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Attainable Performance part one: driving the 2000 Ford Fiesta Zetec-S

Updated: Apr 10


Ford Fiesta Zetec-S


Small, petrol-powered, lightweight, manual, what’s not to like? Ken Pearson detoxes from months of automatic diesels and electric SUVs for the first part of our new series showcasing performance cars that don't cost a fortune. Images by Matt Haworth


Until the beginning of February 2024, there were two things that I knew about the fourth-generation Ford Fiesta. Namely, they used to be a common sight on British roads, and now they are a rare sight. This Fiesta was absolutely everywhere from the late 90s into the early 2000s when I first started to pay attention to what I was seeing from the rear window of a Renault Clio and for every three that went past without attracting any attention to it, one would appear with a noticeably louder exhaust. Of course, lots of these were standard models with aftermarket exhausts but some of these were a little more special from the factory. Some of them were called the Zetec-S.


This model came out following the 1999 facelift which updated the styling; adding new lights, bumpers, grilles and engines to the mix. My young mind always thought of the facelift as looking happier than the earlier model...anyway, in recent years, the Zetec and Zetec S names became trim levels but they used to refer to the type of engine installed under the bonnet. The Ford Sigma engine was available in 1.25, 1.4, 1.6 and 1.7-litre displacements. The Zetec-S model was the top-of-the-range Fiesta which had its own bespoke body kit complete with a tailgate-mounted spoiler, 15" multi-spoke wheels and uprated brakes. The suspension received stiffer anti-roll bars and the 1.6-litre engine sent 101 bhp to the road through the front wheels via a five-speed manual transmission.


Unsurprisingly, the model quickly gained a cult following and the aftermarket tuning potential of the car was realised. The car could take extensive modifications with some opting for big power and bolder looks whilst others chose the more understated route to improving their Fiestas. One such person who went for the second option is my friend Mark who bought his 2000 Fiesta Zetec-S as his lockdown-prompted first foray into modifiable cars. This wasn't a non-running project car but a working toy that could be tweaked to suit his tastes. Visually, the only obvious change is the lack of fog lights in the lower bumper, but having had my retinas burnt by too many fog lights reflecting off the canals which used to be called Hertfordshire's road network, I fully support that choice.



Ford Fiesta Zetec-S


Look a little closer and you will spot a wider-bore exhaust tip which is connected to a custom cat-back exhaust which fills the locality with the sounds coming from the 1.7 litre engine under the bonnet. The biggest change, one done by the car's previous owner, was to swap out the 1.6-litre engine for the larger unit from the Fiesta's two-door cousin, the Puma. In the coupé, it was available in two states of tune with either 123 or 153 horsepower and 116 or 119 lb-ft (157/162 nm) on tap respectively. The higher-powered option is the star of the show in the Racing Puma, but the lower-powered one is what has been swapped into Mark's model.


It has also had a cone air intake added to it and combined with the exhaust, is thought to be putting out around 130 horsepower. In the context of modern cars - not even the juiced-up models - that's not a great deal of power, but at this point I must point out that the car weighs a smidge over 1,000 kg with me inside. Small cars with big engines are always a recipe for fun in my book and with a power-to-weight ratio of around 130 bhp per tonne, the Fiesta looks set to entertain.


But the first part of getting to drive a car is getting into it and opening the driver's door opens a time portal to the previous century. Those of us who have driven or grown up in the late 90s and early 2000s cars with non-leather interiors will still be able to smell the grey-beige plastics and the hardest-wearing fabric known to mankind just by thinking of them. The seats are like padded thrones compared to the slimline two-piece seats which are found in nearly every mainstream model today.



Ford Fiesta Zetec-S seats


The benefit is that the seat is supremely comfortable and not once during my time driving the car did I get the faintest hint of numb bum. The downside is that the seating position is quite high - much higher than I prefer, but the seat was already in its lowest position so I'd have to make do. Visibility is good thanks to big windows and slim pillars but the bonnet is totally obscured by the windscreen wipers. Three dials make up the heating panel and a handful of buttons occupy the space below the digital clock. The cabin absolutely looks like it is of a certain era and that era is a far cry from the full-width digital displays that are grabbing more attention than the styling of some new cars. It has aged, yes, but it still looks interesting - I love the asymmetric layout of the dashboard with the instrument cluster and steering wheel extending out towards the driver, yet for the passenger side the dashboard recedes towards the front bulkhead to allow for more space.


Ahead of me is a thin-rimmed OMP steering wheel with only one button to activate the kazoo-sounding horn and nothing else. It has been a long time since I drove something where the steering wheel was simply put there to steer the car and even longer since encountering manually adjustable door mirrors. This car has none of the equipment that I would deem essential for an everyday car - be that creature comforts like cruise control, ventilated seats and parking sensors, or safety and assistance features like electronic stability control and side airbags, but I refuse to write a review that focuses on something that a car isn't or doesn't have, so it is only right to appreciate the car for what and how it is.



