I'm not the jealous type... usually. But I will fully admit to being somewhat of a Pouty Polly when I read executive editor Chris Paukert's report after driving the then-new 2013 Ford Focus ST through the impossibly pretty southern French Alps region last June. I feel like a broken record saying this yet again, but hot hatchbacks hold a special place in my heart. And while I'm always giddy to drive any sort of small, turbocharged three- or five-door at home in Detroit, my jealousy was indeed piqued after hearing Paukert tell about the challenging yet breathtaking roads he encountered while driving the flamin' yellow Focus. You know, the sort of roads that, from above, look like carelessly drizzled lines of icing on the frosted Alpen caps.
Several months later, I found myself piloting a Focus ST just west of metro Detroit, pitting it head-to-head against one of Autoblog's perennial favorite cars, the Volkswagen GTI. It was fantastic – enough so that I fully stand behind my statement that in terms of balls-out performance, the Focus ST cannot be beat as far as today's front-wheel-drive hatches are concerned.
But I can't be jealous of Paukert any longer. I've just returned from driving the new Ford Fiesta ST – in European-spec three-door guise – along many of those same roads in southern France. And while I really do love the larger Focus ST, my experience in the Fiesta has led me to believe that I, perhaps, had the better time.
Don't fall too in love with the cute-as-a-button three-door Fiesta ST you see here – it isn't coming to the United States. Instead, we will be treated to the five-door variant, offering a bit of added functionality for access to the rear seats. Having seen both in person, I can say that the five-door is actually a bit less of a visual kick in the pants, especially in plain colors like white, silver, or black – not the "It Isn't Red, I Promise" shade of Molten Orange pictured here. Aside from the addition of two doors that add roughly 133 pounds to the three-door's 2,564-pound curb weight, the US-spec Fiesta ST is essentially mechanically identical to the one used for this test.
The entire Fiesta range gets a refresh for the 2014 model year, featuring slimmer headlamps, a larger hexagonal grille and an ever-so-slightly redesigned rear fascia. The ST obviously adds things like more aggressive lower bodywork, and the car sits 15 millimeters closer to the ground versus the base model. US-spec cars will not get the high-intensity discharge headlamps and LED running lights seen here (boo!), but all of the other visual goodies will carry over, including the handsome 17-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels wrapped in Bridgestone Potenza 205/40R17 summer tires. Other visual add-ons to separate the ST from lesser Fiestas include a subtle rear spoiler, dual chrome-tipped exhaust outlets and a new rear diffuser with the same sort of black honeycomb insert that's found up on the grille.
US customers will be treated to the five-door variant, offering a bit of added functionality.
I think the Fiesta ST is decidedly better-looking than its larger Focus sibling, perhaps because all of the hot hatch-standard brash bits aren't as exaggerated here. With less overall surface area to work with, the resulting design is a bit more concise and ironed-out – there aren't as many seemingly overdone character lines on the profile view like there are on the Focus. Instead of finding places to add bits of character, Ford designers seemed to have left much of the Fiesta's lines alone, and the end result is a handsome little devil that just looks ready and raring to go.
So, let's go.
Motivation comes by way of a turbocharged 1.6-liter EcoBoost inline four-cylinder engine rated at 179 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 177 pound-feet of torque, the latter delivered between 1,600 and 5,000 rpm. Under wide open throttle, there's an overboost function that bumps torque output up to 213 pound-feet for brief stints, and the end result is a front-drive hatch that hits 62 miles per hour in 6.9 seconds on its way to a top speed of 137 mph. Specific US fuel economy numbers have not been released just yet, but Ford Europe quotes an estimated 5.9 liters per 100 kilometers on the EU test cycle, which works out to about 39 miles per gallon combined here in the US. We'll take that with a grain of salt for now (the Focus ST can apparently hit 32 mpg highway, but I never saw anything even remotely close to that), but we'll be curious to see the official EPA numbers later this year.
It hits 62 miles per hour in 6.9 seconds on its way to a top speed of 137 mph.
