What are you driving?
The new Ford Fiesta ST should, if all is right with the universe, go down as one of the most exciting, thrilling, enjoyable yet, equally, accessible and affordable cars of the year. It is the successor to something of a legend. While the original 2004 Fiesta ST, with its 2.0-litre 150hp engine, had something of a lustre that was lacking, the 2013 second generation model became an almost instant legend. Fast, agile, eager, loud and just a touch uncompromising - with a very raw edge that seemed almost unfashionable even at the time - the Fiesta ST very quickly became everyone's favourite hot hatch.
Can Ford's lightning strike twice? It's starting with a solid base in the form of the new Fiesta, which might look a little too much like its predecessor, but which is exceptionally good to drive. Ford hasn't just fitted a hot engine and some body kit, though; the Fiesta ST has been treated to a number of upgrades, including trick suspension bits, such as non-uniform, non-interchangeable, directionally-wound springs on the rear, which are supposed to give a sharper steering response - and shave around 10kg compared with a Watts-style linkage.
Up the front, again helping with the steering, is an optional Quaife limited slip differential, which should help the ST get its power down even in tricky conditions. There's also some electronic trickery on board, with switchable driving modes and a launch control system pinched from the Ford Focus RS.
Providing power is the smallest engine Ford has ever fitted to an ST model. The 1.5-litre EcoBoost three-cylinder unit is closely related to the engine found in various Focus and Mondeo models, but here it has been pumped up to a very senior 200hp and 290Nm of torque, most of which is thanks to a new, bigger, turbo and some fuel injection and exhaust manifold trickery. Cleverly, it also has a fuel-saving cylinder shut-down system, which can, under light throttle loads, reduce your Fiesta ST to a two-cylinder car.
Name its best bits
It's fun. Big, proper, fun, but possibly not in the way you're expecting. If you were to step directly from the old Fiesta ST into this new one, you'd probably think that the car had been given a dose of Valium. The steering is lighter in the new car, and has a slightly syrupy, artificial feel compared to the plugged-in sensation of the old one. The ride, while still very firm, is definitely softer (which is a good thing, really) and the ST is, overall, very much more refined.
Does that mean it has lost its edge? Partially, yes, but only until you start digging deeper into its reserves. Dial up Sport mode, find some properly twisty corners to attack and let rip.
The engine is an utter gem. While you can, occasionally, detect a three-cylinder thrum from it, you'd otherwise never guess that it's been down-sized. There's minimal turbo lag, and it pulls strongly right throughout the rev range, aided by a snappy, slightly meaty, six-speed manual gearshift. It also snarls and gurgles, with a deeper, more basso-profundo noise than you might be expecting, which is hugely entertaining.
It is also effing quick, with a capital eff. A time of 6.5 seconds to 100km/h sounds good enough, but the Fiesta ST feels faster through the gears and, on a tight back road, piles on the speed with sufficient venom for just about anyone. It only feels a touch underwhelming if you try to use the Launch Control, when after some initial wheel-spinning hooliganism, you realise that there's not a lot of point in deploying that system.
The steering improves when you're pressing on, too. Push through that artificial weighting (which never goes away, sadly) and you'll find that there's real feel and feedback, and very good balance. That's helped by the Quaife differential, of course, which can help you tuck the nose into a tight corner, but beware - it's not a get out of jail free card. Overcook your entry speed or get your braking point wrong and the Fiesta's front end will wriggle and protest as you try to haul it into the apex. Be smoother with your inputs, though, and the rewards are most definitely there.
Other good things? Fuel economy, even when you're abusing it a bit, is actually pretty decent, the SYNC3 touchscreen looks a bit Fisher Price in its layout, but actually works very well, the cabin is roomy and mostly well made and the boot is big enough to make this a practical daily driver.
Anything that bugs you?
There is an unavoidable sense that the Fiesta ST has become a touch tamed in this edition. It's just lacking that raw edge of the old model. Now, this is a gripe that requires some context - it's like comparing a delicious steak that's just been slightly overcooked to a more perfectly chef'ed one you'd previously eaten, but nonetheless there's been a noticeable dialling back on the thrill-o-meter. The ST can still engage and entertain, but it takes more effort to find its sweet spot now.
On the cabin front, the Recaro-designed bucket seats look great, but even with my recent Weight Watcher regime I found them every bit as restrictive as those of its predecessor, and there are just a few too many cheap plastic parts inside for a car with a price tag starting with a €3...
And why have you given it this rating?
Has the Fiesta ST become too soft, too tamed? No, not quite. Yes, you have to work slightly harder to get the best from it now, and it's not as immediately thrilling as once it was. True too that some of the competition, the revised MINI Cooper S especially, is much, much closer to matching the Fiesta ST than was previously the case. But, for all that, the Fiesta ST remains one of the very best hot hatches around - fun, agile, engaging and pretty well affordable. Long live the king.
What do the rest of the team think?
Neil nails the description of this car; your very first drive in it is, at first, a tad disappointing, mostly because of the heavy, gloopy steering, but then you drive it further. And further. And pretty soon you realise that you don't want to stop driving it ever again. For me, it boils down to the exceptional body control in the chassis, the adjustability and that cracking engine. Yes, the Fiesta ST has grown up a little more than some will approve of, but it's still a giant-slaying junior hot hatch.
Shane O' Donoghue - Editor
The Fiesta ST remains the cream of the crop among its hot hatch rivals. The more you drive it, the more you appreciate its chassis and balance of performance. The engine is a peach, if not quite as epic as its predecessor. As a complete package, the Fiesta ST eclipses many cars with more power and size.
Dave Humphreys - Road Test Editor
I really enjoyed driving the Ford ST. It is potent, playful, poised and a pleasure to drive. It has an agile chassis, sounds sensational and it doesn't cost a fortune to buy or run.
Melanie May - Content & Social Media Editor