Introduction: Triple threat
Three-pot hottie knows how to cut the rug
- Price as tested: $32,940
- This month’s fuel economy: 226km @ 7.8L/100km
As introductions go, this one’s hardcore. Sitting on the starting line at Heathcote Raceway, the Fiesta ST’s three-cylinder patiently idling away as I toggle the drive mode selector to ‘Track’, it dawns on me that my first experience of my new long-termer will be a full-bore acceleration run at the dragstrip. No gentle ‘Hello’, no warming up period, no cruisy drive to sample the shift action or how power is delivered. Just 3000rpm, a quick clutch dump and as much throttle as the front axle can handle during the sprint to 400m.
This is one of the first Fiesta STs in the country, and having to collect it from Ford means online editor Cam Kirby arrived late to Heathcote. We’re here for our cover shoot with the Mercedes-AMG A45 and to run both cars down the dragstrip. Find them an odd pairing? Don’t fret, our logic is sound: few hatches carry as much hype as these two, or as much interest from people who really care about driving. Plus, they neatly bookend the hot hatch segment – the $93K ‘hyper hatch’ A45 packing 310kW/500Nm and this more attainable $32K Fiesta ST punching out 147kW/290Nm.
Predictably, they couldn’t be more different at the strip. Where the A45 does its best to force all of the skin on your face towards your ears as it tears away from the line to hit 100km/h in 3.9 seconds, my first launch in the Fiesta is a tangled mess of wheelspin and shuddering axle tramp. There’s more torque than I was expecting from a three-pot. It sounds fruitier than I was anticipating, too, and the sound symposer system (which boosts theatrics by piping exhaust noise through the speakers) is fairly subtle and authentic.
The second and third runs are cleaner, my technique being finessed with each launch. Managing wheel spin is the biggest priority: it’s 31 degrees and the unprepped surface is slippery enough to have the 18-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres chirping as I shift into third. It feels fast, and the sensation is far more exciting than the numbers suggest. My best run takes 6.7sec to reach 100km/h, which is a couple of tenths off Ford’s official 6.5sec claim. The quarter takes 14.9sec at 154.8km/h. Not bad given I didn’t use the launch control feature or exploit the ST’s ability to handle flat shifts (ie not lifting the throttle on upshifts). Mechanical sympathy won out there.
But here’s the thing – I’m quickly learning the Fiesta is about more than binary acceleration figures. Just as its real-world performance feels faster than the numbers suggest, the rest of the car imbues an immediate sense of personality and fun. It sounds naughty, even at idle, and obvious thought has gone into how you interact with the car. All of the control weights are nicely judged, the stubby gear shifter fluidly snicks from slot to slot, and you’re cocooned in heavily bolstered Recaros. The seats are so good you quickly forget you’re set a little higher than you’d like, though while they hug me comfortably, others could find them a little snug.
I won’t be wanting for equipment, either. Aussie STs score a full suite of advanced safety gear, an 8.0-inch central touchscreen with clear graphics and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and all of the extra ‘go fast’ bits usually reserved for an optional Performance Pack (Quaife LSD, 18s, launch control) as standard. The only extra cost to our example is Ford Performance Blue paint for $650.
It’s a strong first impression, then, yet the real measure of a great hot hatch isn’t how quick it is in a straight line, but how it tackles a tortuous back road. Three months of lift-off oversteer and cocking inside rear wheels await.
Update #2 Expecting big things
On the hype train – first stop, scepticism
- This month’s fuel economy: 344km @ 8.1L/100km
People I have been remarkably positive about the Fiesta ST. Scott Newman, MOTOR’s road test editor and an authority on all things fast and flashy, says it’s one of the top three performance cars he’s driven. Then there’s Trent Giunco who, having road tested my car in a recent issue of Wheels, is still telling anyone who’ll listen how it “just won’t understeer” and that it’s more fun than a Lambo.
Okay, that last part isn’t true, but you get the point. So why am I wondering what all the hype is about? All I can think, as I bounce and jiggle my way to complete my weekly shop, is that the ride is pretty firm. And that the turning circle, courtesy of the super-fast 12:1 steering rack, feels wider than the orbit of the moon. And that when I close the door, there’s an odd plasticky graunch like the seatbelt buckle gets caught.
I know the reason: COVID-19. What a buzz-kill this virus turning out to be. Self-isolation, which initially sounded okay because it meant we could all work from home, quickly turned into purgatory when I realised it meant we could no longer just ‘go for a drive’.
There’s a silver lining, however. We had the ST booked in for a comparison test with the Polo GTI and Suzuki Swift Sport, and given this could be explained away to the constabulary as work, I loaded my pockets with hand sanitiser and grabbed the keys.
That first proper drive wasn’t so much eye-opening as it was revelatory. There’s something joyous about a well-sorted and slightly over-powered hatchback, and this one’s special. Next month’s comparison will tell all, though the Fiesta ST smacks of being created by people who care about driving. The front axle is incredibly sharp, and the steering, which felt so woeful in the car park at Coles, coalesces as the speeds rise. Its accuracy and immediacy are almost perfectly judged. You don’t steer this car with your arms; mostly you guide it with your wrists.
But the best bit is the playfulness of the chassis. Pile in a smidge too hot (205-section front rubber means it will push if you get too greedy) and you have two options: grab the throttle early and feel the diff help pull you towards the apex, or lift off and revel in readily accessible degrees of oversteer. Track mode is your friend here. It slackens the electronic safety net to allow a quarter turn of corrective lock, though it still has your back should you overstep. It’s amusing, addictive, and crucially, the fun is accessible at sane speeds on regular roads.
