The Vauxhall Corsa is now the top selling car in the UK, but is it better than a Fiesta? Cars & motoring editor Rob Hull spent a fortnight driving one to find out.
Britain officially has a new king of cars. Ford’s incredible 50-year stint at the top of the sales charts was brought to an abrupt end in 2021, as the Vauxhall Corsa rose to the summit of the registrations table.
The last time a motor without a blue oval on its bonnet took the number one spot was back in 1971 when the Austin 1100 boasted more sales than any other model.
This time it’s the Corsa’s overtaking of perennial favourite, the Fiesta, that is being celebrated by Vauxhall, after it had been forced to watch on as its rival dominated as the nation’s go-to new car for the last 12 years straight.
But does being crowned as the number one seller make the latest Vauxhall Corsa the small hatchback to have today?
Britain’s new king of cars: The Vauxhall Corsa ended the Ford Fiesta’s 12-year run at the top of the sales charts in 2021. Does that means it’s the best small model on the market today? We tested one for a fortnight to find out…
Should we read much into Vauxhall’s rise to the top?
Vauxhall hasn’t shied away from celebrating its recent sales triumph. Its official Twitter account has been repeatedly sharing the news to its thousands of followers like an online party popper going off, with scatterings of reports covering its victory appearing like streamers and confetti.
Though that hasn’t stopped Ford from trying to rain on its parade. Even after the official figures confirmed the new order earlier this month, Ford UK claimed it still – theoretically – makes the most-popular ‘vehicle’ in Britain.
That’s because it shifted more Transit Custom vans last year than Vauxhall did Corsas. Twelve thousand more, in fact.
But while some will call sour grapes on Ford’s part, the surge in Transit deliveries at the same time as a monumental decline in Fiesta sales – which saw the former favourite drop out of the top 10 entirely in 2021 – might tell a story more about company strategy over consumer demand.
These are last year’s 10 most-bought new cars. As you can see, Ford’s Fiesta is missing
With the semiconductor shortage hugely impacting global car production, manufacturers have been forced to prioritise the output of particular models.
Industry insiders suggest pandemic-related demand for vans persuaded Ford to put its commercial vehicles at the head of the computer chip queue, even ahead of the front-running Fiesta.
It does make financial sense: vans offer stronger profit margins than passenger cars because they are less expensive to produce but are sold for similar prices.
When This is Money asked Ford UK why Fiesta sales had taken a downturn towards the end of last year, it told us: ‘A new [facelifted] Fiesta model was announced in September ahead of first deliveries in early 2022. In the interim, the same supply issue affecting other vehicle lines is impacting Fiesta.’
But is this merely a case of us making excuses for Ford and deflecting from a reality that the Corsa might now be the choice of superminis? That’s why we’ve spent a fortnight driving one to find out.
A new – French – era for the Corsa
The sixth-generation Corsa is the fruit of Vauxhall’s recent takeover by the PSA Group, which bought the brand from General Motors back in 2017.
In an automotive world of cost saving, shared platforms and model rebadging, this new ownership means the latest model is underpinned by the same chassis and parts as Peugeot’s 208.
The same can be said about the electric versions of both superminis, the e-208 and Corsa-e – the latter of which contributed towards 14 per cent of all Corsa sales last year, it is important to note.
But we weren’t driving the electric version, instead our test car for two weeks was the frugal petrol powered 1.2-litre version, albeit in its range-topping £27,000 Ultimate specification.
With Vauxhall now under the stewardship of the French PSA Group, the latest Corsa (left) is mechanically similar to the current Peugeot 208 (right)
While the Corsa and 208 might be very similar under the skin, that’s not to say you could step from one to another and tell them apart only by the emblem etched into the steering wheel centre.
Vauxhall Corsa: Will it fit in my garage?
Price: from £17,380
Price of car tested: £27,245
Engine tested: 1.2-litre, 3-cylinder, turbocharged petrol
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Drive: Front wheel drive
Max power: 99bhp
0-62mph: 10.2 seconds
Top speed: 119mph
Fuel economy: 45.6-48.7mpg
Emissions: 134g/km C02
Wheels: 17 inches
Dimensions – Length: 4,060mm
Width: 1,765mm (1,960 incl mirrors)
Kerb weight: 1,090kg
Boot space (seats up): 309 litres
Boot space (seats down): 1,118 litres
Fuel tank capacity: 44 litres
Vauxhall makes a big point that this isn’t a copy-and-paste of its Peugeot sister car.
