In his Ford Fiesta ST review: First drive, Ben Griffin puts the 197bhp, three-cylinder through its paces along the stunning roads of Nice to see whether it is still a class-leading supermini and whether it is better than the ST200.
It was with trepidation I stepped into the Ford Fiesta ST, having arrived in the particularly swanky area of Nice for the European test drive. Ford has always been a blue collar favourite and cars like the XR2i and Fiesta represent no-frills affordable fun. You need not have had shares in Facebook from day one to afford a slice of the action.
Because let’s face the reality that, while you may dream of owning a McLaren 570S, it is probably a fast, vastly cheaper Ford that will end up on your driveway. Assuming, of course, you can even get on the property ladder, which in this day and age is as likely as owning a supercar.
And you would be okay-ish with that because a fast supermini can be serious fun – the sort you can deploy on public roads, too. This is where Ford has always shined. Just look at the Focus RS for proof, that is a car that can batter far pricier machinery and it does so with attitude.
The problem is that these days the blue oval company has to work around emissions regulation, increasingly dilapidated roads, rising fuel costs, ridiculous insurance premiums and other miserable issues. Not only that, people’s expectations have increased. You were happy with a cup holder and a 12v socket that managed to avoid electrocuting you, now a car has to offer Apple CarPlay, go fast, be cheap to run, sound good and do your laundry. Well, maybe not the last one. That means a higher price tag, which is an issue when salaries have largely stagnated.
Creating the new Ford Fiesta ST was, therefore, a mammoth task. But not just because it has to tick all those aforementioned boxes, it also needs to be a viable option for the petrolhead masses who escapism on a budget.
It is lucky, then I can say with very little reservation that Ford has nailed it.
Ford Fiesta ST review: What’s the deal?
What you are looking at is the most potent version of the 2017 Fiesta, which is the successor to a car that sold better than everything else for eight years in the UK.
In its seventh-generation form, it is longer, wider and taller and comes with a much tidier cabin and greater levels of technology. The design is more reserved than previous small Fords, but the standard 17 inchers fill the arch nicely and there is just enough aggression about it.
When it comes to the new Fiesta ST (available as a three or five-door), Ford Performance has ditched the four-cylinder of a new three-cylinder EcoBoost, which sounds like a bad idea. Except it pumps out a frankly ridiculous 197bhp, while torque is an equally healthy 213lb/ft from just 1,600rpm. This allows a 0-62mph time of 6.5 seconds, bettering the ST200, and a top speed of 144mph. In a supermini. It also benefits from cylinder deactivation for improved frugality.
Other areas have seen significant additions and improvements, the sort usually reserved for much pricier cars. Spend £895 on the Performance Pack and you get a Quaife limited-slip differential, which is there to aid turn-in and let you enjoy all that power more easily alongside Ford’s Torque Vectoring Control system.
Then there is are the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, which usually spend their time helping a supercar corner, not a £20,000 supermini, and the addition of launch control for giving you the best chance of embarrassing other cars at the traffic lights. Another first is the addition of driving modes, which alter the character, depending on whether you select Normal, Sport or Track.
As for the suspension, an area where the ST200 lost points (unless you wanted a crumbled spine), Ford spent three times as long coming up with what it calls force vectoring springs (patented) that work in conjunction with equally clever directionally-wound springs and Tenneco dampers. The result is a livelier front-end, more forgiving ride and the stiffest twist-beam stiffness of any Ford Performance model, but without being as unforgiving.
Steering-wise, the Fiesta is 14 per cent faster than the ST200 and faster than any Ford Performance model on sale, which also helps emphasise the agility. Infotainment, meanwhile, is taken care of by Sync 3 and a 6.5-inch touchscreen display (upgradeable to 8 inches at extra cost), with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support included.
Safety is another area where the Ford Fiesta ST has been improved. Standard kit includes a lane-keeping aid, lane-keeping alert and cruise control with a speed limiter. Rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlamps and Traffic Sign Recognition are among a number of extras you can whack on top.
All of this is great, but the price you pay is about an extra 100kg on its predecessor. But does that matter?
Ford Fiesta ST review: Is it less fun to drive than the ST200?
For a car with super-grippy tyres, you get an exceptional blend of competence and hooliganism. On day one, the roads were absolutely soaked yet it was actually rather nerve-wracking (given the huge drops and large trees on the side of the road) to reach the edge of grip. And when I did, the beautifully progressive limited-slip differential and torque vectoring tucked the nose back in with impressive enthusiasm.
