Time was when Ford produced the go-to hot hatchbacks and everyone else wondered which way they went. The tweaked ST versions of the Focus, Fiesta and even the Mondeo were top of the class in the business of going faster, but the more wieldy Fiesta ST was always that bit more special.
But then Renault got a bit more serious with its Clio, Vauxhall upped its game with the Corsa, Seat banged a Cupra badge on its Ibiza (we’re about to see the new version) and Toyota produced its spanking Gazoo Racing Yaris in disappointingly limited numbers. And while the Fiesta ST was still strong in this market (particularly in the UK, where it accounts for 10 per cent of all Fiesta sales) it was far from all-conquering.
Ford is still sulking about the non-appearance of last year’s all-new Fiesta on the Car of the Year shortlist (we’re also slightly puzzled), so this year’s debut of the ST is personal for the development team. You can’t win the Car of the Year award with a single model, but you can make a statement - and that’s pretty much what’s going on here.
So there's a fair bit of “debuting” and “world firsts” in the ST blurb, but the specs support the claims. The 1.5-litre, twin-cam three-cylinder is the acme of what can be done with these small-capacity turbo petrol engines. Despite fancy electronics and heavy boosting from the tiny turbocharger, it revs to a relatively gentle 6,500rpm - although no other three-cylinder revs that high.
Peak power is 197bhp and torque is 214lb ft, which gives this 1.2-tonne hatch a top speed of 144mph, with 0-62mph in 6.5sec, an EU Combined economy of 47.1mpg and CO2 emissions of 136g/km. The engine has about the same weight and power of the old 1.6 turbo, but is about 20 per cent more economical.
“It’s the package we were after,” says Leo Roeks, Ford Performance boss. “We wanted a well-rounded vehicle. I think that the difference between good and great sports cars is often found in their response linearity.”
Last year’s new Fiesta played it a bit safe, but is generally lauded. The ST has a go-faster version of the same interior, with more info on the dash and zingy colours including miles of blue stitching, but retains that slightly uneasy coexistence of hard- and soft-feeling plastics, slightly questionable cost-cutting and quite restricted rear seats.
As with outgoing Mark 2 version, there are three versions: ST 1, 2 and 3; with the top two models available with three or five doors. Burgeoning kit levels denote where you sit in this three-strong hierarchy, with ST2 giving snazzier wheels, Recaro seats suitable for those of weaselly proportions, blacked-out rear windows and blue front seat belts. Yes, blue.
The ST3 trim level is close to as good as it gets anywhere, with a lot of driver assistance and automatic features, a better centre screen and sounds, folding mirrors, a rear-view camera and red brake calipers. Yes, red.
Options on our test car included £600 LED headlamps, £475 blind-spot info and cross-traffic alert systems, as well as £850 for a Quaife mechanical limited-slip differential (offered on the top two models only).
What else have they done? The bodyshell is a bit stiffer and there’s some serious componentry, such as twin-tube, two-speed, racing-style dampers at the front and a revised steering knuckle for the MacPherson-strut front suspension purely so that the body can ride lower but have the same roll centres as the standard car.
At the back, the twist-beam suspension has directionally wound springs to increase stability and allow softer bushing for the reinforced torsion bar, which also has two-speed dampers. There are also grippy new bespoke Michelin tyres.
There are three modes of dynamic operation: normal and sport, plus with a racetrack-only setting which switches off the stability controls, allows launch control and big skids. It’s a bit gimmicky, but the limited-slip differential certainly isn't. Torque-sensing differentials work brilliantly and (with the right calibration engineers) they don't affect the steering too much, but they don't work when one driven wheel is in the air. Since the Ford also has a brake-based torque vectoring system, they can trail a brake on a lifting wheel which activates the differential. Elegantly simple.
On the outside, the Fiesta gets a relatively low-key set of badges and a unique grille that’s not as boy-racer as previous versions.
The engine warbles and buzzes on start-up. There are valves in the exhaust and a sound imposer to give the impression you’re on your way to the moon, but from the outside the ST is quite calm; rev it, though, and it sounds like the Dyson sucked in the cat's tail.
