The right stripes?

Let’s talk extreme. In the circa £14k hot hatch sector, the idea is expressed in two contrasting but equally compelling ways. One is called the Renault Clio 182 Cup. The 182 Cup costs £13,800. For that you don’t get too much in the way of ‘fancy’. It’s unconcerned with designer details, its cabin is a tad plasticky. But it says ‘182’ on the tin and that’s exactly what you get: horsepower - delivered purely, simply and thrillingly. Only three things really matter with the Renault. It’s light, it’s powered by a 16-valve engine with genuine thump and its suspension encapsulates the sum of Renault’s knowledge in the field of handling and ride. Which is considerable. This car is so hot it’s almost on fire.

Then there’s the £14,014 Mini Cooper Works. Despite its fast name, the Cooper Works has a relatively modest 126bhp. But that doesn’t matter because it also has steering to die for. It guides the Mini with a level of directness and accuracy that simply takes your breath away. When it comes to changing direction, most other hot hatches feel tranquilised by comparison. Added to that, the Cooper Works has shedloads of grip, especially at the front. It means that wherever you point it, it goes with the maximum of fidelity and the minimum of fuss. True, there isn’t attitude adjustability in the sense that the Clio Cup has attitude adjustability, and when the grip does eventually run out it tends to do so a bit suddenly. But there is an underlying composure and precision that no other supermini has. Call it the Mini’s unique selling proposition, if you like. The Mini is undeniably special. As special, in its own way, as the Clio.

Envy Ford’s job trying to turn the Fiesta into a thunder-stealing rival? No, neither would we. But there’s a reputation to defend here, and Ford simply had to get involved. For two reasons. The old Fiesta XR2, which ceased production in 1993, was a big hit and has been much missed. And, with the Focus RS, many believe Ford crafted the greatest hot hatch in history. The boys know their stuff backwards, inside out and upside down. They’ve even formed a new Team RS department to apply it efficiently.

First fruit of this is the Fiesta ST, and to say it’s come out fighting is something of an understatement. Under the strap line ‘Bring It On!’ the £13,595 ST is described, on Ford’s dedicated sporty Fiesta website, as ‘tough, tasty-looking and driven to perform. Rock solid handling is in everything it does.’ Warming to the theme, the marketing pitch goes on to talk about setting the pulse racing, rally breeding and being built to tackle anything the road throws at it and come out on top.

Out in Tuscany, at the ST’s international launch, the sell from the attending Ford personnel is somewhat softer and couched in less bullish soundbites, ranging from ‘affordable fun’ to ‘an even mix of attributes’. But ‘an even mix of attributes’ won’t cut much ice in a sector that contains the outrageously talented Clio and Mini. So as we prepare to head for the Tuscan hills in the most fiery Fiesta, it’s with some of the bolder claims - ‘the ultimate in small car handling’ and ‘a Focus ST170-matching lap time’ round Ford’s Lommel test track – ringing in our ears.

Making the latest-generation Fiesta look even slightly angry can’t have been easy, but Ford is good at this sort of thing and has done a convincing job with the ST. The makeover comprises smart, multi-spoke 17-inch alloys wearing 205/40R17 Pirelli P Zero tyres, chunkier bumpers and sills, numerous stylised ST badges, a wider and deeper front grille and a particularly well-judged tailgate top spoiler. Not quite as subtle are the optional full-length bonnet/roof stripes and sill flashes on our red test car that appear to have been lifted wholesale from the Ford GT supercar but cost an entirely reasonable £150 and £75 respectively, or £200 for both. Red paintwork isn’t a personal favourite, but I’d be tempted by blue stripes on pearlescent white bodywork (there are five special ST colours in all).

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Inside, the ST theming continues with a smattering of ST logos and part-leather sports seats, trimmed in red or blue depending on exterior colour. Extra brightwork on the dial surrounds, handbrake gearlever and ST-branded kickplates give the usually sober-to-a-fault cabin a further lift, though just as impressive are the standards of build and finish. The sports seats are comfortable, appropriately form-hugging and good to look at while the dash remains a deftly pitched mix of functionality and simplicity, despite the aesthetic flourishes. And the ST doesn’t skimp on standard hardware. The CD-based stereo system, in particular, sounds a lot more serious than you’d expect.

But that’s hardly the core issue. Question is, can the Fiesta ST deliver the required toe-down therapy to challenge the sector’s class acts? On paper, it seems to have the tools to slice into the pleasure zone somewhere between fun and fast. The 2.0-litre Duratec engine develops 148bhp at 6000rpm, supported by 140lb ft of torque at 4500rpm. Ford claims a 0-60mph time of 7.9sec, a maximum speed of 129mph and a brilliant subjective trade-off between mid-range torque and top-end bite. The suspension has been lowered, the spring, damper and steering settings painstakingingly honed over hundreds of thousands of miles of testing (including. inevitably, at the Nürburgring circuit), the all-disc braking system lifted from the more powerful Focus ST170 and the ratios of the five-speed gearbox bunched up for snappier acceleration. What we should be looking at, then, is a package that delivers forceful performance and dynamic tenacity with low-fatigue refinement and fine driveability.

For the first handful of miles, the ST feels reasonable quick but short geared and noisy. It’s not a particularly pleasant noise, either, with a large boom component. The impression of short gearing is undoubtedly massaged by the likable exuberance of the performance through the mid range. It isn’t that it doesn’t pull well from low down, just that it does its best work as the revs build. So you’ll need to be able to live with the sound of a hard-working engine and willing to work the short-throw gearchange – acceptably positive but not exactly slick – if you want to stay on the pace. Not the Clio’s pace, mind you: on any kind of decent straight, that would be a fast-shrinking dot heading for the horizon.

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The ST’s chassis feels harder-edged, more precise and more physical than any standard Fiesta’s, with modest body roll and genuinely keen turn-in. It’s well suited to these fast, snaking hillside roads with their short straights, curls, kinks, humps and dips. There’s no doubting the quality of the damping or the reassuring reserves of grip. Or, come to that, the hugely powerful and deliciously progressive brakes. In short, the basic poise and fluency of the ST is appealing. It has a real sense of finesse and precision.

But it is not the blast that the Clio or Mini would be on these roads. The steering, although accurate and well weighted at speed, has a curiously artificial feel with a kind of springy castor action that filters out crucial chunks of communication. There isn’t much in the way of adjustability, either, even with the stability control switched off. Even if you shut down the power on the limit mid-bend, no corrective lock is required – the understeer just gently abates. 

You sense talent in the ST; you can almost taste the effort that’s gone into making it more of a driver’s car. But the plain truth is – and a group test isn’t necessary to discover it – Fiesta can’t scale the same heights as the best of its rivals. You get the impression that if you were wired for pulse rate and blood pressure, the readout for your time with the Ford would indicate a slow drip-feed of adrenaline into the system. The car can entertain up to a point, but it’s more remarkable for the way it holds it all together under pressure. Over the same road in the Mini or especially the Clio Cup, the monitoring medic might have reason to suspect that that someone had emptied a whole syringe of adrenaline directly into your heart.

Yes, the ST is well priced. And yes, it’s more comfortable than the Mini. But the bottom line is this: when Ford decided to benchmark the Fiesta ST against the Peugeot 206 GTi, they probably chose the wrong car. The Peugeot sells so well because it’s pretty – something the Fiesta ST can never be. Driver satisfaction should have been the goal and the Clio (just £205 more expensive) the target.

David Vivian

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