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Ford Fiesta – what went wrong?

After 12 years topping the sales charts, the Fiesta failed to make the top ten in 2021 and will be killed off next summer. What went wrong for Britain's favourite car?

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On 26 October 2022, Ford announced that the Fiesta nameplate will be killed off next summer after 47 years of production over seven separate generations. Back in February, we produced this special report about the Fiesta’s spectacular fall from grace as the UK’s most popular car, exploring just what has happened. The reasons pre-date Covid or semiconductor shortages, with sales in decline since the middle of the last decade, but they’ve led directly to today’s announcement.


What has become of the Ford Fiesta? For years, Ford’s supermini was a permanent fixture at the top of the new car sales charts for more than a decade – now it’s nowhere to be seen.

There’s no doubt that the Fiesta has been a massive success for Ford. It first topped the UK charts in 1990 and has claimed the prize 15 more times since, including for 12 straight years between 2009 and 2020.

And the car wasn’t just nosing narrowly ahead of the competition. Figures produced by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show that sales peaked in 2015, with more than 133,000 new Fiestas registered. A long way back in second place was the Vauxhall Corsa, on 92,000 registrations. That’s 41,000, or a whopping 45%, more cars in Ford’s favour.

However, over the next five years, that margin of superiority was dramatically eroded. In the Covid-hit year of 2020, the Fiesta’s registrations had fallen to just over 49,000 cars, which was less than 3,000 ahead of the Corsa.

Which brings us to 2021. It was obviously another Covid-afflicted year and initially looked like being a close fight between the Fiesta and the Corsa for overall sales honours. Then, from about March, the Fiesta started to slide down the charts. In September, the unthinkable happened – the car that had dominated the UK market for so long did not even make that month’s top ten. And the top of the chart has been a Fiesta-free zone ever since.

So what’s gone wrong?

Chip shortage


Ford blames the global shortage of semiconductor chips that has struck the entire car industry (as well as many other industries) in 2021. Modern cars are chock full of chips, and Ford spokesman John Gardiner told The Car Expert that sparse stocks of the essential electronics had to be used wisely.

“We had to prioritise commercial vehicles, customer orders and newer products such as Puma and Kuga, and consequently sold less of our traditional models such as the Fiesta and Focus,” Gardiner said.

Production difficulties are particularly frustating for car companies. Most consumers buying a Fiesta will do so using PCP car finance, and that means that they have a deadline for replacing that car at the end of the agreement. If they can’t get a new Fiesta, they’ll be forced to choose a different car. And if they’re happy with that car, they’re potentially lost to Ford for good.

Big sales, small profits


It’s understandable that Ford wants to put its major sales effort into the vehicles that produce the best return – and while superminis such as the Fiesta are still the biggest-selling type of new car in the UK, they traditionally don’t generate big profits for their makers.

Supermini customers are often young drivers buying their first new car or households seeking a second set of wheels alongside the main family car, perhaps a runabout for local trips and school runs. Such buyers normally work to pretty tight budgets and also tend not to dip too far into the options lists, which means that profit margins for car manufacturers and dealers are usually pretty slim.

Ford is certainly not the only manufacturer thinking along these lines. The number of small SUVs in the marketplace has grown substantially in recent years, while the number of small hatchbacks has been falling. Three-door models, in particular, have been disappearing, with most brands no longer offering any three-door hatchback models.

Friendly fire


There’s no doubt that the arrival of the Ford Puma mini-SUV in early 2020 has dented Fiesta sales. The Puma capitalised on mushrooming demand for SUVs across the market, and was well received by buyers.

And as the Fiesta slid down the 2021 sales charts, it passed the Puma going the other way – the SUV topped the chart in August and ended up as the UK’s eighth best-selling car of the year.

The pest petrol-powered cars for £25K – Ford Puma

However, it’s not as simple as Ford shifting 28,000 customers from Fiesta to Puma last year. The Puma has also taken sales off Ford’s other small SUV, the EcoSport, as well as cars from rival brands. So it’s one part of the story, but by no means the largest – and you can also argue that the same applies to the Corsa, with Vauxhall offering the new Mokka small SUV to tempt buyers away from its own hatchback.

So is the traditional supermini dead, killed off by small SUVs like the Puma? Maybe, maybe not. Despite the shift towards SUVs, supermini-size small cars remain the most popular new cars in the UK. Alongside the Fiesta, the Vauxhall Corsa, Toyota Yaris, Volkswagen Polo and Mini hatch all regularly featuring in the monthly top ten new car sales reports.

Corsa cleans up


For years the Fiesta’s most consistent rival was the Vauxhall Corsa, which seemed to be permanently trapped in the shadow of the unstoppable Fiesta. But in 2021, the Corsa finally became the first non-Ford to top the annual new car registrations chart for a remarkable 49 years.

Did Vauxhall choose to prioritise its supermini for chips to keep its sales up, whereas Ford did not? It’s possibly another factor, but again not the whole story. The Corsa is also a newer car than the Fiesta, and significantly better than the previous Corsa, so there may have been a large number of previous Fiesta customers (especially fleets) who have jumped over to the new Vauxhall.

In fact, the new Corsa range has been a sales success story pretty much since it was launched. Although it arrived just as the UK was plunged into the first Covid lockdown in Spring 2020, it has consistently been the country’s best-selling car ever since dealerships re-opened three months later. While overall sales are still down on peak 2015 levels, the Corsa has outperformed the overall market slump.

It outsold the Fiesta in the second half of 2020, well before chip shortages became a problem. The Fiesta only held onto its sales crown in 2020 on the strength of its results in the first three (pre-Covid) months of the year, when stock of the old Corsa was running out but before the new model had arrived.

