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).
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.