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Ford Fiesta ST 2018 review
Third-gen hot Fiesta has plenty of pace and character, outstanding handling poise and a more sophisticated ride than its predecessor – another class leader in w
Remember when hot hatchbacks felt like a break from the rigorous commercial norm of the car business? Oddballs and extroverts such as the Mitsubishi Mirage Cyborg R, Citroën AX GT and Renault Clio V6? They certainly don’t make ‘em like that any more.
The modern descendents of these cars may still be fun to drive but, at least as far as the industry is concerned, they’re now also serious cars – and serious money-making machines. Often seen as key ‘brand-builders’ by the companies producing them, hot superminis are now twice as popular in Europe as they were just five years ago. And both the specification of the new third-generation Ford Fiesta ST and the evident time and effort lavished on it by in-house tuning department Ford Performance echo that commercial reality loud and clear.
Coming along just a year after the launch of the seventh-generation Fiesta hatchback on which it’s based, the new ST model has a list of hardware upgrades and performance features more lengthy and impressive, in many ways, than that of the car with which Team RS built its modern reputation: the 2002 Focus RS.
That it’s the first fast Fiesta to be available with a helical limited-slip differential for its driven front axle will be the headline-grabbing titbit plucked by many from the specification sheet (it’s optional and supplied by Quaife). But this is actually a car with so much new and interesting technical content that I’ll do well to cover all of it and find enough room for driving impressions. Here goes nothing.
The car’s departure point is a Fiesta chassis braced in key areas on the underside of the body-in-white, which is 14% more rigid than that of the standard car. The new ST model also has the fastest steering rack and the stiffest torsion beam yet to be fitted to a performance Ford. It has particularly interesting suspension, too, that is well worth geeking out about for a minute before we move on.
Frequency selective dampers from Tenneco feature front and rear, which are double-valved to better handle both high and low-frequency inputs than a conventional passive damper could; they’re not ‘adaptive’ per se; just clever.
Moreover, Ford fits asymmetrical, directionally wound springs onto the car’s rear axle, which are effectively bent into their fittings to apply a stabilising lateral force onto the rear wheels, as well as performing the usual load-bearing job. The springs address a key problem that hot hatchbacks with twist-beam rear suspension have always had; that, in order to effectively locate the rear axle and deliver top-level handling precision, you have to fit very rigid suspension mounting bushes that have a detrimental effect on ride sophistication.
These ‘torque vectoring’ springs, claims Ford, do as good a job as a Watt’s linkage in solving that problem, permitting the fitment of much softer ride bushes – and they’re also significantly lighter than a Watt’s linkage would be.
Up front, the Fiesta ST has a dedicated front hub design of the sort that"s becoming common among cars of its ilk, allowing Ford to lower the car’s ride height without lowering its front suspension roll centre too much and to keep control of front kingpin angle and wheel offset as necessary to avoid too much torque and bump steer.
The car’s overall spring rate is slightly higher than that of the outgoing car but, as the engineers behind chassis development will tell you, the new damping and bushing in combination contribute to a more mature, rounded feel to the ride – without taking that all-important playful handling balance and cutting-edge response from the handling. Sounds good. But too good to be true? We"ll get to that.
Those engineers will also tell you that, while they loved the last Fiesta ST, it certainly had a yobby, antisocial ride that they simply couldn’t justify transferring directly onto the new version. However, before you doubt them, be aware that they’re the same engineers who sent the Pilot Sport 4S tyres they’d originally intended for the car back to Michelin halfway through the development programme and insisted that only grippier Pilot Super Sports would do.
The Fiesta ST’s new engine is one about which, I dare say, you might already have read: an all-aluminium, three-cylinder, 1.5-litre turbocharged motor that gives the car identical peak power and torque figures as the outgoing model’s 1.6-litre four-pot – but which can also deactivate its middle cylinder and run on 66% of its normal swept volume in conditions of light load. That’s a three-cylinder engine capable of running on two – a car industry first.
