We were recently given an opportunity to drive the U.S.-spec Ford (NYSE:F) Fiesta EcoBoost hatchback, which proved itself on the outskirts of Boston to be a contender worthy of any budget-minded city dweller’s consideration. However, the Fiesta EcoBoost is finding itself in good company, with a couple of the biggest names in the business also occupying the agile, urban-oriented compact car space. That would be the Volkswagen (VLKAY.PK) Golf TDI, and Toyota’s (NYSE:TM) Prius c.
Each of these three have their own merits. The Golf is uncharacteristically sporty for what many assume would be a rather mundane economy car. The Prius c offers stellar fuel economy for a surprisingly modest price for a hybrid, capping the other end of the performance-consumption spectrum. The Fiesta, meanwhile, fits in somewhere in the middle, as it returns a respectable 37 combined miles per gallon, though it also offers some frisky, turbocharged fun if you put your foot down.
Personal opinions vary widely as far as what some people will prefer, but on paper, let’s see how these cars stack up. Each vehicle is observed in its base spec (though the 1.0 liter EcoBoost is a $995 option added to the Fiesta SE trim) for the sake of as fair a fight as possible (we also looked at the four-door Golf, though a two-door model is also available). These three vehicles, at least in the U.S. market, represent their respective brands’ conquest vehicles: cars made to lure in first-time buyers, who are more budget- and fuel economy-conscious, as well as quench their thirst for sporty performance.
Ford Fiesta EcoBoost
Ford’s Fiesta isn’t new to the U.S. auto scene, but its 1.0 liter EcoBoost-branded three-cylinder engine is. That might conjure up images of whining lawn mowers and SmartCar-like performance, but on the contrary, we found the 1.0 liter Fiesta to be more than adequate when it comes to power; it is rated at 123 horsepower paired with 125 pound-feet of torque. The whine you would expect from such a small engine (the block of which fits in a standard carry on-size suitcase) is absent, instead replaced by a surprisingly throaty growl.
The Fiesta is agile, maneuverable, and overall a blast to drive in urban environments. Around city blocks, it’s peppy and eager. However, with three passengers, highway driving puts some noticeable strain on the powertrain that makes overtaking other vehicles more of a challenge. The Fiesta is among the most efficient non-diesel or non-hybrid cars available today, racking up 45 miles per gallon on the highway and 32 around town, though driving style will likely factor heavily.
Low to midrange driving is where the Fiesta really excels, and for people who commute into the city often, it’s an admirable performer. However, compared to the other two, the Fiesta falls in the middle — buyers looking solely for performance or efficiency may want to consider searching elsewhere. The Fiesta, though, even with the $995 EcoBoost package, still weighs in at just $17,075 before destination, making it the most affordable of the three.
Toyota Prius c
What the Prius c lacks in styling next to the Fiesta, it more than makes up for in efficiency. Modeled on Toyota’s renowned hybrid powertrain in a small package, the Prius c manages 53 miles per gallon around town and bests the Fiesta’s 45 miles per gallon on the highway — albeit just barely — at 46. At $19,080, it’s just about the cheapest hybrid currently on the market, and definitely the best fuel efficiency figure per dollar.
Not surprisingly, that terrific fuel consumption figure comes to the detriment of power, as the Prius c sports a rather anemic 99 combined horsepower, which gets the little hatchback to 60 in a lumbering 11.5 seconds. But chances are, if the Prius c is under consideration, performance was taking a firm backseat to sparing your wallet the extra damage at the pump — and let’s be realistic here, that’s really why people love these cars.
Compact and maneuverable, the Prius c checks all the right boxes as an ideal city car, and the hybrid system is stellar for city traffic, where idling can eat heavily into one’s fuel consumption. Given that the c is 19 inches shorter than the Liftback, and the wheelbase about 6 inches shorter, as well, Toyota was able to save 500 pounds for the compact hatch, helping further boost its already commendable fuel economy.
Volkswagen Golf TDI
Opposite the Prius c on the hatchback spectrum is the Volkswagen Golf TDI, which is currently in that awkward transition phase between models. The 2015 was described as “more refined, more efficient, and more engaging than ever” by Car & Driver, which noted that although the Golf carries the same 236 pound-foot torque rating as the outgoing model, horsepower is bumped up by 10 to 150. That makes it the fastest and most powerful of the lot, though it’s also the most expensive and not surprisingly the least savvy on fuel. It gets a commendable 35 miles per gallon combined, a 1 mpg bump from last year, though a couple shy of the Fiesta.
The TDI S, the entry-level Golf diesel, starts at $21,995, about $3,000-4,000 more than the EcoBoost, and about $2,500-$3,000 more than the Prius c. However, the Golf TDI is bred with agility and performance in mind, and its driving capabilities are some of the most refined in the segment. It has more torque than a four-cylinder Toyota Tacoma pickup, which makes passing on the freeway a breeze, and boasts one of the nicest and more premium-feeling interiors in the compact car space. There’s a reason the Golf has stuck around for several decades now, and it only seems to get better with each passing generation.