When it comes to hot hatches, it’s a big Blue Oval love-in. Odd, when you consider the inordinate amount of time and encouragement apparently required to gain Dearborn’s consent for building one.
But when Ford finally pushes the button, something memorable does tend to appear 18 months later.
Increasingly nut-bar versions of the outgoing Renault Mégane aside, the Ford Fiesta ST has enjoyed our preferential treatment almost exclusively since it was launched in 2012.
We’ve practically dared people to buy one and, thanks to its pleasingly modest price, many have obliged. Against practically every other similarly spiced opponent – new or used – we consider that advice to be rock solid. Until, that is, you drive a Mk2 Ford Focus RS.
Then the sticky question of what to buy becomes a veritable peat bog, certain to suck you down to your kneecaps in aspect-weighing rumination.
The reason for that – so self-evident as to hardly be worth mentioning – is that the last RS, in all its black-spoiler-bottomed glory, is a special car and its depreciation to the sunny side of £20k makes it a compelling option, even with the usual secondhand hurdles to overcome.
Unlike the ST, there aren’t many of them around – and, clearly, there aren’t going to be any more. Low volume and a stellar reputation have kept the residuals predictably firm, and their exclusivity tends to mean that they are taken care of. The car gathered here, via the owners’ club forum, is a case in point.
Belonging to Peter Galbraith, the 2009-plater pictured above is mint. It has done about 38k miles, but you wouldn’t know it given its concentrated gleam and plastic seat covers redolent of heartfelt care.
It’s in better nick than Ford’s press car, and if you’d been told that it had come off the line three months ago, only the dashboard plastic and aged graphic displays would give the game away.
That, and the five-cylinder buzz that thrums through you when it fires up. It’s a big-chested kind of heartbeat; not evocative at idle, but interior-filling in a way that the Fiesta’s four-pot could never be.
That noise, and its latent brawniness, encapsulates much of the objective distance between the two Fords. The RS, famously, is powered by a heavily tweaked 2.5-litre Volvo engine. It is thirsty and now, just four years out, rather unforgivably dirty, emitting 225g/km of CO2. Yet it produces 301bhp and 324lb ft – 121bhp and 110lb ft more than its younger cousin.
On the road, that difference feels even greater than the second between them to 62mph suggests. In the Fiesta, in the best tradition of souped-up superminis, the 1.6-litre EcoBoost unit wants to be revved to death at every opportunity, papering over a faint suspicion of weediness at low crank speeds with a devil-may-care clout of its red line.
The RS, all burble and glowering heft, requires less theatrics. Well away from full throttle, it feels obligingly meaty and longer geared. Unlike the Fiesta, the Focus’ Borg Warner turbocharger isn’t quite as seamlessly integrated into the action.
It comes on stream a mite later and much more obviously – an affirmation of its age and size, but also making its spasming boost gauge a much grander part in the show. The gusty wallop makes the car brisk when you aren’t trying, but when you are, it feels fast in a different league from the Fiesta.
Of course, as diverting as the in-line five is, it’s the process by which Ford has the RS transmit its power to the ground that confirms its reputation.
When the latest generation of STs appeared, we were among the first to hail the firm’s cunning incorporation of cheaper, electronic solutions to the familiar problems of pumping big power through the front axle. But it only takes around a nanosecond in the Focus to revel in its oily, coolly controlled and emphatically more expensive way of doing things.
It isn’t necessary to understand how the RS’s RevoKnuckle counteracts torque to appreciate the sureness and uncontaminated steering that results, nor do you need to know that the limited-slip differential beavering away at every turn-in and power-on exit is supplied by Quaife.
The simple fact is that each component here works in impeccable union, resulting in one of the last hot hatches to feel fast not simply because an unseen microchip permits it but because it was designed, engineered and finely tuned for the job.
In turn, the Fiesta suddenly feels messy and a wee bit rudimentary. Launch with gusto and you’ll need to weave away a bit to keep it straight.
There’s significantly more pitch and dive, and when you come to a corner, a good deal more roll to moderate. The grip, through dinkier tyres and obviously slimmer track, is made to feel unfairly insufficient. Everything about the comparison, in fact, feels unfair on the little Ford.
Until, that is, you concede set and match to the Focus, stop trying so hard and – inevitably – start mucking about. Then, at speeds that the RS would solemnly dismiss as utterly inconsequential to its hold on the road, the ST begins to remind you what all the fuss is about.
Its built-in adjustability and impudent sense of fun is so outrageously accessible that it often seems like something one should only seek out under the cover of darkness is being sold to you over the counter. At rush hour.
The merest whiff of let-off will have the rear end tuck slyly in, while an altogether harder, faster entry followed by an abandoned throttle pedal will have the weight transferring with arcade-game levels of excess.
Although that kind of playfulness isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, one suspects that it suits the mindset of a younger audience – a thrifty market of which the Fiesta’s low, £17,250, asking price is very much primed to take advantage.
In the white-soled shoes of such a buyer, the £155 saving in annual road duty, a 17mpg improvement in economy, much lower insurance and the comfort of a three-year manufacturer’s warranty make the ST something of a no-brainer. But we’re older, wiser and more often shod in loafers.
The RS isn’t an über-talented runaround. Instead, it’s a modern classic made attainable. It’s one to keep in the garage and pamper, one to tick off the ownership list and one to some day boast about. Ford says that there’ll be a follow-up next year, but that’ll have too few cylinders and two too many doors. The Mk2 is the keeper, and worth every extra penny.
Ford Fiesta ST-2
Price £18,250; 0-62mph 6.9sec; Top speed 139mph; Economy 47.9mpg; CO2 138g/km; Kerb weight 1163kg; Engine 4cyls, 1596cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 180bhp at 5700rpm; Torque 177lb ft at 1600rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual
Ford Focus RS
Price £18,000 (price new: £24,995); 0-62mph 5.9sec; Top speed 163mph; Economy 30.5mpg; CO2 225g/km; Kerb weight 1467kg; Engine 5cyls, 2522cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 300bhp at 6500rpm; Torque 324lb ft at 2300-4500rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual
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