Ford Fiesta ST: long-term test review

10 Apr, 2019 3:45pm Sam Naylor

Final report: We say a sad farewell to our five-star Ford Fiesta ST hot hatchback

Verdict

5
The Ford Fiesta ST is definitely a high-performance star. It’s one of the most fun drivers’ cars you can buy, while also being great value. If any model deserves five stars, this is it.

Mileage: 6,165
Economy: 43.5mpg

Our Ford Fiesta ST has made it to the finish line: it’s leaving our fleet after a fantastic six months. Regular readers will remember we collected the car from Wales Rally GB in October 2018, and our first impressions were that the hot Fiesta felt like a rally car for the road. After spending more time with it, I’m sure that it’s a champion in the traffic light grand prix.

Of course, I’m not talking about racing on the public road. But of all the performance cars on sale today, this is among the best.

• Best hot hatchbacks

There are two main reasons why the Fiesta ST is so impressive. The first, and most obvious when you get behind the wheel, is the handling. It’s perfectly suited to having fun on the road, with enough grip to give lots of confidence when pushing hard, yet not so much that there’s no mid-bend adjustability.

You can choose how you want the car to behave in a quick corner. Get on the power at the apex and the ST rockets forward, the optional limited-slip differential working away to maximise traction at the front wheels. Or you can dive into the bend quickly and lift off, prompting the rear end to swivel just enough to tighten your line,  but without any drama. It’s brilliant fun and because you can feel the movement as the car’s weight transfers, you can enjoy all of this at a relatively low speed.

The Fiesta’s sophisticated chassis set-up wouldn’t feel out of place on a much more expensive car, which brings me on to the second reason why this fast Ford is such a great buy: the price. It’s incredible that you can buy a hot hatch with this amount of engineering know-how for less than the cost of an average family hatchback.

So many aspects of the Fiesta ST have had real thought put into them, and how they relate to driving in the real world. Take the gear ratios, for example. The first three gears are nice and short, which lets you enjoy the full punch of the 1.5-litre petrol engine’s 197bhp output up to the national speed limit. But Ford also recognised that short gearing hurts refinement and fuel economy, so the higher ratios are just right for cruising at 40, 50, 60 or 70mph.

Then there’s the driving position, which has loads of adjustment. I like to sit close to the wheel with an upright seatback, and the figure-hugging Recaros in the ST allow me to do this without feeling like I’m too close to the pedals. That way I’m always fully in control of the ST from behind the wheel, and can enjoy the car’s quick steering, slick gearshift and strong brakes.

Attention to detail like this is part of why I’m so impressed with the Fiesta ST, but it’s not without its problems, either. My main gripe with the car is its engine, although I have no problem with the performance. I think around 200bhp is perfect for having fun on the road in a relatively lightweight car. I’m also warming to the noise it makes, because the motor is distinctive and can be enjoyed even at low revs.

It’s just that in order to achieve such a strong power output from a three-cylinder engine, Ford has had to rely heavily on a turbocharger. While that means there’s loads of mid-range torque, there’s little reward to be had from pushing hard and hitting the red line. It’s a shame, because the previous-generation ST’s four-cylinder engine managed to offer just as much punch, but with a more exciting top end.

However, the latest version is more comfortable than the old one, as well as being just as much fun to drive, so it’s only the engine that disappoints a keen driver. 

One other thing I’d change if I could would be to remove the driving mode button. The Sport setting adds unnecessary weight to the steering, so I rarely used it. I’d prefer the car to be as good as it can possibly be without having to choose between the different modes. It’s something I said in my first report, and I haven’t changed my mind in the past six months; I still don’t like it.

Not that I’ve had all that much time in the car since I picked it up: my colleagues have collectively spent more hours behind the wheel of the Fiesta ST than I have. The Ford was one of the most popular models on our fleet, and with good reason. 

Ford Fiesta ST: third report

What have LEGO and our Ford Fiesta ST got in common? They’re both great fun to play with

Mileage: 4,580
Economy: 41.1mpg

Have you caught that television advert promoting a sofa company by associating with LEGO? I couldn’t help but laugh when I first saw it, because it seems completely at odds with itself. After all, who’d want to sit on a settee made out of hard, knobbly plastic?

Anyone who’s stepped on a LEGO brick knows that wouldn’t be a very pleasant experience. Yet it got me thinking about the Ford Fiesta ST I’m running on our fleet. Like a toy sofa, it’s not the epitome of comfort, but that’s not what it’s for; it’s all about thrills.

