One-day Test: Ford Fiesta ST
Where the wild things are
I will be the first to admit that I’m easily won over when it comes to hot hatches. But it is difficult not to be smitten by a platform that, in this day and age, is able to produce some white-knuckle performance, carry five people with relative ease, and still help you move house.
For the first time, we’re seeing the hot hatch segment being split into a few distinct segments. On the one hand we have the traditional Golf GTI, Mégane RS and Focus ST grouping. One step up , you have Audi’s RS3, BMW’s M135i and Merc’s A45 AMG
Combined, these groups comprise some truly exciting cars that cover a lot of different angles. The BMW is as premium as an executive sedan on the inside, but has more horses under the bonnet than a vintage Ferrari, while the Mégane RS is as deadly on a track as any of the traditional weekend-warrior racing specials.
But there is a part of the old hot hatch mantra that is missing from all of those cars: the fact that anyone should reasonably be able to afford one. And that is where the featherweight hot hatches come in.
If you thought that the battle at the top was epic, then you are in for a surprise, because down at the junior end, things are even tighter between the three main contenders. Renault has a new Clio RS 200 waiting in the wings. Peugeot’s all-new 208 GTI makes its local debut next week. And Ford finally has, after nearly 10 years, a new Fiesta ST.
And it is the Ford that I have with me today.
On the outside, there is no mistaking this for a vanilla Fiesta. The Aston Martin-style maw is visually overpowering, and sets the tone for the rest of the exterior changes. Those 17-inch ST wheels, a rear spoiler and colour-coded diffuser finish what the nose started and together, give the Fiesta a very polished and identifiable look.
Behind the massive doors (the Fiesta is only available in a three-door format) lies an interior that is less congruent.
The centre console is a smorgasbord of buttons and dials, and in a way that doesn’t add much to the navigation of the system. Only spending one day in a car isn’t enough to get in sync with its ergonomics, but in the Fiesta I can feel that it would be a difficult relationship, regardless of how much time you had.
There is a decent amount of kit in the cabin though. A real keyless entry system means that the Fiesta’s key doesn’t ever have to leave your pocket, and the Sony sound system offers endless tweaking options thanks to its digital signal processing capability.
There is also Bluetooth, an auxiliary input jack, and a USB port. But all of those are also available on the normal Fiesta.
What is unique are those big, fabric-upholstered Recaro sport seats, which are snug and comfortable and look the part in a two-tone colour scheme. They are also huge and take up much of the space in the cabin, but all utility lost in this way is paid back in sheer visual impact terms.
It is not the best cabin that I’ve seen, and I personally prefer the minimalistic styling of the Clio, or the smart style of the 208, but it is the only place on earth that will allow you to enjoy what is under the bonnet of the Fiesta.
Ford claims that the local Fiesta ST is equipped with a 1,6-litre four-cylinder mill good for 134 kW and 240 Nm, but I am not convinced. Abroad, the engine is credited with an overboost function that allows the torque to increase to a 290 Nm peak for 15 seconds at a time, and while it is not officially mentioned in the SA specifications of the car, I’m convinced that the same feature has been retained here: you can feel the difference.
In the USA, the Fiesta is actually rated at 147 kW because the overboost function there also ramps up the maximum available power. So let’s instead say that the Fiesta has at least 134 kW and 240 Nm of torque – and possibly quite a bit more.
That urge is fed to the front wheels through the same electronic diff that you’ll find on the Focus ST, and you can really feel the connection. I remember the Focus’ unwavering ability to slice through a corner under full throttle, and the Fiesta only improves on that.
Put the car into Sports mode by pressing the ESC button, and it will allow for a decent amount of tyre slip as well, and you can then start to juggle the throttle and the steering through corners.
The whole process is addictive, and the exhaust note sounds as if it was modelled on tthat of the S2000 Fiesta rally car. It buzzes and rasps through the rev range, and will even activate its dump valve when you come off the accelerator.
Ford pipes some of the noise into the cabin via resonator pipe, which adds to the aural pleasure, but may be considered a little contrived.
The ST is fast, but it’s not perfect, though. The seating position never felt quite right because the steering column isn’t reach-adjustable, and the six-speed manual gearbox’s action feels far to plastic.
The electric steering is also too twitchy when you really start to build some speed, and does feel a little dead. There is a worry that it will let you down through a more challenging set of high-speed corners, such as on a track or through a mountain pass.
But the ST ticks all the boxes that are important to a hot hatch with a thick, red, fun-loving crayon. It’s not perfect, but if there ever was a time to say close enough, this is it.