It certainly doesn’t look or feel anything like the 208 from inside – and that is a very big disappointment.
While the Peugeot feels modern, classy and a generally nice place to be, with a recessed dashboard, flashes of piano-gloss panels and high-grade materials at key touch points, the Vauxhall – even in our range-topping ‘Ultimate’ specification car on test – feels comparatively drab.
That isn’t to say the cabin doesn’t fulfill its basic needs.
It strikes the right balance between having a high-definition display and a number of control switches, the latter for the temperature and audio settings.
This means you don’t have to painstakingly prod your way through sub-menus in the colour touchscreen to make the most basic of adjustments, such as warming your bottom and tuning to Radio 2.
And it feels well screwed together and of perfectly-adequate quality.
Though you might expect more from a small model that, in this ‘Ultimate Nav’ test car’s case, costs a barely believable £27,245. That’s more than an entry-level Mercedes A-Class!
Such a whopping financial outlay on this range-topping Corsa does give you luxuries including a driver’s seat massage function, bigger 10-inch main touchscreen, a 7-inch digital instrument cluster (available on all trim levels from SRi up) and adaptive cruise control – all features you wouldn’t normally expect to find in a supermini.
In terms of driving position, no matter your size there is enough range of adjustment in the wheel and seat to find a comfortable set-up – though there is no manipulation of the lumbar support, which is a one-size-fits-all offering.
The Peugeot 208’s interior (left) feels modern and classy, with its recessed dashboard, flashes of gloss panels and high-grade materials at key touch points. The Vauxhall’s – even in our range-topping ‘Ultimate’ specification car (right) – feels comparatively drab
While everything is perfectly functional, the Corsa’s cabin definitely lacks the wow factor – especially for a small car that costs over £27,000 in the ‘Ultimate Nav’ specification we had
While the dash is bland it does have separate control buttons for the heating, which are easy to access on the move from the driver’s seat
The row of additional hard switches means you don’t have to prod your way through arduous sub-menus in the touchscreen to make the smallest adjustments to the display and settings, which can be distracting in some new models
Can it match the Fiesta’s dazzling driving dynamics?
One characteristic that has kept the Fiesta at the peak of its powers for so long is its finely-tuned chassis and engaging driving performance.
To say the Corsa has its work cut out to match that is an understatement and this was one of the key comparisons we were looking forward to making during this two-week test.
Our £27,000-plus test car was fitted with the most powerful petrol engine: a 1.2-litre, turbocharged three-cylinder unit producing 99bhp, linked to an eight-speed automatic gearbox.
On paper, that translates to 0-to-62mph acceleration in a thumb-twiddling 10.2 seconds and top speed of 119mph. But add to this equation fuel-sipping economy of around 46mpg and it’s probably the pick of the powerplants available.
Punchy enough in and out of town and perfectly flexible for motorway journeys, what the engine lacks in excitement it makes up for with a relatively hushed and smooth note that only infiltrates the cabin when you’re extremely forceful with your right foot.
At motorway speeds, engine rumble wasn’t noticeable – though probably because it was being cancelled out by wind and road noise.
How does it compare to its biggest rival? The yardstick Fiesta has a selection of smaller-capacity 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrols with 99bhp or 123bhp. These feel more urgent and responsive than the Corsa’s. At an equivalent trim level the higher-output Ford engine (which is almost a second quicker to accelerate to 62mph) will cost around the same as the Vauxhall.
Our test car was fitted with the 99bhp 1.2-litre turbocharged engine, which, while not all that exciting, is the pick of the powerplants thanks to low running costs
One reason the Fiesta (pictured) has dominated in recent years is its fantastically compliant ride and handling. The Corsa really doesn’t get within a sniff of the Ford in these departments
Our test car was fitted with an 8-speed auto transmission. It can make low-speed acceleration feel snatchy, so it takes some time to learn the ideal biting point of the throttle pedal
The automatic transmission in our test car made initial dabs of the throttle feel snatchy at low speeds, but it shifts seamlessly enough once pootling along and – given that it has eight gears – never needlessly over-revs the engine like some more rudimentary gearboxes can. Most customers will have the manual, though.