When I was little, the colourful Danish toy was my favourite thing in the world, and while I wouldn’t quite say the same thing about the Fiesta ST, it’s certainly among my favourite modern cars.

That’s because of the ST’s focus on fun. Its lively, quick steering could offer more feedback, but it’s still better than most of its rivals’, and most new cars in general, in this regard. Then, once the car is loaded up through a corner, the Ford presents a few options. Get the power on early and the limited-slip differential comes into action, pulling you around the bend and making the most of the potent 1.5-litre turbo petrol engine under the bonnet. The limited-slip differential is part of the £925 Performance Pack, and it is well worth the extra cost.

Come off the power mid-corner, and the Fiesta will excitedly lift a rear wheel and neatly tighten its line, but never in an alarming way. From the driver’s seat, the process is fluid and natural, because the car transmits exactly what it’s doing at every moment. This is exactly what I love about front-wheel-drive performance cars, so I look forward to every drive in the ST.

But what about the ride quality? Well, I have to admit that my LEGO metaphor is stretched pretty thin, because the Fiesta is nowhere near as stiff as some more focused hot hatchbacks (such as the Hyundai i30 N).

It’s true that over potholes in town and on really rough country roads, the Ford is a bit bouncy, because the suspension has been set up to provide truly grin-inducing handling. However, as you pick up speed the ST settles down and even mid-corner bumps don’t upset the car’s balance.

There’s another factor that mitigates the Ford’s firm set-up, and that’s the driver: me. I’ve never really been one to complain about a firm ride in a car, but I’ve only just realised why that is: it’s because I don’t ever find driving particularly rela, no matter which car I’m behind the wheel of.

Even if I’m in a cosseting luxury saloon, I’m not able to settle down on the road, because I’m busy paying attention to the erratic movements of other traffic or threading oversized modern metal down tiny streets or country roads. At least in the ST, when I arrive at a decent road I can enjoy throwing it into some corners.

One thing I’m not so sure about in the Fiesta are the sports seats. While there’s no way I could draw a comparison between them and a LEGO sofa, they could be a more accommodating shape. The bolsters on the sides tend to push my legs inwards, so when I’m not using the clutch my knees tend to knock together. The seats provide plenty of support, though, and the fact that they’re heated means I can’t complain too much.

While the three-cylinder engine is growing on me, it’s still the one thing I would change about the ST if I could. The punchy 1.5-litre turbo delivers a great mix of performance and low running costs, but it’s a little bit too reliant on low-down torque for me. I much prefer hot hatch engines that love to be revved, because extracting the maximum performance is more satisfying.

But the ST’s well-placed pedals and great gearshift action mean there’s enjoyment to be had on any trip, and the throttle response is surprisingly good, too. And as with LEGO, there’s almost no limit to the amount of fun you can have in the Fiesta ST when you’re in the right frame of mind. It’s brilliant.

Ford Fiesta ST: second report

Our Ford Fiesta ST hot hatch stars next to XR2 eighties forebear

Mileage: 3,199
Economy: 36.5mpg

Regular readers will have spotted that the Ford Fiesta ST I’m running on the fleet made a starring appearance in our Christmas road test. The idea was to bring together models that were available in 1988, the year KinyuKinr first hit the shelves, with their modern counterparts.

So naturally I took the opportunity to drive the classic Fiesta XR2 that my ST was paired up with, to get a sense of how far the hot hatch has moved on in 30 years.

Old vs new: Ford Fiesta XR2 vs Ford Fiesta ST

The eighties model was on loan from Ford of Britain’s heritage fleet, and I had actually driven this very car almost exactly five years previously, just after I joined the team. The most memorable aspect of the XR2 was its steering, which I recalled being full of life and delivering lots of feedback.

That all came flooding back when I drove it for the second time late last year, although I had forgotten how slow the steering rack is, especially next to the quick set-up in my ST.

From behind the wheel, the most obvious difference is the level of grip the cars have. The XR2’s tiny tyres led to plenty of understeer in the cold, so you have to take care on fast corners. That’s a contrast to the ST, which has bags of grip when you want it, but not without adjustability should you want to tighten your cornering line.

Even though the XR2 is significantly smaller, and has two fewer doors, it feels more spacious inside than the modern ST. That’s partly because there’s so much glass, and thus light, and partly because the latest car’s bulky sports seats take up a lot of room inside.

