IT WASN’T that long ago that hot hatches were rare beasts. Today, we can barely cross the road without being mowed down by one. Well, not quite, but it’s true to say that there has been a proliferation.
The big boys in the mid-size range include the Ford Focus ST and RS, the Honda Civic Type R, Peugeot 308 GTi 270, Mercedes-AMG A45, VW Golf R and Mégane Renaultsport 275, while the pint-size contenders to emerge comprise the Vauxhall Corsa VXR, Clio Renaultsport 220 Trophy, Audi RS3 Sportback and Ford Fiesta ST.
There are plenty more besides, but now is neither the time nor place for a Wikipedia style list of every pocket rocket every to smoke its tyres.
The last entry above, though, stands out from the pack. The Ford Fiesta ST was first introduced as a hot version of the Mk5 Fiesta, in 2005, but the ST-badged Fiesta Mk6, launched in 2013, proved to be a real cracker.
Its chassis is compliant without excessive body roll but more importantly, it feels alive under your backside, the 179bhp EcoBoost engine (with overboost to 197bhp for 15 second bursts) causing the front wheels to scrabble at the Tarmac, but almost always finding grip, the car feeling lithe, light and responsive. In Clarkson’s words, “You have understeer and liftoff oversteer and patches of cling-on-for-dear-life grip, and the upshot is: it’s bloody good fun.”
In fact, since then the standard ST has had a number of changes to the chassis, available on models produced since last summer – essentially stiffer roll bars but softer suspension – that seem to have all but eliminated any hint of understeer, thereby adding grip and composure while keeping its exceptionally spirited character.
Now, to celebrate the Fiesta’s 40th anniversary, and as a swansong for the Fiesta ST in this current generation, we get the ST200, which takes all of the chassis updates from the current ST but squeezes more performance from the 1.6-litre engine. Officially rated at 197bhp for the UK market, it too gets an extra 15bhp boost, only now for 20 seconds at a time, so the maximum output is actually 212bhp.
“The ST200 found front-end grip where at times there didn’t appear to be any. Which is fortunate”
Our road test involved mainly country lanes in conditions that would have been described on old Top Gear as “Biblically wet”, with the surface in short order turning from road to river. We had the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the “standard” Fiesta ST-3 (the top trim level) before climbing into the new ST200, and neither seemed concerned in the slightest with the deluge. Even the ST200 found front-end grip where at times there didn’t appear to be any. Which is fortunate.
The power increase isn’t excessive but torque is up from 177 lb ft to 213 lb ft (236 lb ft with overboost), making the extra punch noticeable when climbing from one car to the other, and mid-range poke is improved, meaning you can keep it in gear for longer before having to change down.
Meanwhile, Ford has tuned the electrically-assisted steering and its snappy early turn-in is now even snappier. Put all the incremental improvements together and you get what might be one of the quickest and most entertaining ways to get cross-country that money can buy.
And money is where the catch may come for some buyers. At £22,745, the ST200 commands a premium of exactly £3,000 over the ST-3. Considering Ford’s friends at Mountune can sell you an £800 kit to up the power of the standard ST to match that of the ST200, you’d really have to want the security of knowing your car is factory built by Ford itself to buy one, even if the ST200 does have its unique, faster accelerating gearbox and brilliant new, supportive Recaro racing seats. It’s also worth noting that the Fiesta’s dashboard is still funky but is beginning to cry out for a touchscreen-type refresh, as has gone on in the Focus.
There are other fast hatchbacks out there to consider, too, with Renaultsport, in particular, offering very serious rivals for similar or less money. But it’s hard to come away from driving the ST200 without having fallen completely and utterly in love with its composure, vivacity and sheer A-to-B domination. On a country lane, the new top dog Fiesta is almost unbeatable.