There’s no point stringing this out: on British roads, this car is sensationally good fun with just a couple of small caveats.
It starts with the basics. The pedals are well positioned not only for general comfort but also for heel-and-toe shifts. The standard Recaro bucket seats — and it seems amazing to even say this, given Ford’s track record with ergonomics — are positioned adequately low and offer generous support not only for the hips and waist but also the shoulders. You’re left in no doubt that this car is intended to be flung down B-roads, and although they’re trimmed with leather in top-spec ST-3 cars, you might actually prefer the pared-back cloth of the entry-level ST-1 model. The shape is the same either way.
The steering wheel is of a good size but slightly thick, and once on the move its motion is heavier and a touch more elastic than that in the previous car. It has heft, in short, and with the lower driving position it lends an uncharacteristically serious tone to proceedings.
Glance at the transmission tunnel (the lever itself remains oddly far down, as though Ford’s development engineers have atypically long arms) and you’ll notice a mode select button. This is a first for the Fiesta and switches the powertrain between Normal, Sport and Race, with throttle response, ESC and exhaust tone altered accordingly. In Race, you’re permitted 60deg of yaw before the electronics kick in; this, come to think of it, is two-thirds of the way to being entirely sideways.
Here’s the thing, though. With a hearty one in 10 Fiestas sold expected to wear the red ‘ST’ badge on its grille, Ford has prioritised upping the car’s ‘usability’. To this end, those frequency-selective dampers work well, because out on British roads the car doesn’t crash like it used to, particularly at its trailing axle. The ride is still firm, mind, and notwithstanding a hint of float that's forgivable in a supermini, movements are very closely controlled.
Ford is quite rightly proud of the fact the Fiesta ST is the only car among its peers to feature a rear axle that’s stiffer than the front. In fact, this little hatch packs the greatest rear roll stiffness of any product in the Ford Performance range (14,000Nm per degree, since you asked) and that, fundamentally, is where the magic lies.
In a similar fashion to the larger Honda Civic Type R — our current full-sized hot hatch champ, by a margin — the Fiesta ST feels predisposed as it gently rotates its rear axle through the early stages of a corner. And with addictive delicacy. Just a touch of the brakes (and, being slightly over-servoed, it is just a touch) or a small lift of the throttle and you’re there, those not-quite-passive dampers doing a fine job of retaining control.
On the way out of corners, you’ll realise why Ford took the decision to fit Super Sport tyres. This Quaife differential isn’t as tightly wound as kerb-sucking Drexler hardware found in the more hardcore Vauxhall Corsa VXR variations, but it’s still hugely effective and, frankly, much better judged.
Owners of the previous Fiesta ST may need a short period of recalibration, in fact, because the liberties you’re now invited to take with the aluminium-finished throttle pedal can seem ridiculous. Be it in second, third or fourth gear, tightening radius or short, sharp switchback, more times than not the car just gets its nose down and goes.
Through the very tightest corners, the Fiesta ST has yet another trick up its sleeve, but it’s difficult to pin down exactly what it is. Perhaps it’s to do with the bent ‘force vectoring’ springs, but during the compression stroke the rear seems to help the car pivot through the bend. It’s a sudden but subtle effect, and gives the car stunning agility.
Now, those caveats. The electromechanical steering is unusually quick, with a ratio of 12:1. Along with the corrupting influence of the limited-slip differential, on rougher road surfaces the chassis can become flighty and a bit erratic. For some, this will be the raw edge the car needs given the cabin and damping are that much more polished than before. For others, it’ll get tiring and, just maybe, they’d be better off without the Performance Package.
Of less concern is the gearshift, which is short and accurate enough of throw but could do with feeling firmer and more sinewy. More Honda, frankly.
The merits of this new engine are also less clear. Superficially, it has more character, burbling excitedly at idle and spinning freely thereafter. It’s a bit uniform, though. Its tuned four-cylinder forebear in the old ST200 wasn’t as tractable for pootling about but it had a thick-set timbre that crescendoed to a crackling, nasal 6500rpm finale when you were on it.
There’s also been no noticeable improvement in turbo lag over the old four-pot; we might not have mentioned this were it not for the fact that one of the Fiesta ST’s rivals packs an atmospheric engine fettled by Lotus. Truly, by the standards of modern superminis, the Yaris GRMN’s throttle response feels almost sacred.
But going back to the Mk1 Focus RS, whose owners would struggle to surpass 30mpg at a cruise. This new Fiesta ST is every bit as quick as the old-timer but will return almost 50mpg on the motorway. Now that is progress, and it’s partially down to this engine’s ability to shut off and subsequently re-engage cylinder number one in just 14 milliseconds under light loads.