Ford Fiesta Zetec-S interior and dashboard


So what is it like? Well, firstly it is loud. The engine announces its activation with the suddenness and volume of a brass gong being struck by a basketball. After a few seconds of fast idling, the revs settle down, I find the biting point on the clutch, double-check that I am starting in first rather than in third and we are away.


The roads are mildly moist following the previous day's monsoon and the Toyo Proxes T1R tyres need time to warm up so I am more than fine with taking things easy for a few minutes in a car which is totally alien to me; personally, I prefer to have a first drive with damp roads as it gives me a better idea of where the limits of grip are and how the car will respond when reaching them. A few minutes and miles pass and the thing at the forefront of my mind is not how boom-y the exhaust is when it isn't popping on overrun, but how smooth and sorted the ride is. The car is in touch with the road surface, yes, but the damping gives it absolutely fabulous body control with minimal roll and a planted feel as we make progress.



Ford Fiesta Zetec-S


I notice that whilst the rev counter goes up to 7,000 rpm, there is no red line to indicate how far I can make that needle go. So there is only one way to find out; pressing the firm-feeling metal clutch pedal to the floor, finding second gear and planting the accelerator in the carpet which brings a healthy pull of torque. The revs climb past 4,000, 5,000, 5,500, 6,300 where it feels like the power has peaked, up to 6,700 revs where the engine has switched its loud shout for a wild banshee scream and a gentle bump as the fuel cut-off is reached.


The gearing is short enough to allow for brisk acceleration yet long enough to enjoy a range of tones and notes from that wide-bore trombone exhaust from tick over to the rev limiter. Following months of hushed mild hybrid petrols, low-revving diesels and near-silent electric motors, it is a sound to behold and one to repeat again and again.


The noise isn't the only refreshing aspect of this car as the great body control I mentioned earlier feeds into the direct response from the steering. The now warm tyres instantly act on what I ask from the heavy-feeling power steering and owing to the car's short wheelbase and relatively wide track, the car feels like it can change direction like a startled newt through a series of cambered S-bends.



Ford Fiesta Zetec-S


Maintaining speed is easy as the car confidently grips the road surface and doesn't feel like sending its nose wide in tighter corners. Attempting to exit some of the finest roundabouts that The Fens have to offer quickly in first or second gear does spin the front wheels and make me think that the car could have benefited from some sort of traction control, or that I should try to control the traction a little bit more with a gentler throttle application by using third gear and leaning on the impressive low-down torque of the naturally aspirated engine.


The brakes - discs on the front and drums at the rear - never feel like they could stop a Boeing 747 on a £5 note, or even a runway for that matter, so I treat the car like an EV in the sense that I lift and coast towards bends, downshift and let the engine braking start to slow me down, before gently trail braking as I turn in and quickly get back on the power to head along to the next twisty section. If I was set to put my own twist on this particular Fiesta, I would start by putting discs all around.


That said, it became very easy to confidently flow along my indirect route across East Anglia with the car only sometimes reminding me to brake a bit more, turn in slightly smoother and change down a gear a little later; when I slightly overstep the mark, the car is very forgiving and doesn't lose its composure, in spite of having no driver aids. It is very communicative through the chassis, springs, steering and all three pedals. Trust in a car is an important thing to have when finding out how it can perform, and I truly trust this Fiesta.



Ford Fiesta Zetec-S

Ford Fiesta Zetec-S engine


The one thing that holds me back from setting a new cross-country from county edges is other traffic. A strong power-to-weight ratio is one thing but outright power levels are another; the Fiesta is certainly louder than it is fast so unless there's about half a mile of straight road ahead and nothing oncoming, I didn't feel confident that I could make a pass quickly enough. So when I did catch Saturday lunchtime traffic which slows to a crawl for anything other than the gentlest of curves yet speeds through villages, I would slow down, stop and wait for 30 seconds, give myself a buffer of clear road and enjoy some space to myself.


A few full stops allowed me to get a better feel for the metal-topped gearstick and the H-pattern shifting that I've not done for a few months. The throw from first to second and third to fourth is relatively long but moving from side to side, the gears sit quite close together. Mark's parting words of "reverse is below fifth so don't put it in sixth!" are still front and centre of my mind every time I go to change gears; the shifter requires a firm pull or push into each slot but it never leaves any doubt that a cog has been selected, and not once do I hear the unmistakable sound of grinding a gear until finding it. With my car and every new car at the office being an automatic, operating a third pedal and manual gearbox is a refreshing change and a nice additional level of driver engagement for me to savour. My preference is still for an automatic with paddles for everyday use but in a car like this, it just feels right.



