You crest a rise, blink once, and the road disappears. Your stomach climbs up into your nasal cavity and starts holding your brain hostage. Momentarily freed of the burdens of logic, you plant your foot on the floor, grab fourth as the car lands, and feel the steering twitch as the front tires scrabble for grip. Before you can catch your breath, the pavement dances away again, plunging over a one-lane bridge and slinging you through six inches of standing water. This is a normal day in Wales. And the Ford Fiesta ST eats it up.
A lot of criticisms can be leveled at the Fiesta, but "lack of cheekiness" isn't one of them. Yes, the Ford is buzzy and rough on the freeway (4000 rpm is about 80 mph, and at that speed, the rear hatch emits an echoing boom like you wouldn't believe), and yes, it looks kind of dorky. (OK. Really dorky.) But throw it down a heaving country lane or pitch it into a roundabout without lifting, all four wheels adrift, and the Fiesta suddenly makes sense. It's like a puppy. You eventually realize that despite all the chewing on the furniture, the blasted thing just wants to play.
In a land of unpredictable pavement, the Fiesta works because all four of its wheels almost never leave the ground. From the cock-pit, it may feel a bit like a fat man on stilts--the goofy little Ford comes off as top-heavy, a feeling not helped by a horrible sit-up-and-beg driving position--but the Fiesta's suspension works overtime. Struts and simple L-shaped trailing arms in front are paired with four fanatically tuned dampers and a rear torsion beam. The end result is four contact patches virtually married to the pavement and a cheery, involving, almost unflappable chassis that begs to be whipped.
Taken by the numbers, the Fiesta doesn't seem like much: two liters, sixteen valves, four cylinders, 148 hp, and 140 lb-ft of torque. In ST trim, the Ford's midrangey four carts around 2569 pounds, and 60 mph arrives in an unremarkable 7.9 seconds. Still, at 11,389 (just over $22,000), it's more than worth it. (Need to put that figure in perspective? A base 2007 Mini Cooper S costs 13,179 in the U.K. and is seen as a slightly expensive but nevertheless smart buy.) The Fiesta's basic spec sheet may not be that impressive, and admittedly, some of its interior trim feels like it was screwed together by drunken zoo animals, but no matter. The whole package is as close as you can get to a modern version of the first-generation Volkswagen GTI, and that's no small compliment.
That, in turn, brings us to the upstart of our little group. Coincidentally, it's also related to that first GTI, but more by bloodline than by character. The Skoda Fabia VRS is the factory-assembled diesel--diesel!--hot-rod version of the standard Fabia, a Volks-wagen-derived hatchback built by the Volkswagen Group in Europe. (The Skoda nameplate has its origins in a Czech marque dating to the late nineteenth century, but these days, Skoda is merely an in-house, bargain-basement VW alternative.)
Compared with the Fiesta, the Fabia VRS initially seems to be an enormous mess. Hard, nasty plastic and mile-wide panel gaps are everywhere. Cost-cut Volkswagen switchgear fills the dash. The instrument cluster looks like a cheap copy of a cheap copy of a cheap watch, the dampers throw in the towel and bottom out at the drop of a hat, and the steering has absolutely, positively no feel whatsoever. Anywhere.