Ford Fiesta ST: The faST show still an unrivalled pocket rocket hot hatch
ONCE upon a time, the pocket rocket was a staple of every self-respecting car manufacturer's line-up, writes William Scholes.
Boy and girl racers who learned to drive in mum's Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio, Vauxhall Corsa, Volkswagen Polo - the list goes on... - could graduate to a warmed-over version of the same car once the L-plates had been dispatched and they had a few years' of precious no claim bonus under their right foot.
Yet in 2021, the pint-sized hot hatch has all the hallmarks of having become an endangered species. Companies with illustrious back catalogues stuffed with brilliant fast small cars - notably Renault and Peugeot - no longer offer such a thing.
Yes, there is still plenty of choice in the family car-sized hot hatch market - machinery like the Volkswagen Golf GTI and R, Honda Civic Type R, Hyundai i30 N, Ford Focus ST, Renault Megane RS - but if you want something smaller, the choices are limited.
Volkswagen still does a Polo GTI, but that has never been taken terribly seriously by hot hatch cognoscenti. Mini has its Cooper S and John Cooper Works models, though these are big-car expensive. Also pricey is Toyota's GR Yaris, though depending on your point of view £30k is a bargain for a bespoke, four-wheel-drive rally stage refugee.
All of that means that as far as the classic small hot hatch formula is concerned, there's really only two 200bhp bespoilered and bolster-seated contenders vying for your circa £25k/monthly payments.
One is the Hyundai i20 N. It has arrived just as Renault, Peugeot, Vauxhall et al have run for the exit, and has all the makings of being a proper weapon in the mould of its big brother i30 N. Here at Drive we are yet to try it out, so until then full judgment is reserved...
However, the Hyundai will have to be an absolute cracker if it is to usurp its only serious rival, the Ford Fiesta ST.
Even in the old days when its competitors were more numerous, the Fiesta ST was a class-topper. And just because its rivals have faded away, Ford hasn't decided to kick back and take it easy.
A good hot hatch has to have a decent engine, and the Fiesta ST has a very special motor indeed. It's a 1.5-litre three-cylinder unit, but in case you think that sounds like it could be a bit anaemic, this turbocharged gem churns out 197bhp and 214 lb ft, accompanied by a genuinely characterful soundtrack.
Ford quotes a top speed of 144mph and a 0-62mph time of 6.5 seconds, though that doesn't quite convey the urgent thrust that the ST seems to have on tap in every gear at any time. There is much fun to be had wringing the engine out to the red line, grabbing the next gear, and repeating. This is exactly what a car like this should feel like.
There's a sensible side, too. To improve fuel efficiency when the engine isn't under load, the ST can shut down one of its cylinders, and it's commendably frugal, too. I recorded a little under 40mpg in my time with the car, much of which was spent, erm, carefully assessing the enthusiasm of the engine...
Of course, it takes more than a fizzy engine to make a special hot hatch. It has to be good in the corners too.
It helps that the regular Ford Fiesta is such a fine driving car to start with, and Ford has finessed this already-useful platform into something altogether memorable.
Take the suspension, for example, where the attention to detail can only be described as 'obsessive'.
There's a bespoke twist-beam rear suspension set-up, but this is taken to another level by the fitting of Ford's 'force vectoring springs'. Rather than being a universal fitting, these cold-formed, directionally-wound springs are tailored to a particular corner of the car.
The net result is that cornering forces travel directly into the spring, rather than deflecting sidewards, giving the rear suspension increased lateral stiffness.
Naturally, the suspension's dampers are a cut above what you'll find on a normal Fiesta, meaning trick Tenneco twin-tube units at the front and mono-tubes at the back, with high-tech valve technology to deliver frequency-dependent damping.
Other chassis goodies include a mechanical Quaife limited-slip differential, to improve cornering traction, torque vectoring control and a bunch of selectable drive modes to alter the engine, steering and stability controls to allow the driver to tweak the driving experience from school run to race track.
There's more going on under the skin, too - faster steering, a high performance braking system, grippy tyres - but from the driver's seat all you need to know is that all of the ST's carefully considered upgrades work together to give the car an almost-telepathic responsiveness.
But more than doing the driver's bidding as far as their inputs to the steering, throttle and brakes are concerned, the Fiesta ST is also one of those rare cars that wants to dialogue with you; it's constantly talking to you through the chunky steering wheel and the sensations you feel through the heavily bolstered Recaro seat. It never shuts up, in fact. If you find this annoying, then you probably aren't the target audience for an effervescent hot hatch...
This chatterbox personality makes the little Fiesta a fantastically trustworthy companion, which in turn encourages you to exploit the car's capabilities... and to have fun while you are doing it.
And while the ST is a properly quick little car, the interactivity it offers can be freely accessed at speeds which won't put your licence - and other road users - at risk.
It might seem an odd comparison, but there's something of the Mazda MX-5's it-makes-every-journey-fun personality about the Fiesta ST.
The ST's usability is enhanced by its diminutive size - it is never going to feel 'too big' on any Northern Ireland B-road - and suspension that while sportily firm is also supple enough to soak up the worst undulations of those same B-roads.
This composure will, for some drivers, give the Fiesta the edge on, for example, the hotter Mini Cooper S models which can feel like they have sacrificed control for stiffness.
How the Hyundai i20 N matches up on our roads remains to be seen. But it will have to be deeply impressive to get close to the sophistication, verve and sheer fun of the Ford Fiesta ST.
AT A GLANCE
Ford Fiesta ST-3 five-door
Price: £24,980. As tested: £26,930, with metallic paint £525, full LED headlamps £700, driver assistance pack £600, wireless charging £125
Engine and transmission: 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 197bhp, 214 lb ft
Performance: Top speed 143mph, 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds
Fuel consumption: 42.8mpg (WLTP combined); 38.9mpg (real world, during test)
CO2 emissions: 150g/km
VED: £220 in first year, then £155 annually
Benefit in kind: 34 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (tested in 2017)