In the early Seventies Ford knew the winds of change in the car scene were going to affect it. The Mini and Fiat 500 had proved small cars could be popular, and now other manufacturers were joining in on the action, thanks to the Fiat 127 and Renault 5. However, it took five years before the Tom Tjaarda-penned creation reached UK dealerships (some time after left-hand drive markets), by which time Vauxhall, Volkswagen, Chrysler and Austin were already muscling in on the small car turf.
To start with, engines ranged from 1.0-litre to 1.6. It wasn’t until the 1.3-litre "crossflow" Supersport appeared in 1980 that enthusiastic drivers got the car they wanted. A year later, the XR2 appeared using a 1.6-litre version of the unit, which meant brisk performance (for the time). 105mph top speed a 0-60mph sprint of sub-10 seconds was achievable thanks to 83bhp. According to Autocar’s road test of the time: ‘Get it whizzing along country lanes, or grabbing the few overtaking opportunities that may exist in urban traffic, and one begins to wonder what might beat this responsive little car from A to B.’
The Mk2 Fiesta appeared in 1982, and revisions focused on the styling. Engines were altered, too – not only did a diesel enter the range but the old 1.3-litre unit was replaced with a similarly sized CVH powerplant. The 1.0-litre and 1.2-litre were carried over from the previous series.
The XR2 now had an Escort XR3-derived 1.6-litre engine, which meant 96bhp and 0-60mph in 9.5 seconds. You also got a rather extravagant bodykit, but the steering garnered praise from Autosport: "The neat little steering wheel allows ultra-rapid response on the driver’s part, and there is almost a touch of the go-kart about its reactions."
In 1986 the XR2 was improved with a new cylinder head and carburettor.
By 1989 the old Fiesta design was looking creaky in response to ever-stronger competition from Peugeot, Fiat, Vauxhall and Japanese companies. For the first time a five-door variant was offered, but engines mainly stayed the same as the Mk2. However, a 1.8-litre version was now available.
The big news, however, was that the Fiesta was now open for sportiness in a way that had been avoided in previous versions. The fuel-injected XR2i appeared in 1989, but by 1992 it had 16 valves and a new era of engines – Zetec.
The Eighties penchant for turbocharging had passed the Fiesta by, and it wasn’t until 1990 that Ford’s city car got boosted. It used the same CVH engine as the 1989 XR2i, now fed by fuel injection, and yielded a 133mph top speed, 0-60mph dash of 7.9 seconds. The RS Turbo was famed for its tricky to master handling, as James May – then working for Autocar – explained: "The sudden switch from compliance to contrariness pretty much sums up the RS Turbo’s handling: driving a the limit means staying just the right side of a very fine line and transgressing it at your peril. But without wishing to seem too kinky, it’s a pleasurable sort of pain."
The RS Turbo was replaced with the RS1800 in 1992, which used a 1.8-litre Zetec engine that was good for 130bhp. The XR2i name died in 1994 as insurance costs rained on its parade. A new era, under the Si nomenclature, beckoned.
While broadly similar to the Mk3, 1995’s Mk4 featured revised underpinnings, which helped it find favour with British buyers. Zetec engines were used throughout the range, although the Kent 1.3-litre engine still persisted in lower-spec cars. The sportiest Fiesta was now known as the Zetec. Handling was highly regarded. The well-regarded Puma used Fiesta underpinnings.
Mk5 (kind of)
By 1999 the Fiesta’s architecture was ten years old, but nips and tucks kept it competitive, and still buyers flocked to it. The highest-spec engine was now the Zetec S, which allowed for 118mph from its 101bhp, 1.6-litre engine. This version lasted until 2002, when the Fiesta was comprehensively refreshed.