Ford Fiesta Zetec-S


The car which is the antithesis of everything else I've driven this year has proven to be one of the most rewarding and fun things I've had the keys to since the smart roadster BRABUS that I drove and became obsessed with in 2022. You may find it quite bizarre that this Fiesta feels to me like a mixture of classic Rover Minis and early BMW Minis but remember, this is only the fourth Fiesta that I have ever driven, with two being 1.6 litre diesels and one 7th generation ST that came in as part-exchanges at the office. For the loud engine and exhaust, heavy steering and assured body control to remind me of my favourite hatches is only a good thing in my book.


As the saying goes, all roads lead back to Mark's house and I start to think about the time I've just had burning fuel and tromboning around the county and it strikes me that I've had an absolute whale of a time without getting near licence-losing speeds. The noise, smells, steering and punchy performance could all be enjoyed at speeds that could be maintained without aggravating oncoming traffic or getting the 45 mph everywhere brigade to switch on the strobe function of their headlights and post their dashcam footage of a safe and legal overtake to the internet - complete with an F, C and W-word filled commentary.

Speed is great but accelerating towards corners and maintaining as much of it as possible through bends is what switches me on to a car. The Fiesta did that with ease, providing brilliant handling and body control with a torquey yet revvy engine that rewarded me for using every single rev it had at its disposal with a truly addictive range of notes from its exhaust. As I write this, I am still smiling and my ears are still ringing and that will be the case for a while. The Ford Fiesta Zetec-S is an old-school mix of power delivery and driving dynamics, but that doesn't make the driving experience outdated. Not one bit.


Good: lightweight, surprisingly torquey engine, sharp handling, brilliant body control, communicative and forgiving nature, exceptional noise.


Bad: semi-effective brakes, higher than desired driving position, hearing loss, overtaking performance (or lack thereof), don't watch the crash test footage.


 

Ford Fiesta Zetec-S


Epilogue: Attainable Performance

The idea of this series is to showcase the cars that can deliver stand-out drives without breaking the bank. Whether you, dear reader, are a younger enthusiast or someone with a fleet of high-performance machinery at your disposal, there is a lot of fun to be had with go-faster versions of everyday hatches, or some models that have slipped under the radar in recent years. We'll cover them all and let you decide which one to add to your driveway next.


The MK4 Ford Fiesta Zetec-S was only on sale from 1999 to 2001 and it is impossible to determine how many are left on the road by any other yardstick than seeing one. They seem to be just as rare on listing pages too, with the only live ad being for a two-owner, 39,000-mile silver example from 2001. As the car is reserved at the time of writing, the asking price has disappeared. A 2022 PistonHeads article showcased a red model from 2000 with 90,000 miles being sold for £2,490. First-year insurance for our featured blue model with modifications declared cost a then 21-year-old owner £1,700 for the year.


As with any passion car purchase, do your checks - whether that's MOT history and checking for any outstanding recalls or looking under the body itself to see if there is any excessive rusting or corrosion. The inner sills can decay so ensure that they aren't falling apart. Whilst the suspension on my test car felt solid, the rear dampers and bushes are said to wear relatively quickly. Make sure that the car comes with a detailed service history including records for cambelt and water pump changes taking place. If the car has been modified, ensure that these have been completed and fitted well, declared to the insurers and registered with the DVLA; the 1.7 litre Puma engine swap is not unique to our test car so check when you search for a particular model that it comes up with 1,679 cc as opposed to 1,596.


 

Ford Fiesta Zetec-S


Ford Fiesta Zetec S - The owner's perspective

I asked Mark a few questions to get his thoughts about his Fiesta.


Why did you choose this Fiesta?

"I'd done a fair amount of driving in the MK4 fiesta whilst learning to drive so the familiarity was there, but this time I wanted the performance version."


What do you like about it?

"I love the simplicity; the naturally aspirated engine, the manual gearbox and little electronic assistance make for a whole heap of fun on B-roads. The added power from the 1.7 litre engine and sound from the exhaust just exacerbates the experience whilst climbing through the rev range and makes each gear change all the more satisfying - especially if you can rev-match perfectly. For me, it's a go-kart for the road which is what every hot hatch should be - plus it looks awesome!"


What do you dislike about it?

"With it being a 24-year-old Ford I do feel as if it might break down every time I take it out! The standard brakes are not brilliant, and the noise on a dual carriageway is hard to ignore as 70mph means 3,500 rpm."


If you had an unlimited budget for modifications, what would you do?

"I'd make it a track car and put the 1.6 litre EcoBoost from the mark 7 ST180 in it and tune that up to 300bhp. Racing discs would go all round and I'd strip the interior out to bring the weight down further."