Hot new Fiesta life of the party
Ford has played it clever with this special hatchback
It's an embarrassment of riches at the moment for fans of the motivated hatchback, with recent arrivals including Peugeot's 208 GTi, the VW Golf GTI and now the sweet little Ford Fiesta ST.
And they're joining an already-packed roster with the Fiesta's big brother, the five-door Focus ST, Renault's incredible RS265 Megane and Mazda's always-mad Mazda3 MPS.
The hot-hatch market is obviously a hard-fought one, with brand loyalty getting harder for manufacturers to bank on - and with the performance car buyer renowned for being fickle, car companies have no option but to put their fastest foot forward to ensure people keep coming back. One bad car and they're never likely to be seen again.
Ford's Focus ST, released last year, is certainly not my fave in this arena - that's probably the RS265, with its clever suspension and steering combo that keeps the car from exhibiting those front-drive horrors like torque steer.
But the Fiesta, as opposed to its larger stablemate, is something special. As other hatches have grown in size over the years, cars of the Fiesta's size have been more likely to pack an engine design to keep rice puddings and their skins perfectly safe, aiming more at mummies than petrolheads, and offering little in terms of driving pleasure.
But with the Fiesta's WRC ambitions came a chassis that is as tight as a drum and capable of taking just as savage a beating. The Zetec version and its lesser iterations were fairly engaging to drive but needed to be pushed hard to get any real pace, but that chassis was always so promising, just waiting for someone to throw a bit of power its way.
Enter ST, using the 1600cc version of Ford's EcoBoost engine, combining direct injection, twin independent variable cam timing and the obligatory turbocharger to give 134kW of power and 240Nm of torque. That 134kW doesn't really sound like that much because, well, it isn't. But pack that into a frame the size of the Fiesta's and things start getting interesting.
The aforementioned Zetec, for instance, has 89kW and 151Nm, so the ST's mumbo package is certainly upping the ante, and with an entry price of less than $35,000, it's a lot of fun for a relatively small amount of money.
The action doesn't stop there - among the usual host of modern stability modes and braking assists is torque vectoring, which brakes wheels to ensure maximum traction when cornering and all but eliminates the great front-wheel drive curse of understeer. This means that the Fiesta corners dead flat.
The nice bloke in an HSV who gave chase to this little orange roughy up the wondrously twisty and tight Twilight Rd near Clevedon, southeast of Auckland, was utterly stunned that his big-capacity eight wasn't able to keep up.
It's in these serpentine stages that the Fiesta really comes into its own. It sits rock steady on the road, and even copes nicely with wet patches and other slippery bits without losing its composure, and is so level when cornering that it won't cock a rear wheel, something that motivated drivers of quick shopping baskets such as the Suzuki Swift The hot hatch market is obviously a hard-fought one, with brand loyalty getting harder for manufacturers to bank on.Sport will be very familiar with.
Backing off traction control obviously improves the engagement level, and there are two stages to the system in the ST: hit the trac off button and it will engage Sport mode in about 10 seconds, hold it down and the traction control will disable itself. This isn't as dire as it sounds, and with the torque vectoring basically aping the behaviour of a limited slip diff, it's pretty hard to get things ugly.
Ford has played it clever when it comes to the looks of this car. It isn't dripping with Tupperware add-ons and looking like something you'll see pulled up by our blue-hatted friends on a Friday night.
It's tastefully tweaked, with nice touches like an integrated roof spoiler, and the only absolute giveaway to most will be the red ST badge on the grille. The wee three-door sits on 17-inch wheels with a low enough ride height, courtesy of a very well-sorted sports suspension set-up, that it looks cool without becoming a judder-bar nightmare.
The Fiesta isn't really packing the most lux cabin you're likely to find. This is a $35,000 car, after all, but it's nicely appointed with a fat little steering wheel that's comfortable to saw away on, and a tight six-speed gearbox with very short throws that enhance the sports appeal.
One gripe is the Recaro seats. Don't get me wrong, I like Recaros, but I'm also partial to the odd pie and even the occasional beer when the keys have been put away for the day. That makes my external dimensions a bit beyond the narrow seating position, and while it's good being locked into a seat, there is a line.
Tech goodies on board include Ford's much-vaunted Sync system, which may not be the most intuitive vehicle interface ever made, but is very able when it comes to actually doing the job. It needs a few minutes worth of "um" time to familiarise yourself with the controls and a couple of "er" moments when getting the cellphone paired over Bluetooth, but once it's learned, it's fine.
Another nice trick for those with kids who will be champing at the spotty teenage bit to get behind the wheels of a quick little number like this, is MyKey. That means your key lets you do what you want, and you can set it up so the enthusiastic youth can only do what you want.
Restricted top speed and pre-set maximum volume for the stereo system are a great idea, as is the ability to turn off safety functions such as Dynamic Stability Control, and even turn the stereo off entirely if all occupants aren't belted up.
The power is, for a change, in your hands. Sorry Junior, but it's for your own good.
The Fiesta ST is without doubt one of the year's pleasant surprises, and in a couple of decades is likely to be mentioned in the same breath as hot-hatch icons such as the early Golf GTIs and the Renault 5.