Finally there's a reason to get excited about the Fiesta, but is the 148bhp ST a rewarding drive?
Ford may have just the thing for those who want a small, feisty hatchback and can't countenance joining the me-too Mini club, don't see the appeal of the Renault Clio Cup and just can't get comfortable in the Peugeot 206 GTI. It's the Fiesta ST, powered by a 148bhp 2-litre engine, priced at £13,595 and quietly handsome... or loud and proud if you spend an extra couple of hundred quid on the optional and highly evocative stripes. The ST (short for Sports Technologies) is among the first fruits from TeamRS, the recently formed group whose job it is to coordinate the development of sporty models across the whole Ford range. Until now there hasn't been a go-faster Fiesta but, like the proverbial London bus, you wait ages for one and three come along at once. As well as the ST there are now two milder Zetec S models, an 89bhp 1.6-litre diesel and a 99bhp 1.6-litre petrol. They share the ST's beefier front and rear bumper aprons, roof spoiler and sill extensions, come on similar style 16in alloys and are priced at £11,595 and £12,495 respectively. Given Ford's ability to develop superbly agile yet supple and undemanding chassis for its regular models, the prospects for the big-hearted Fiesta ST look good. TeamRS says that during the benchmarking process for the ST, there was no one competitor model that epitomised what it was aiming to achieve. The Peugeot 206 GTI (136bhp model) was deemed the key rival because it's the sales leader in the segment, which is fair enough, but little mention was made of Mini and Clio Cup, which we reckon set the dynamic standard. It's true that the Cooper and Cooper S fall either side of the ST on price, but the Clio is right there at £13,800 and, as you will read in eCOTY, it is a spectacularly effective hot hatch. The Fiesta ST is powered by the new 1999cc Zetec in-line four currently found in both the Mondeo and new Focus in slightly lower tune. It was a bit of a squeeze to get it into the little Fiesta's engine bay and it had to be canted backwards six degrees to avoid a bonnet bulge. New freer flowing inlet and exhaust manifolds liberate the extra horsepower and there's a lighter flywheel for sharper throttle response. It develops its 148bhp at 6000rpm and 140lb ft of torque at 4500rpm, and is coupled to a close-ratio five-speed gearbox with a short-shift mechanism. At 1137kg the Fiesta is no flyweight but manages a useful power-to-weight ratio of 132bhp per ton, and Ford claims a 129mph maximum and 0 to 60mph time of 7.9sec. Chassis work includes front springs that are 45 per cent stiffer and a rear twist beam that is 38 per cent stiffer but with unchanged rates for the coils. Naturally, the dampers have been tuned to suit the stiffer set-up and to control the mass of the multi-spoke 17in alloys and their 205/40 ZR Pirelli P-Zero Nero tyres. ESP stability control is standard and is permitted by the fitment of rear discs, a Fiesta first. The rear discs are stock Focus items while the fronts are bespoke (278 x 25mm) and are clamped by the callipers from the Focus ST170. Completing the package is new gearing for the steering that makes the ST's rack ten per cent faster-acting than the regular Fiesta's. As standard the ST comes with half-leather seats, a six-CD hi-fi, switchable ESP, air conditioning and electric windows and mirrors, which is pretty much everything you need. 'Our' test car was fully loaded, though, which is to say it had full leather seats (£700), lacquered black facia trim with subtle matt stripes (£100), metallic paint (£325) and the full compliment of body stripes (£200, though you can have just the sill stripes for £75 or the roof stripes for £150). The evocative line-up of red, white and blue STs glinting in the sun at tiny Siena airport certainly whetted the appetite. Hop into the ST and it's easy to get settled; the chunky wheel adjusts for rake and reach and the seat cushion height can be tailored. Initially, the 2-litre Zetec sounds a bit ordinary but the gearshift has a nicely weighted, connected feel and the ride feels quite supple. However, even before we'd got to the end of the airport access road, some of the depressions and ripples in the asphalt suggested that this chassis might not be one of Ford's best efforts. The reverse is usually true - I remember thinking that the new Mondeo was going to be great within yards of driving off, and the same went for the SportKa, Focus and Puma. Maybe it was just a strange bit of road... Sadly not. The area to the south of Sienna is choc-full of superb ribbons of tarmac that cling to the hillsides and present mile after mile of bends, many of them second and third-gear fodder - prime hot-hatch territory. While the ride is indeed supple and able to soften the worst ridges and pot-holes, this doesn't go hand-in-hand with confident composure. Indeed, there's a vagueness on turn-in combined with a lack of steering feel that knocks your enthusiasm for pressing on and discovering how much grip there is. There is, in fact, no shortage of traction or cornering grip, and like the best Ford chassis, the Fiesta is essentially benign. Pile into a tight corner, back off sharply and the rear is reluctant to edge out by more than a few degrees. That's with the ESP switched off; left on, the Fiesta won't budge from its line, the electronic brain working the discs to reign in the slightest excess. However, this isn't a chassis that flows, the odd bump unsettling its poise while the wooliness on turn-in and the lack of steering feedback in those vital fractions of a second as the car turns are dissatisfying. The ST is more like the flat-footed 206 GTI than the nimble Clio Cup. The engine isn't a source of joy either. Coarse and characterless, it labours up through the mid-range and you find yourself at the redline wondering what happened to the sweet spot where it comes alive. There's noticeable shunt when you get on and off the throttle, too. This is at odds with our experience of the same engine in 143bhp trim in the new Focus (evo 73), which we described as feisty and sporty. Perhaps it's the way it's mounted into the tighter Fiesta engine bay, but hopefully it was just that the engines of the launch cars were still low-mileage tight. On the upside, the brakes are sound, with a good pedal weighting and progression and plenty of easily modulated power, the gearshift is slick and the seats are supportive without compromising comfort. It's a neatly styled, well-finished cockpit, too, with plenty of room and decent boot space, and unlike some other small hatches, the Fiesta doesn't look upright and boxy. Right now, though, the ST feels like an unfinished project, as though it hasn't been subjected to the final ten per cent of development that smoothes off all the rough edges and tightens and hones the chassis' responses to the level that Ford is now renowned for. A drive in the diesel-powered Zetec S (petrol versions weren't available) showed that the Fiesta platform can be poised, responsive and enjoyable. As it stands, the ST is a missed opportunity.