mixture of ride, handling and comfort is outstanding, just beating its two rivals in this test.
Volkswagen Polo GLS
Although it has the smallest engine of this group the Polo is as fast as the bigger engined Kadett up to 60mph, mainly because it is lighter and smaller. It certainly makes up for its 400cc deficit by zipping smoothly through the gears way beyond its power peak. The turbine-like smoothness of the Polo unit is its great asset and it feels very refined until speed rises over 70mph, then it becomes rather noisy.
With a top speed of 87mph the Polo is faster than the Fiesta but it is still a flexible unit, pulling happily from 20mph.
Gearchange and clutch
The gearbox complements the sweet little engine because it has short movements and gives a very quick gearchange. The clutch is light and positive and there is very little of the transmission whine which can be a problem on front wheel drive cars. The gearchange is in the normal H-pattern with reverse to the left of first and forward.
The Polo has front discs and rear drums but for some reason VW choose not to fit a servo to the Polo. The result is a rather spongy feel to the pedal along with excessive travel. This gives a distinct feeling of unease when stopping from high speed, but in fact the car does brake very well, pulling up dead square at all times. In this day and age we feel that a servo is essential on a car with disc brakes. It gives better braking and instills more confidence in the driver.
The outstanding feature of the Polo is its steering and cornering. It's sheer delight to drive fast in the Polo because it goes round bends as if it as pasted to the road. The steering is light, well geared, and the handling is neutral until near the cornering limit when typical front wheel drive understeer sets in. But all that the driver needs to do if the car begins to run wide is to lift his foot from the throttle and it snaps back into line. The tyres grip incredibly well and the Polo is undoubtedly the safest of the three cars to drive. Mid corner bumps do not upset the car and it is not bothered by side winds. It just goes where it is steered.