Upshot? A 20% improvement on lab-test fuel economy and CO2 emissions compared with the old ST – while, as might be of more interest, the new motor is lighter than the one it replaces, too.
This is also the first Fiesta ST to have selectable driving modes: Normal, Sport and Track. As you cycle through them, that engine gets fruitier sounding as its active exhaust and engine sound synthesising system combine to bring additional layers of noise. There’s a distant flavour of the original five-cylinder Focus ST with the way this engine warbles and the torquey mid-range feel its performance has.
I’m not totally sold on the time it takes the crankshaft to slow down from high revs, I have to say – a function of the counterbalance measures that three-pots need to run smoothly at low engine speeds. I can’t help but wonder, either, how much faster the engine would spin, and how much more power it would develop, if Ford dropped the flywheel completely. Still, perhaps that’s just me. All in all, there’s certainly plenty of urgency, plenty of character and, in spite of the torque, a likeable willingness to rev.
Elsewhere, the Fiesta ST feels like the car it replaces in lots of ways; it has meaty, fixed-ratio steering with which it’s easy to gel in spite of its pace, as well as supreme handling response and brilliantly flat body control.
But the way it rides is something else. Having only driven the car on a test track, I can’t tell you with any certainty how it might deal with a British B-road – but there is quite a lot more suppleness and ride dexterity here than there used to be. Over what lumps and bumps I could find on our test drive, over which the last Fiesta ST’s dampers might have bristled and its body fidgeted, the new model’s suspension just sucks up the punishment and lets you get on with it.
Perhaps more importantly still, on surfaces over which you might have felt the need to apologise to your passenger for the selfishness of your buying decision in the last car, I suspect you won’t have to do the same in the new one. And that’s a bit of a revelation: a Fiesta ST that passes the ‘girlfriend/mother-in-law low-speed ride acid test’. Hurrah.
Equally brilliant is the car’s handling – although that much we expect of a Ford performance product. The Fiesta ST feels a shade more precise in its steering response than the last one did, turning in more crisply, gripping harder and staying slightly truer to your intended path than its forebear as the lateral load builds into the rear tyres. It’s certainly capable of carrying more cornering speed than the last car and has a little bit more mid-corner stability, while traction on corner exit is quite subtly but notably stronger than it was through the machinations of that Quaife limited-slip differential.
But fear not: the car is still a barrel load of fun when you disengage the stability control and unload the rear axle. On a trailing throttle, the Fiesta ST can be teased into easily tamed oversteer more dependably and willingly than any other hot supermini I can think of.
Its handling balance and adjustability remain truly exceptional – in a way that speaks volumes about the philosophy of chassis engineers who think a front-wheel-drive performance car that isn’t sensitive to controllable lift-off oversteer just isn’t worth their time. And who also can’t understand why so many of their rivals seem to be so afraid of the phenomenon that they try to engineer it out of the handling mix entirely. Lucky for Ford, I guess, that they are.
Given how many new arrivals have lately come into the market niche that the last Fiesta ST so plainly bossed, and how short our initial test drive was, we’ll leave the decision as to whether this car is another Ford performance class-leader and world-beater for another day.
It’s right up there, mind you; as good as any ST-badged Ford I’ve ever driven and none the worse as a driver’s car, I’m pleased to report, for what’s pretty plainly an attempt to give it a slightly broader appeal.
We"d be putting Renaultsport, Mini, Toyota, Suzuki, Volkswagen and Seat on notice, as if they aren"t there already; but it"s worth spelling it out in any case. It may be down a cylinder but, when this year’s very best affordable performance cars are weighed and measured, the Ford Fiesta ST will take some serious beating.
Ford Fiesta ST specifications
Location Lommel, Belgium Price £18,995 On sale June Engine 3cyls inline, 1500cc (tbc), turbocharged, petrol; Power 197bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 214lb ft at 1600-4000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight tbc; 0-62mph 6.5sec; Top speed 144mph; Economy 55mpg (tbc); CO2/tax band 114g/km; Rivals VW Polo GTI, Renaultsport Clio 220 Trophy
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