Owing to such sharp steering, the new Fiesta feels positively brimming with energy and the impressively grunty 1.5-litre three-cylinder means straight-line performance is not only fast, it is effortless. There is no need to jump down from third to, for instance, make it up a hill or ensure the fastest corner exit speed. Just keep the revs above 1,600rpm and away you go like a bat out of hell.
Braking is just as good. You can easily lose speed delicately, which was useful on the higher speed areas of Route Napoleon, but also give your whiplash if you wuss out on your corner speed a little too late. The level of feel is exactly as it should be, adding to the Fiesta ST’s intuitive feel.
Being a three-cylinder, there is some artificial engine noise trickery going on but it is much less obvious than in the Focus RS. And, in fact, it is only because of the level of refinement that Ford had to pump it in because, as you find out when the window is down, it is actually as noisy as it is enjoyable. You get a really likable mix of burble and turbo whoosh that is made noticeably louder in the Sport and Track modes.
At times, the Fiesta ST feels like a baby rally car and as my fellow motoring journalist and I blitzed along the winding roads of Nice – especially on the dry second day – I found myself trying to make the Fiesta ST slip-up. But it never did. Not once. If you want a car that can corner so hard the inside rear wheels lift off the ground, this is it. It may as well be an RS model.
Thankfully, then, it is more dynamically capable than its predecessor and even the ST200. But it is also much easier to live with, thanks to the new suspension setp. Where you used to have an overly harsh ride that struggled with bumps, the new Fiesta ST is rarely anything but comfortable – particularly with the well-cushioned and supportive front seats keeping you glued in place.
Supposedly cylinder deactivation has been included, but it is so seamless you would never notice. Nor did I have any issues with the sublime six-speed manual gearbox (except the fact I had to operate it with the wrong hand), which is short on throw and tall on enjoyment. The lack of an automatic, as seen in some of its rivals, is refreshing. Really, the only gripe (and it is a good one) is that 1st and 2nd come and go so quickly you can easily hit the limiter.
Ford Fiesta ST review:What about the interior?
Vastly better than its predecessor and the likes of the old Focus, that is fair to say. But it lacks a little of the wow-factor seen in the 2018 Nissan Micra and a couple of its other rivals. It is, however, of decent quality and far fewer buttons make it much easier to use, while the odd tastefully located ST badge does provide a touch of sportiness.
In fact, the only annoying bit about the new Fiesta ST is Sync 3, which is largely intuitive but the navigation system makes it easy to take the wrong turn and the user-interface looks dated already, which is odd given that it is reasonably new. You can, of course, use Android Auto or Apple CarPlay if you prefer, although neither of those are that great either.
Practicality is another plus, with the boot able to store up to 311 litres with the rear seats in place and 1,093 with them folded down. We managed to get in all our filming gear, suitcases and other bits and bobs without too much hassle, although the door bin design makes storing a water bottle difficult.
It is worth noting that the digital dials behind the steering wheel come across as well-designed. Not only are they easy to see and display only what is necessary, it makes life easier. For instance, coming to a halt prompts launch control, saving you the hassle of having to find it within the menu system.
Ford Fiesta ST review: Bet it is overpriced
Not really, no. Prices start from £18,995 and at this price you get enough gadgets and gubbins. But realistically, it is a little performance car so you will need to spend the extra £895 on that limited-slip differential-toting Performance Pack to get the most fun out of it.
Owing to a claimed 471.mpg, the new Fiesta ST is actually quite cheap to run, too, and the CO2 emissions are on the low side.
But I was there to put its performance credentials to the test, not drive efficiently (that will be done in the UK). In doing so, my copilot and I managed to end up with just 40km of fuel left when we should have had loads, suggesting the little three-cylinder can drink like a fish.
Ford Fiesta ST review: Should I buy one, then?
Based on our impressions in Nice, very much so. Short of some catastrophic oddity when driving the new Fiesta ST in the UK, I can only see it retaining its position as the best in class. It does everything better than the old ST and ST200, but without the overly harsh ride. Ford could have stuck an RS badge on it and I would have been pleased.
Quite simply, the Fiesta ST is an exceptionally well-judged, fast and comfortable car that is just such fun to drive. More so than a lot of cars that cost two or three times as much. If you want big fun on a small budget, there is nothing better out there.
Hell, even those who did invest in Facebook and have all the cash in the world will find the level of potency truly remarkable.