It responds relatively well, but a heavy flywheel and balancer shaft means it doesn't zing like previous four-cylinder ST engines. It pulls hard, though, from below 2,000rpm and the six-speed manual gearbox is an absolute delight, aided by a responsive, short-travel.
Change down at speed and the exhaust gently pops and bangs. There is also a fuel consumption-enhancing cylinder deactivation system, which is pretty hard to detect. Driven enthusiastically, the engine returned about 31mpg, but lower speeds and motorway driving brought the average up to almost 40mpg.
I decided to let the ST loose up the Col de Vence, a former rally stage in the Alpes Maritimes north of Nice. On the motorway to get there the ride felt jiggly, but less harsh than previous ST models, and the engine noise quite muted.
I began to fear that Ford’s little firecracker might have been dropped into a foot spa, but on the lower slopes of the mountains that was immediately assuaged. The steering is fast but not darty and on the tightest hairpins you can tread on the throttle earlier and after a blink of hesitation the differential pulls the front wheels through the turn.
It feels weird, like the hand of some benign deity helping you through the corner, and the steering feels slightly inert when this happens. But mostly though, the wheel is sublimely weighted and precise, imparting such confidence it’s hard to believe how fast you can go - there aren’t many cars that can be exploited like this ST. And, if you are so inclined, you can ease off the throttle in a corner, which tightens the line and eventually slides the rear wide, hooligan-style.
What’s more, thanks to the seat height adjustment (which Ford incautiously left off previous Recaro-equipped models), you can achieve a good driving position where you can not only see the road ahead but don’t feel as if you are sitting on the roof.
The new Fiesta ST is not the quickest of hot hatchbacks, but it is better rounded than most. On anything other than the smoothest roads with the widest corners, you’d never shake off a well-driven ST; it’s a true blue-collar supercar.
The major criticisms of the previous model were its ride quality, its poor electronic connectivity and its seating position, yet I gave it five stars. Since this new ST has addressed all three problems it would be downright mean not to award a solid five again.
Ford Fiesta ST
TESTED 1,497cc, three-cylinder turbo petrol, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive via a limited-slip differential
PRICE/ON SALE from £18,995 to £22,145 (as tested £24,070)/now (in showrooms this summer)
POWER/TORQUE 197bhp @ 6,000rpm, 214lb ft @ 1,600rpm
TOP SPEED 144mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 6.5sec
FUEL ECONOMY 47.1mpg/37.2mpg (EU Combined/Urban)
CO2 EMISSIONS 136g/km
VED £205 first year, the £140
VERDICT More expensive than its excellent predecessor, but still reasonably priced in the class - with dynamics that are at the top of it. Cramped in the rear seats and no luggage space to speak of, but fast, with sublime handing enhanced by the new Quaife limited-slip differential and expensive damping, with a new-found ride quality that makes the ST easier to live with. Even the three-cylinder engine feels special and the gearbox is one of the best.
TELEGRAPH RATING Five out of five stars
Volkswagen Polo GTI, from £21,000
Just launched and early reports suggest great refinement, but possibly at the expense of fun. The new Polo is comfortable and reasonably spacious, with a sophisticated range of drivetrains, but it's unexceptional to look at and the GTI version may be no exception.
Renault Clio 220 Trophy, from £22,995
Aimed at a less demanding audience than its predecessor with loads of kit and plenty of go with a 1.6-litre turbo and semi-automatic six-speed gearbox, but the steering doesn’t communicate, the handling is slightly stodgy and the gear ratios are spread strangely.
Peugeot 208 GTi, from £23,550
Delivers a well balanced mix of ride and handling energised by one of the best four-cylinder, 1.6-litre turbos. It's good to drive, reasonably comfortable, with a great cabin (apart from the weirdly small steering wheel without much adjustment).
Toyota Yaris GRMN, from £25,750
Pocket rocket with a difference, in part to do with its light weight but mostly to do with its supercharged 1.8-litre engine against everyone else’s small-capacity turbos. Great fun, fast and nippy with Toyota's build quality and reliability; it's just a shame they're all sold.
*Lease price from list price shown in the article is correct as of 20/05/2018 and are based on 9months initial payment upfront. Prices exclude VAT and are subject to change. Ts and Cs and Arrangement Fees apply.