Expectations, ahead of driving this all-new Ford Fiesta ST, were stratospherically high. Its predecessor was a gem of a machine, especially in Mountune or ST200 guises, and the decision to abandon a four-cylinder engine in favour of a three-cylinder that features an industry-first cylinder deactivation function was one that looked risky, like Ford might have spectacularly dropped the ball. But it hasn't. Oh, goodness, it really, REALLY hasn't...
In the Metal:
We're not 100 per cent convinced by the styling of the regular Mk7 Fiesta, its generic rear end and associated wider light clusters not making it stand out as particularly Ford-ish. However, the ST treatment suddenly brings the whole design together. It's familiar stuff, not exactly ground-breaking, but it works so well here: remoulded side skirts, a front lower airdam that's more aggressively profiled, a different grille treatment, a subtle roof spoiler, the twin-exit exhaust positioned off to one side in a diffuser-like arrangement and a set of some of the most gorgeous alloy wheels ever to grace a production car, which are 17s as standard and 18s as an option.
As a result, the Fiesta ST - available in both three- and five-door guises - exudes purpose without being garish, looks smoothly appealing without being dull and all manner of the various colours offered for it suit it to a tee. Such as, but not limited to, Performance Blue, Race Red, Frozen White... even the new Silver Fox, which looks a little bit like Audi's of-the-moment, military-esque Nardo Grey, all do wonders for the Fiesta's lines.
And the interior is also exceptional. The cabin's quality levels have gone up enormously in the regeneration of the Fiesta from Mk6 to Mk7, so plopping in a lovely pair of ST-branded Recaro bucket seats, a flat-bottomed, leather-stitched steering wheel and various ST-specific details like the gear knob only serves to lift the ambience further. Crucially, unlike on the otherwise magnificent Focus RS fitted with the €2,000 full leather Recaro shell seats, Ford Performance has mounted the Fiesta's most important pew at just the right height, so the driving position feels absolutely spot on.
So, it looks the part, outside and in. Technologically, there's a lot to talk about. Such as the new 1.5-litre, three-cylinder EcoBoost petrol engine in the Fiesta's nose. It replaces the 1.6-litre four of the old ST and is Ford's biggest-capacity triple yet, the company previously only working on derivations of its 1.0-litre 'Fox' unit; it also features something no other three-cylinder engine, from any manufacturer, has offered to date - it can shut off one of its cylinders when working under light loads, turning the car into some kind of Fiesta 'twin'.
If that sounds odd, how about Ford's patented 'force-vectoring springs'? In the company's own terminology, these are 'non-uniform, non-interchangeable, directionally-wound' springs. In plainer speak, what they do is stiffen up the rear end of a torsion-beam-suspended car like the Fiesta ST, without increasing weight (they're actually 10kg lighter than a traditional 'Watt's linkage' set-up) or sacrificing the ride quality (a weakness of the old ST, by the way), by enabling the physical forces built up during fast cornering to travel directly through the spring.
The force-vectoring springs work with traditional dampers and the ST has sporty suspension rebound and compression rates dialled into its underpinnings anyway. Genuine hot hatch enthusiasts can also go further, by adding a Quaife limited-slip differential to the front axle as part of the Performance Pack, tested here, which also brings in Launch Control and shift lights for the gearbox. Selectable Drive Modes (SDM) have been added to a Fiesta ST for the first time, which scroll through Normal, Sport and Track, adjusting various parameters of the car as you go, the electrically power-assisted steering (EPAS) is 14 per cent quicker than that fitted to the outgoing ST200 and there's a high-performance braking system with 278mm vented front/253mm solid rear discs. All in a car that weighs just 1,262kg (for three-door; the five-door is 21kg portlier). It all sounds very promising... but can it possibly live up to our aforementioned great expectations?
We won't lie, our nerves were jangling as we first clambered aboard the new Fiesta ST and thumbed the starter button to fire the 200hp, 290Nm three-cylinder 1.5 into life. We loved the old car. Adored it. Wondered how Ford could possibly improve on its formula, save for levelling out its bouncy ride quality. But its handling dynamics could not reasonably be improved upon, we were certain, which meant the only thing that was going to happen here was that the new ST might (shudder...) not be as good to drive. The horror.
Anyway. Move off and the first thing you notice is a strong, perhaps too forceful, self-centring action from the EPAS. Hmm. But the weighting of the wheel's movements is fantastic and, even at low pace, information is trembling through the rim. Good, good. And then there's the engine. It features Electronic Sound Enhancement (ESE), which means artificial augmentation of its natural three-cylinder sounds are piped into the cabin through the speakers. Double hmm. However, artificially-enhanced soundtracks are not a problem if they're done right and, boy, the ST's soundtrack is done about as right as right can possibly be. The old four-cylinder engine was no great shakes in the noise department, but the new 1.5 has a marvellous voice. It's meaty and purposeful enough in Normal mode, but Sport and Track cause the exhaust to pop, bang and burble with real intent and there's a lovely, gravelly gargle to the EcoBoost as it homes in on its 6,250rpm redline.
Which it will do, happily and without vibration or harshness. Not all triples enjoy spinning beyond 5,500rpm, mainly due to their inherent imbalance, but the ST's unit piles on the revs with a keenness and slickness that's most invigorating. And, what with the noise, it feels even stronger than its 200hp headline figure suggests. So, a Mountune model with 220-230hp could be... well, we daren't even think how glitteringly good it might be.