So which do I prefer? It’s got to be the modern ST. Although the XR2 is entertaining for a short burst, the latest car is much more capable on a twisty road.

Ford Fiesta ST: first report

We take the new Ford Fiesta ST hot hatch to Wales to meet its rally cousins

Mileage: 2,107
Economy: 39.8mpg

The World Rally Championship has just wrapped up in Australia, but back in October I took a trip up to North Wales for the series’ British leg. You see, there was an obvious link to be made with the latest addition to our fleet: the new Ford Fiesta ST.

The M-Sport rally team has been running Fords in the WRC since 1997, and this year it’s competing with a Fiesta WRC. Of course, the model starring on stages around the globe doesn’t have much in common with our road car, apart from a few visual similarities.

Powering the rally Fiesta is a 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo engine, for instance, whereas my ST has a 1.5-litre three-cylinder. All the WRC car’s suspension is bespoke, too. But once you get on the road in our Ford, it makes you feel like a rally driver. The engine is nearly as rowdy as the WRC cars’, popping away on the overrun and pushing on with a snarl as you accelerate from low revs.

The steering is quick and gives plenty of feedback from the road, and there’s lots of front-end grip, so you can throw it into corners and enjoy its well-sorted chassis.

But there’s no way I could claim to have an ounce of the skill displayed by the likes of Elfyn Evans in the championship all year round, so I sat down with the British driver to find out what he thought of the latest version of Ford’s popular hot hatch.

“I’ve only had a quick go in one, but I really liked it,” he told me. “I wouldn’t want to drive one too often, though, because I need my licence for my job!”

I disagree with Elfyn here, because for me the Fiesta ST is one of the most well-judged performance cars for use on the road. It has the perfect amount of power and grip to enjoy to the full every day. You can accelerate out of a junction using the engine’s full potential from first to third gear, wherein many hot models you’d be breaking the speed limit halfway through the rev range in second.

Also, the Fiesta ST is adjustable at sensible speeds. It’s even more pronounced in the wet, where a mid-corner lift will tighten your line around a bend. It’s great fun and never feels intimidating.

Elfyn told me there’s really no comparison between driving a rally car and a road car. For a start, bespoke suspension and special tyres mean a rally car is able to take on the gravel tracks of the Welsh rally stages at high speed. There’s loads of travel in the springs and dampers as a result, unlike in the road car. The ride on my ST is good enough for a hot hatch, but over big bumps you can feel it reaching the end of its suspension travel with a thump. 

That stiff set-up serves to improve the Fiesta’s body roll – there’s almost none unless you’re cornering very hard – and keeps the tyres pressed on to the road surface, even if you do hit a mid-corner bump. It’s brilliantly judged for the road, but I can’t imagine it working too well on a gravel track like Elfyn’s Fiesta WRC.

While the British driver suffered a few setbacks on his home event and finished 20th overall, his team-mate Sebastien Ogier managed to win in his own Fiesta, ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala’s Toyota Yaris WRC.

It was fitting to see the Fiesta triumph in the British leg of the WRC, because I reckon the ST is similarly well suited to driving on British roads.

After I was finished nosing around M-Sport’s service area, it was time to head home. And the drive from North Wales to London showed what a great high-speed cruiser the Fiesta ST is, because it was relatively refined and utterly uneventful.

The Ford settles down well on the motorway, and thanks to the standard-fit Android Auto functionality, I was able to use Google Maps to avoid a few traffic jams on the drive south to the capital.

Since we’ve had the car back in the office, I haven’t spent much time in it. There’s often a bit of a tussle among members of the team to try out new models on the fleet, and that’s even truer when something as exciting as a Fiesta ST arrives.

But my colleagues tell me they love driving the hot supermini to and from work, because it’s even good fun around town. The engine is punchy from low in the rev range and the gearshift is slick, so there’s even enjoyment to be had from driving in the city; it’s at home pretty much anywhere.

*Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.

Key specs

  • Model: Ford Fiesta ST-3 5-door
  • On fleet since: October 2018
  • Price new: £22,895
  • Engine: 1.5-litre 3cyl petrol, 197bhp
  • CO2/tax: 136g/km/£140
  • Options: Performance Blue paint (£745), LED headlights (£600), ST Performance Pack (£850), door edge protectors (£100), B&O Play stereo (£350)
  • Insurance*: Group: 28/Quote: £367
  • Mileage: 6,165
  • Economy: 43.5mpg
  • Any problems?: None