What's interesting about this powertrain in the Fiesta – in both a good and bad way – is just how much power is available at nearly every point in the rev range. Mash the throttle in fourth gear at 1,500 rpm and there's plenty of force to rocket you into the heart of the powerband. And even at the top end, the power never seems to cut off as you near the 6,750-rpm redline. This sort of ready-to-go power delivery is great for long stretches of back-and-forth, up-and-down twisty roads – the kind I experienced for hours upon hours on the mountain roads north of Cannes and Nice. All that power meant it was easy enough to just leave the Fiesta in third gear and focus on setting up the car for turns. But part of the fun of hot hatches – and other small-displacement, lightweight sports cars, for that matter – is that there's an added bit of involvement that comes from having to keep close watch over where the tach needle sits. An occasional downshift into second gear was necessary for many of the sharper bends, and I'd often plunk the car into fourth when the curves straightened out a bit, but the challenge of having to closely manage shift points in the Fiesta just isn't there.
All that gear-changing action (or lack thereof) is handled via six-speed manual transmission, and not the same one used in the Focus ST, either. Here, the Fiesta's 'box offered crisper throws with better linkage between the gears, and the action of the clutch pedal felt consistently good, providing plenty of feedback, and a nice, linear take-up. The only bit of weirdness is that the Fiesta's hill hold assist seems to be a little too sheepish about letting go early, so there were many instances where rough starts would happen on inclines. At the moment where I thought the hill hold would disengage, it stayed active, resulting in more power than necessary being put down to launch the car from a stop on these hills. It's a small niggle, this, and I'm sure that after extended time in the car, it'd be easy to adjust to. The throttle itself is sort of tricky, as well – all the power is available right at tip-in – so instances of one-third throttle and wide-open feel very similar from behind the wheel.
The Fiesta ST is an incredibly rewarding piece of machinery to toss around.
But once you get going, the Fiesta ST is an incredibly rewarding piece of machinery to toss around. The Potenza summer tires and silky smooth French pavement had a lot to do with how grippy the Ford was while being chucked in and out of corners, but the lowered ride height, larger 17-inch wheels and upgraded suspension – an independent MacPherson setup in front and a torsion-beam system out back with monotube shock absorbers – are a perfect fit for this potent little hatch. Compared to the standard Fiesta, the whole suspension has been stiffened with unique springs and dampers, with Ford cautioning that US-spec cars will have slightly different rebound damping tuning because of the added weight of the rear doors.
Body roll? Not here. Understeer? It's there, but hard to bring it out. That's thanks to Ford's eTVC torque-vectoring system that shifts power between the front wheels during turning. Under really hard instances of accelerating out of a corner, you can actually feel the system working, shifting power from left to right – it almost feels like the inside wheel is stepping out slightly to better claw into the pavement. In serious high-performance instances, the ST will apparently even lift its inside rear wheel like an old GTI, though that sort of tomfoolery never presented itself during my experience on these lovely winding roads. Ford has also upgraded the Fiesta's braking system with new disc brakes at all four corners – vented up front – measuring 11 inches at the driven wheels and 10 inches out back.
It's a pure joy – far closer to something like a Mini John Cooper Works than any of America's larger hot hatch rivals.
Communication to the driver through the steering wheel is excellent, despite very small instances of torque steer. As you'd expect, Ford uses an electronically assisted power rack here, with the ratio tuned up to 13.6:1 versus 14.6:1 in the base car. In the larger Focus ST, the steering feel is impressive, with great on-center feel and almost Mini-like reflexes at initial turn-in, and I'm happy to report that this same experience is found in the Fiesta ST. But because of the shorter wheelbase and lighter overall weight – the three-door is a full 650 pounds lighter than the five-door Focus ST – the Fiesta actually feels more flickable, and on challenging roads like these with lots of increasing-radius turns and blind corners, it's much easier to properly set the car up and correct mid-turn if necessary. Really, it's a pure joy – far closer to something like a Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop than any of America's larger hot hatch rivals. Coincidentally, the JCW Mini is actually a close competitor for the Fiesta – it's up on power, slightly, but it's actually heavier than this three-door version by just over 100 pounds. (Sounds like a proper comparo is in order.)