Even better, the ride quality is fantastic for a short-wheelbase, firmly-sprung car. The new ST exhibits none of the pogoing of the old car on rougher surfaces and while we're not about to say the hot Fiesta rolls along like a luxury limo, in terms of its day-to-day refinement versus its ancestor, it's in another reality altogether. So far, so brilliant.
But all this is preamble to the main delight. It's the handling. You've got all the above sloshing around in your brain as your basis for flicking the ST into at least Sport, but almost certainly Track (it switches off the traction control, which is nevertheless one of the least intrusive and most fabulously judged systems in the world), and then attacking a few bends for the first time with real vigour. When you do, you'll be floored, your mouth hanging open, your eyes popping on stalks as if you were in a cartoon, your mind frazzled. How? How can this be?! How has Ford Performance dreamed the impossible dream for all of us, and actually made the ST more fun to drive than it was before?
The Fiesta scythes into bends with the keenness of a race car and a magnificent amount of 'squidge' in the suspension that, in one fell swoop, both informs you of the Ford's ultimate grip levels and also allows it to keeps all of its tyres in contact with the ground, never once being deflected the slightest inch from the path you intend the car to travel along. The differential makes the steering so laser-like precise as you turn in that, at first, you'll find yourself winding lock off before the corner's apex, because you'll have inputted more degrees of turn than you actually need - even at higher speeds.
And then there's the balance. Understeer? What the heck is that? This front-wheel-drive Ford Fiesta ST doesn't seem to have any whatsoever, even when you hammer the throttle into the bulkhead out of the tightest bends, purely in an effort to try and get it to wash wide. The action of the differential is so elegant, never once snatching or wasting an ounce of precious torque, that the traction out of corners is almost preternatural.
Believe it or not, we've not even touched on our favourite thing yet. Which is the communication of the rear axle. Never, ever, in all our years of driving cars, have we been in anything front-wheel drive that has a trailing axle that talks to its driver so clearly and concisely from mile one. Those force-vectoring dampers practically beam vital messages of information into the base of your spine, so you know to the millimetre where the back end of the car is going to go, or what it is going to do when you lift the throttle mid-bend. Which we did, and the Fiesta just elegantly veered into a perfect stance of opposite lock, lift-off oversteer. Not our driving talent, mind; just the world's greatest hot hatch chassis doing its show-stopping dance.
There's not an iota of slop or wastage in anything the Fiesta ST does and it is therefore an unmitigated delight to drive. We spent the first 30 minutes of our drive in the Fiesta ST Performance Pack saying precisely nothing of intelligence at all. It was just a series of 'WOW!' and 'HNNNGH!' and 'OH MY...' and 'WHAT THE ACTUAL...' and hoots of delight and various other noises of pleasure and incredulous expletives, as we desperately tried to assess how Ford has pulled off this incredible magic trick.
Calming down for a brief second, and in the interests of critical thoroughness, we drove a five-door ST without the Performance Pack for a brief blast up and down a truly tremendous bit of road. And it was still near-perfect. Yes, there's a little less traction out of corners and a little more tug from the front wheels during maximum acceleration in lower gears, but the Performance Pack is not transformative to the Fiesta ST; without it, the Ford is still the best hot hatch in its segment by a quite colossal distance. Yet fitting it is almost a no-brainer, if it's around €1,500 or so. If the non-diff-equipped car is ten out of ten, the Performance Pack is an 11 and so there's no reason not to have it.
What you get for your Money:
Ford will offer the new Fiesta ST in ST 2 and ST 3 specifications, at €28,120 and €30,270 respectively. The Fiesta ST 2 comes with 17-inch alloys, halogen projector headlamps and LED daytime running lights, the NCAP safety pack including lane-keeping alert and lane-keeping aid, speed limiter, rear seatbelt minder, rear centre headrest and auto headlamps, Recaro performance heated front seats with blue stitching, cruise control, Ford SYNC 3 with eight-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, B&O Play premium audio system and keyless start. The ST 3 adds 18-inch wheels, electrically folding door mirrors, part-leather upholstery for the seats, satnav, rear-view camera and parking sensors, auto wipers and more.
We've thought long and hard about the new Ford Fiesta ST to come up with some things we don't like. And, trying belatedly and desperately to appear as if we've not fallen hook, line and sinker for the B-segment tearaway, we might say that the differences between the various SDM settings are negligible - perhaps making driving modes superfluous to the ST experience - the steering's robust self-centring takes some getting used to and the Launch Control function is a bit of an anti-climax, once you've tried it one or two times.
And that's it. That's where our less-than-gushing observations end. Ford has taken one of the best hot hatchbacks of all time and just made it better in every single regard. More thrilling. Quicker. Blessed with the greatest rear axle of any front-wheel-drive car we can ever remember and also featuring one of the sharpest front ends, if it's got the Quaife differential. Possessed of a charismatic and ridiculously potent drivetrain. About as fast across ground on public roads as you could ever need to go, and capable of dynamically beating much larger, much more powerful machinery. And it's not even a gigantic amount of money to buy, either.
So, what do you want us to say? Well, here it is: the Ford Fiesta ST. Genuine hot hatch perfection. Genuine automotive perfection. Perhaps the best car we've ever driven - if you're not woefully status-obsessed and you rate driving pleasure above all else as your 'thing'. An astonishing, mighty, mesmerising, wondrous vehicle that will turn drives on your favourite roads into semi-epiphanic experiences of pure joy and exultation, Euro for Euro you simply cannot buy a better car than this Ford.