Other superminis are chipping away


It’s not just the Vauxhall Corsa giving Ford headaches, however. Other small cars have also been chipping away at the Fiesta’s sales success. The Toyota Yaris has generated a lot of appeal among eco-conscious buyers thanks to its hybrid powertrain, while the ever-popular Volkswagen Polo continues to sell well. Probably most surprising is the Mini hatch, which has enjoyed a sales resurgence in the last year.

Obviously, other car manufacturers are dealing with semiconductor shortages as well, so monthly sales results are currently often as much a result of which companies have cars to sell as they are about customer demand.

Electric attraction


But there is yet another factor that has hurt Fiesta sales. Of the Corsa’s 41,000 UK registrations in 2021, close to 6,000 (or about 15%) of them were for the electric Corsa-e model. That’s 6,000 sales that Ford can’t touch as it has no electric Fiesta to offer.

At a time when UK consumers are rushing towards electrification, not only can you not buy an electric Fiesta, Ford has not revealed any plans to introduce one. In fact, the company’s electrification plans as a whole are somewhat indistinct, with the only current EV in its range being the Mustang Mach-E SUV.

Ford has committed to all its cars being either fully-electric or plug-in hybrid by 2026, which means we’ll presumably start seeing new model announcements later this year.

Declining demand


Even before the chip shortage, even before most of us had even heard of a coronavirus, Ford was already well aware that British appetite for its best-selling car was diminishing. Automotive News reported in February 2020 that Fiesta production at its German factory had been reduced as a result of falling UK demand – a third of the factory’s output had traditionally been sold here.

So while chip shortages, Covid, a lack of electrification, the new Corsa and sales cannibalisation from other Ford models all played a part, they still don’t tell the full story.

Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall registrations 2009-2021
Vehicle data: SMMT

The graph above shows Ford Fiesta sales each year from 2009 to 2021, compared to overall new car sales over the same years. The two blue stars on the graph in 2009 and 2017 represent the years in which new Fiesta models were launched, while the two red stars in 2014 and 2020 show the same for new Corsa models.

As you can see, the Fiesta’s popularity essentially followed the same path as the booming overall new car market (give or take a bit) from 2009 to 2015, but has been falling in relative popularity ever since. The current model, which arrived in 2017, has never able to match the popularity of its successful predecessor and has fallen dramatically in popularity since it was launched.

The Corsa struggled to keep up with the Fiesta during the boom years of the first half of the last decade, underachieving against overall market growth. Both cars fell in popularity quite dramatically in 2016 and again in 2017, but the Corsa has largely held a steady sales volume since 2017 – overachieving against the overall market. Fiesta sales, on the other hand, have gone into freefall.

This graph represents a seismic shift for both Ford and the overall UK car retail industry. Almost 100,000 fewer Fiestas in 2021 than five years’ before is nearly 300 fewer cars sold per working day. Yes, they’ve sold some Pumas lately (about 26,000 in 2020 and 28,000 in 2021) but that doesn’t go anywhere near making up the difference.

Too familiar?


Styling-wise, the current Ford Fiesta is essentially a smoothed-out evolution of the previous model, so maybe Ford needed to be bolder in differentiating it.

These pictures show just how similar the styling of the 2017–2021 Ford Fiesta is to the 2013–2017 version. A 2022 facelift has given the latest model a bit of a visual difference, but it’s still not that significant.

Compare the evolutionary style of the Fiesta with the dramatic step change that Vauxhall applied to its latest Corsa. There’s no way that any potential customer is going to confuse the current model with the previous generation.

The Car Expert has tracked and aggregated more than 100 reviews of the current-generation Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall Corsa, and the overwhelming view of motoring journalists is that the Fiesta is a substantially better car. But clearly that hasn’t been reflected in sales numbers.

If you’re bowling back into your local Ford dealer at the end of your PCP contract and being asked to drop another few thousand pounds on a deposit for a car that looks much the same as the car you already have, maybe you’ll start looking elsewhere?

Ford still claims best-seller status


Gardiner is keen to point out that Ford had the most popular vehicle of 2021 – but it wasn’t a car. “Transit Custom was the UK’s top-selling vehicle – beating all other passenger and commercial vehicles – and Transit the third best-selling vehicle,” he says.

“While it’s always nice to be No.1, that’s not what drives the Ford business in the UK,” Gardiner adds. “After all, you can’t put volume or market share in the bank. What we’re creating is a sustainable profitable Ford of Europe business that enables us to better invest in the vehicles and services that our customers want.”

Summary


So where does all this leave the Ford Fiesta? Again, we don’t really know. We can’t say for certain that the current model won’t be the last. As John Gardiner indicated, Ford will put its effort into the models that are going to bring the best return, which suggests the company will have no qualms about killing off some of its best-known traditional badges. In fact, the current Mondeo family car is the last of the line and production will end for good in a matter of weeks.

Is it fair to say that the current Fiesta just simply hasn’t grabbed the public’s imagination in the way that its predecessor did? Styling-wise, it’s essentially a smoothed-out evolution of the previous model, so maybe Ford needed to be bolder in differentiating it. Or maybe it’s simply no longer the right car for the job for about 100,000 UK car buyers each year who had previously bought one but have now gone somewhere else.

A facelifted model range is set to arrive in the next couple of months, which will give Ford a chance to rekindle public interest in the Fiesta. Its chance of correcting the car’s overall trajectory in the short term will obviously depend on parts availability, but beyond that it’s difficult to see a light facelift – and still no electrified models – making much of an impact.

If we are soon to be waving goodbye to the Fiesta, you can’t deny it’s had a good run. Sales in excess of 16 million since it first launched in 1976 makes it a success in anyone’s book.


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Additional reporting by Stuart Masson.

This article was originally published in February 2022, and has been updated in October 2022 to address the Fiesta’s imminent demise.

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.