Speaking of sounds, the Fiesta ST is full of aural delights. Ford's Sound Symposer technology is found in this pint-sized puncher, much like the larger Focus ST. But instead of coming on at a certain engine speed like in the Focus, the Fiesta's system is always on – engine noise is piped directly into the cabin through a hole in the firewall. And it sounds awesome. There isn't much to be heard from the exhaust out back, except on initial startup, but there's plenty of sound injected into the cabin from the forced-induction four when you're out on the road.
There're more cues to the Fiesta's hot hatch greatness inside the cabin, too, where you're first and foremost greeted with excellent Recaro thrones up front (optional kit, natch). These aren't the exact same chairs as what's found in the Focus ST, but they're just as comfortable and supportive. If it were my dollars, I wouldn't even bother ordering a Fiesta ST without them. Elsewhere inside the ST, upgrades that will carry over to the rest of the 2014 Fiesta range are found, including – most notably – a revised center stack with a significantly more appealing and user-friendly interface. Yes, it's still button-heavy, but it's a big step up from the previous layout – and the cars we get in the States with nav will have even fewer buttons. But unlike the Focus, the Fiesta ST uses a new steering wheel that isn't cluttered with controls everywhere. The helm is plenty thick and a joy to use, and only has two five-way controllers on either side of the horn to operate all of the finicky MyFord madness. Not seen in our Euro tester is the available 6.5-inch color touchscreen that can be had in US-spec cars.
I wouldn't even bother ordering a Fiesta ST without the optional Recaro seats.
Other enhancements in the 2014 Fiesta include better materials on the dashboard, though the cabin is still largely awash with black plastics. The glossy black trim on the center stack and the aluminum accents on the ST-specific steering wheel and shift knob look and feel upscale, but remember, this is a sub-$25,000 subcompact. For that price, the interior is just fine. And because it's a hatchback, there are heaps of functionality to go with all of that performance. The rear bench splits in a 60/40 fashion, and with the seatbacks down, you'll have 34.4 cubic feet of storage at your disposal – way more than in similar small hotties like the Mini JCW or a Fiat 500 Abarth.
Pricing for US-spec cars starts at $21,400, not including $795 for destination. Rather than lump things together in option packages, Ford offers all of its upgrades on an a-la-carte basis. If you're like me, you'll want to hand over $1,995 for the Recaro package (those seats are heated, by the way), and if bright colors are your thing, $595 will either get you the Molten Orange seen here or a new shade called Green Envy. Choose the flashier set of 17-inch alloys ($395) and goodies like a power moonroof ($795) and navigation (also $795), and a fully decked-out Fiesta ST will set you back $26,750. That's an interesting price to consider, especially considering the larger Focus ST I loved so much in our hot hatch comparo didn't have all this equipment and still cost $1,420 more (a base Fiesta ST costs $2,300 less than a base Focus ST, by the way). Yeah, you can get a Fiat 500 Abarth more cheaply, but it's not nearly as good to drive or as practical to live with. And I don't think I need to explain why the Mini doesn't make sense here from a pricing standpoint.
A base Fiesta ST costs $2,300 less than a base Focus ST, by the way.
Therein lies the most beautiful part about the Fiesta ST package: It hits a really sweet spot in the US market. If you don't really need the space of the somewhat larger B-segment hatches, you don't have to get it. Save your money and have just as much fun in the Fiesta, if not more. And before you start making arguments about how the Fiesta is only rated at 179 horsepower while every one of the larger cars has more grunt, know this: The Fiesta ST has a better power-to-weight ratio than a Volkswagen GTI, and while the Focus ST still wins this math equation, it doesn't do so by much.
What's really good, though, is that Ford – a company whose American performance offerings were once limited to things with prancing ponies on the grille – will now offer a pair of truly excellent hot hatches here in the States. Blasting through France in the Fiesta made it all very clear. And if driving the Focus ST at home last year was any indication, I have no doubt my feelings will hold up once this littlest ST hops the pond.