But where the Vauxhall begins to lose serious ground on rivals starts with how it rides.
While the suspension copes with obvious imperfections, such as deep potholes, lane-dividing cat’s eyes, and the odd dropped drain cover, it feels fidgety on smaller changes in road surface that trigger your senses each time the tarmac changes.
This might partly be down to the 17-inch alloy wheels on our test car, but a Peugeot 208 with similar-size rims would waft over these minor blemishes without you ever noticing.
Even the harder set-up of the Ford is more compliant and cushioning.
And when you reach a series of corners, the Corsa falls even further back.
A lack of steering feel is the biggest offence – it’s lighter than a feather from a bird that’s suffered from alopecia. This is ideal for town driving, three-point turns and parking, but is far too vague for anything else.
The resistance [or lack of] in the steering reminded us of a spinner you get with boardgames like Twister – an arrow mounted onto a piece of cardboard that you can flick with your finger and watch it circulate for almost a minute: that’s how little feedback it seems there is in the wheel.
Then throw into the mix that it feels top heavy and suffers bodyroll in changes of direction and the floaty steering becomes a little unnerving.
Frankly, it’s almost offensive to mention the Corsa’s handling in the same breath as the Fiesta’s.
Space inside the Corsa is better than most rivals in this segment. While there’s lots of head and leg-room in the front and back for taller passengers, these rear door apertures are narrow
A luggage capacity of 309 litres with the seats up is very much middle of the road for a supermini of this size. But the space is usefully square and the boot sill not too high when lifting heavy items in and out
What it lacks in performance it makes up for with practicality
Here is the part of the review where the Corsa starts to claw back some brownie points on the Ford.
Even drivers over six foot should be able to sit comfortably up front, with lots of head and leg-room – better than most cars in its class. It’s a similar story in the back, though narrow rear-door apertures make getting in and out quite the task for anyone above average stature.
The sensation of space once inside isn’t helped by its dark upholstery and super-thick door pillars, which limit the amount of light into the car – and also hinder visibility for the driver at junctions, we should note.
As for the boot, a 309-litre compartment (with the seats up) is middle of the road for this segment, with more capacious superminis on the market, such as the latest Skoda Fabia and its 380 litres of luggage space. However, the area is ideally square and the sill is low enough to make lifting heavy items easy enough that you won’t need your osteopath’s phone number on speed-dial.
It does – disappointingly – lack a height-adjustable boot floor, but it still trumps the Fiesta in this department.
We spent two weekend trips away with the Corsa and loaded up with a two-week grocery shop during the test drive, with the boot more than capable of swallowing everything needed from a pair of overnight rucksacks to bags filled with celery, kale and every other ‘New Year, healthier me’ ingredient you can image.
It feels like the Corsa’s rise to the top of the sales charts is more about technicalities rather than its accomplishments as a small car. And for that reason we’d still choose the Ford Fiesta
Cars & Motoring verdict
For years the Corsa seemingly survived among Britain’s biggest sellers by undercutting its nearest rivals on price to make up for a relatively underwhelming drive. But with the price now inflated to par with the competition, we’re surprised it has translated to higher sales than supermini opponents.
The price hike means it shouldn’t be all that enticing for PCP finance customers, thanks to its relatively weaker residuals. For example, a Corsa loses around 33 per cent of its original value after two years and 20,000 miles on the clock while a comparative Fiesta sheds around 28 per cent, cap hpi data suggests.
This makes it all the more imperative for consumers to strike a deal with a salesman to give a discount – which has traditionally been commonplace in Vauxhall dealerships. And we suspect this is still the case today.
It also has impressively low CO2 figures and benefit-in-kind taxation, even by small-car standards. This has made it increasingly popular among businesses and fleets. As has the arrival of the 1 per cent BiK Corsa-e, of course.
Yet it’s technicalities like this, as well as the semiconductor trials and tribulations during 2021, that – in our humble opinion – likely pushed the Corsa to the peak of the rankings, rather than its accomplishments on the road.
Would we choose one over Britain’s former best-seller?
Even if it means having to be patient for a few months for a Ford Fiesta to be delivered, we would prefer to wait to have what is a more rounded car. It’s far better to drive, has a more eager petrol engine, and will hold its value better. As practical as the Corsa is, it’s still the runner up in our opinion.
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