So the hype is real. The ST is deserving of the praise. And that plasticky sound when you close the door isn’t crummy build quality, but the noise of retracting plastic guards that spring open to protect the door edge. I guess that’s another positive...
Update #3: A game of confidence
What happens when you take the grip away?
- This month’s fuel economy: 519km @ 7.9L/100km
The road snakes away into the gloom, its slippery surface climbing and disappearing into the low-slung tree cover. Puddles shimmer in the weak morning light and even from here, parked as I am on the hard shoulder, I can just make out wet clumps of leaf litter lurking in the shadows. This isn’t a road to be trifled with. Get it wrong here and you won’t run wide; you’ll run into a jagged earth wall or shoot into the ether before plummeting into the thickly grouped trees below.
Fast running in conditions like these requires confidence, both in your ability to read the road and in the car beneath you. The Fiesta is relishing the challenge.
This is its first real crack at anything other than bone-dry tarmac and I’d worried that a low grip surface might expose some previously hidden dynamic flaws. Torque steer was my primary concern, closely followed by savage snaps of oversteer should I lift too suddenly. Memories of a fellow journo disappearing backwards into the undergrowth in the previous-gen ST loom large, though this new car is far more forgiving.
True, the steering is ultra-fast, but slow your inputs down a little and it’s remarkably easy to place the front tread blocks exactly where you want them. The balance front-to-rear is expertly judged too, and far from backing off, I soon find myself loosening the electronic safety net to initiate small slides through the apexes of the tighter turns.
The conditions mean I feel faster on the way in than I do on the way out, though there’s something deeply satisfying about sensing the Quaife LSD tighten to pull the nose into line as I power through the exit. It’s high consequence driving, though I’d rate that run up a rain-soaked mountain road as one of my driving highlights of 2020. I doubt my speed ever crept higher than 70km/h.
Pulling up to watch the sun set outside the (now dry) country town of Healesville gives me time to reflect. It really is masterfully complete, this little Ford. So much so, that I find myself wondering what I’d prefer: one of these, or the fractionally more expensive Mazda MX-5 1.5? They offer different paths to the same means, though the Ford’s crisper body control and keener front end get it over the line for me. The fact it can also lug about four mates, and their shopping, in relative comfort is testament to the appeal of a well-sorted hot hatch.
And while the rear-drive Mazda might have the edge in power down adjustability, I know which would be quicker up a soaking Victorian backroad. It really is a giant killer, this little Ford.
Update #4: A firm goodbye
It’s a hot hatch for the ages, if you can handle the ride…
- This month’s fuel economy: 1119km @ 7.1L/100km
- Overall fuel economy: 2207km @ 7.5L/100km
Funny how an end date sharpens the focus. After four months in the Wheels Garage, during which it has endured a global pandemic, suffered slobbering dogs, scampered up slimy B-roads and shrugged of freezing winter mornings, it’s time for the Fiesta to return to Ford.
The consequences of this looming departure have been twofold. The first is that, in order to squeeze out every last drop of fun while I still can, I’ve started to drive with a possessed kind of urgency. Even quick dashes to the shops have become hyperactive affairs, and I’ve discovered it’s easy to dial up the drama, and the fun, without dialling in the attention of the local police.
Sport mode is my new default and it’s been something of a revelation. Throttle response is considerably sharper, the steering gains a meatier edge, and the exhaust note is much more pronounced with additional cracks and pops on the overrun. For best results, however, I’d recommend activating Race Track mode and dropping down the 60:40 folding rear seats to better allow the surprisingly deep baritone of the gutsy three-pot to fill the cabin. Mercifully, given the already taut ride, dialling up the drive mode aggression does nothing to alter the firmness of the dampers.
I’d been expecting this month’s fuel figures to skyrocket (heavily boosted three-cylinder engines are notoriously thirsty when driven hard), though once again, the Fiesta has been one of the thriftiest members of our Garage. Only Andy’s CX-30 drank less fuel.
Which segues nicely into the second consequence of the Fiesta’s departure: mulling the finer points of its ownership experience. Ultimately, the Fiesta’s driveability/liveability balance is overwhelming positive, though there are a few caveats worth mentioning should you be considering buying one.
Take the packaging, for example. On balance, it’s excellent. I’ve relished the sense of nimbleness and opportunity that comes from driving such a small car (especially when jagging tight parking spots), and Ford has done a decent job of using the available space. The 311L boot is large enough for two border collies, and as I found out when setting up my home office, if you fold the rear seats you can fit an office chair, a desk and a large computer monitor.
Care has been given to rear-seat passengers, too, who will appreciate decent vision and supportive cushions, but knee-room is at a premium which makes the rear bench more of a kid-friendly zone. And a large turning circle erodes the aforementioned sense of nimbleness when parking.
There’s less to complain about up front. The Recaro seats are excellent, all of the controls are logically laid out, and SYNC3 is simple to navigate and works well with Apple CarPlay. Fussier minds might complain about the extensive use of hard plastics, but few could find issue with the level of standard equipment on offer.
But my biggest bugbear, by far, is the ride. It might deliver superb control and nuance on a winding road, but in day-to-day driving the Fiesta is jittery and jostles its passengers. At first I was so taken with how the Fiesta drives that I accepted the firm ride as fair trade, but this month the scales tipped from tolerable to tiresome. It’s become such an issue that my wife now refuses to take the Ford on longer drives because “our Golf GTI is way more comfortable”. If you’re buying a Fiesta ST as your sole family car, I’d express caution.
Still, while its extended stint may have dulled its sheen a little, there’s no denying this is a brilliant hot hatch. But with its return looming, my attention is already shifting towards its replacement. Another Ford will fill these pages next month and it too will wear an ST badge. It’s going to have big shoes to fill…