Remember when you didn’t have to choose between buying a car that was cheap and one that was fun? Back in the halcyon days of the hot hatchback, when Peugeot 205 GTIs roamed the earth, for little more than the price of a standard shopping car, you could buy one you’d be happy to use every day, and while you did so, it made you feel good about the world and yourself. Well, those days are back.
The affordable hot hatch has been on the endangered species list for a while, with rare sightings of Renault Clio Renaultsports usually being the only evidence of their continuing existence. But within the next month a new wave will arrive, including a next-generation Clio Renaultsport and Peugeot’s third attempt at replacing the 205 GTI, the 208 GTI. But first out of the pits is the new Ford Fiesta ST.
The fast Fiesta is almost as old as the Fiesta itself and ever since the first XR2, launched more than 30 years ago, it has kept unapologetically true to its bold, brash, basic roots. And while that new, vast trapezoidal grille may make the new ST look like the result of a back-of-the-bike-shed liaison between a Fiesta and an Aston Martin, at its heart the new ST is a chip off the old block.
The price alone proves it. The 1.6-litre four-cylinder ST costs £16,995, less than Ford charges for some standard Fiestas with 1-litre engines and three cylinders. More importantly, it’s almost £2,000 less than Peugeot will charge for the 208 GTI, while Renault will only say at present that the hot new Clio will cost “less than £20,000”.
For this money, you’d think Ford would be able to afford to drop an engine with some muscle under the bonnet and no more. But that’s not what’s happened. Let me explain. Many of the changes are visible, including the full body kit with its big rear wing and deep front spoiler and chunky 17in alloys. Inside, you get figure-hugging Recaro seats, a leather steering wheel and gearlever, and ST badging (pay another £1,000 for the ST2 version and you also get LED daytime running lights, heated seats, privacy glass and a button to press to start the engine, but you don’t really need all that).
But it’s what Ford’s done out of sight that singles the ST out as the best performance car bargain since the Toyota GT86. Ford’s skunkworks folks have been through the suspension from end to end, lowering here, stiffening there and even redesigning components at the front to ensure they can cope with the high g-loadings the ST can muster.
The entire steering rack has been thrown away and replaced by one that makes the car turn more for any given input, and a clever torque vectoring system is now included that enables the ST to brake an inside front wheel in the middle of the curve, encouraging the vehicle to pivot around that point. Plus there’s a three-stage electronic stability controlthat can be set to ensure that on the limit the car slides a little, a lot or not at all.
Curiously, by the way, the ST’s engine is rated at 179bhp but the version being sold in America is quoted as having 197bhp despite being powered by an identical motor. Ford can’t explain this at the time of going to press, and neither can I.
What’s certain is that if the company’s mission with the ST was to prove it remains possible in these risk-averse times for a small, cheap hatchback to make its owner break into spontaneous laughter, it has succeeded. Truly I cannot remember when I had so much fun in a car that costs so little.
As I tap out this review, though, I’m struggling to explain exactly why that is. It’s not because it’s particularly fast, because it isn’t. True, the engine is smooth, easy on the ear and notably responsive for a small, turbocharged motor. But it’s only really a delivery mechanism: a means of getting you to the speed at which you can enjoy what the ST does best, namely to provide simple driving pleasure.
You do not need to be in a desert or halfway up a mountain to enjoy it: any half-decent road driven at a perfectly sensible, legal pace will do. Here you’ll find a car that makes you feel you’re in the thick of the action. You discover you can place it where you want on the road, not to the inch, but the millimetre.
Raise the effort level and you’ll discover a chassis set up in such a way that if you lift your foot off the accelerator in the middle of the corner, the car doesn’t just prosaically slow down — it bites back into the apex too. If you have the space — and the nerve — to turn off the stability control, this little Fiesta will rotate around its axis like a rally car, letting you adjust your line through a corner as much with your right foot on the throttle pedal as your hands on the steering wheel.
The best way I can define it is to say that the ST feels like a throwback to another, simpler and more entertaining age. Of course, back then the price paid for such amusement was that cars tended to fold up around you like Swiss Army knives when it went wrong, while the Fiesta is safe, strong and, unless you deliberately remove its safety nets, about as likely to spin as a Jimmy Anderson yorker.
By being true to its heritage and brave with its price, Ford has set the bar spectacularly high for its French rivals. The Fiesta on which the ST is based is already by some margin the best car in its class and the modifications make it by far the best hot hatch this money can buy. If either the new Clio RenaultSport or Peugeot 208 GTI can reach these standards, a new dawn of practical, affordable and enjoyable motoring is about to break.
Unbeatable entertainment for the money
Ford Fiesta ST specifications
- Engine: 1596cc, 4-cylinders
- Power: 179bhp @ 5800rpm
- Torque: 214 lb ft @ 1800rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- Acceleration: 0-62mph in 6.9sec
- Top speed: 137mph
- Fuel: 47.9mpg (combined)
- CO2: 138g/km
- Road tax band: E
- Dimensions: L 3,969mm, W 1,764mm, H 1,468mm
- Renault Clio Renaultsport £20,000 (estimated)
For In the past 10 years, the firm has built better hot hatches than anybody Against If the price is near £20,000, it will need to be touched by genius
Search for and buy a used Renault Clio Renaultsport on driving.co.uk
- Peugeot 208 GTI £18,895
For Good looks; strong specification; has the heritage Against Relatively expensive; in the 205 GTI it has one of the hardest acts of all to follow
Search for and buy a used Peugeot 208 GTI on driving.co.uk