Ford Fiesta ST Vs. MINI Cooper S: Which Is More Fun?

November 14, 2014

Who makes a better hot hatch, MINI or Ford?

We recently drove, within a week of each other, two of the market’s hottest subcompact hatchbacks: the Ford Focus ST, and the MINI Cooper S.

I’m going to go ahead and spill the beans that the fun-to-drive winner is the Focus ST, by a long shot. We’ll get to exactly why on the next page. But you’ll probably want to read on because considering all that matters in real-world use, it’s more of a tossup on which is better.

So let’s go through the all the elements of our full review process—styling, comfort and utility, safety, and features—applied to a couple of quick drives. And we’ll save the performance side for last.

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Polar opposites, aesthetically

In styling and design, these two hatches take polar opposite approaches, in profile and in details. The ST is the dressed-up, far more athletic version of a car that starts around $15,000. It has the same roofline and sheetmetal as the basic Fiesta models, but with dramatically different details. Bigger wheels, twin taillights, and an even sharper version of the new snout add up to more hunkered-down proportions that really work well here.

As for the MINI Cooper S, it’s essentially the same presentation as the already-so-stylish Mini Cooper, which starts at $21,550, albeit with somewhat more aggressive wheels and bodywork; and really it’s more a matter of which (often pricey) options you check to enhance that ‘S’ appearance.

As you can tell we’re surprisingly reluctant about choosing a favorite on the outside. The Cooper S doesn’t break any new ground, while the Fiesta ST, from the outside, looks surprisingly fresh and racy—with just the right amount of maturity. Inside, it’s quite a different story. The Fiesta’s econocar roots are showing a bit more, and the serious upgrades that the MINI Cooper lineup got last year to its switchgear and trim show their superiority in nearly every way. That said, the Fiesta’s no-nonsense, straightforward layout is endearing, and you might actually prefer it if some of the gimmickry in the MINI is a turnoff.

That control and display layout in the Cooper S is indeed something you’ll love or loathe. MINI has moved the speedometer in front of the driver, but the tachometer is still a small arc, and with so many curves, bulges, steps, bevels, and bezels, the instrument panel and door trim can be distracting at first. On the other hand, the Fiesta is again simple yet tasteful and sporty; it’s easy to reach everything, and we get the feeling that ergonomics ruled some choices, versus vice versa in the MINI.

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Dramatically different packaging choices inside

Front seats in the MINI are great, and we like how the seating position has been changed in the new MINI Cooper so that your sit-bones now seem more in sync with the car’s center of mass. Fundamentally, you sit more upright in the Fiesta—it’s more of a traditional small-car seating position, if perhaps a bit lower—but the seats themselves, if you get the Recaros, are very supportive. If you plan to carry back-seat passengers, the Fiesta ST is the one; its back seat is usable for adults, for short stints, versus the MINI has very little leg or knee space with the front seats set up for a taller driver.

Safety isn’t fun to debate, but choosing a car with the best protection could keep you around to have more fun in the future. In both cases, crash-test results are blemished. But in the Cooper, you can opt for extras like a rearview camera system and parking assistant. Speaking of visibility, we did find it a bit easier to see out while parking in the Fiesta.

In features, these two models are very different. In the MINI Cooper S, you can add $10,000 or more to the bottom-line price with items ranging from upholstery and trim upgrades to upgraded sound and infotainment, a panoramic sunroof, or even a dynamic damper control system. As for the Fiesta you can’t even opt for an automatic transmission; options are limited to heated Recaro seats, a moonroof, navigation, and upgraded wheels. Add all of that, and the price is still around $26k.

The 'Boost' won out over the 'Eco,' once again...

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We did around 95 miles of driving in the Mini Cooper S and about 100 miles in the Fiesta ST—essentially the same type of driving, with short, around-town errands, then some more spirited driving on a few country roads—and we saw quite the difference in mileage. The Fiesta ST comes with EPA ratings of 26 mpg city, 35 highway, and we achieved 24 mpg; as for the MINI Cooper S, it’s rated at a slightly lower 26 mpg city, 33 highway, yet we did much better: 28 mpg.

It should be noted that the Cooper S had the six-speed automatic while the Fiesta ST had a manual gearbox, but I’ll defend my driving style in saying that I didn’t rev the Fiesta any more than needed—only when tapping into extra passing power, for instance. We drove most of the time in the Cooper S’s normal driving mode, sampling the Green and Sport settings at times.

Fiesta ST keeps it simple—in a most enjoyable way

And now to driving—and riding. The Fiesta ST is a seductive performer with just the right amount of practicality, and we love how straightforward it is. There are no modes, no special lights, graphics, and displays to try to nudge you into the mood; instead, the driving experience does it all. It was clear that the engineering team paid a lot of attention to the steering and suspension and didn’t stop until they were top-notch.

The Cooper S, on the other hand, doesn’t feel completely optimized; it now steers better, but it doesn’t handle with quite the same eagerness as the Ford. And we found that, surprisingly, the Cooper S rode harder and transmitted more road noise into the cabin, without any greater cornering ‘bite’ to show for it.

Both powertrains are splendid, with just the right hint of feral when you want it. The Fiesta’s 197-hp, 1.6-liter EcoBoost four has a few more rough edges than the MINI’s 189-hp, 2.0-liter, but its tweaked-out feel on boost is intoxicating. Both cars, when you go gently, are quite drivable and docile.

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For you, or to impress others?

Put a completely different—and blunt—way, the MINI Cooper S feels like a car that will be more likely to impress your passengers, while the Fiesta ST will impress you specifically. 

If you value more creature comforts, or want more customization, you might want to hold out for the MINI Cooper 4 door. Otherwise, the bottom line is that if your budget is limited, without a doubt go for the Fiesta ST. It shows what a hot hatch should be today.


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