TRIPLE PLAY

FORD IS TEMPTING FATE BY MESSING WITH THE WINNING FIESTA ST FORMULA. HOWEVER, SOMETIMES CHANGE BEGETS GREATNESS

BY MATT SAUNDERS

REMEMBER when hot hatchbacks felt like a break from the rigorous commercial norm of the car business? The modern descendants of these cars might still be fun to drive but, at least as far as the industry is concerned, theyíre now not only serious cars, but also serious money-making machines.

Being seen as key Ďbrand-buildersí by the companies producing them, hot hatches are now, ahem, hot property. So much so that critical acclaim and buyer demand persuaded Ford Australia to ship in the new, third-generation Fiesta ST from Germany. For quite some time it was looking like weíd miss out altogether Down Under. As a result of its global popularity, itís evident that time and effort has been lavished on it by in-house tuning department Ford Performance.

Coming along just a year after the launch of the seventhgeneration Fiesta hatchback on which itís based, the new ST has a list of hardware upgrades and performance features more lengthy and impressive, in many ways, than that of the car with which ĎTeam RSí built its modern reputation: the 2002 Focus RS. That itís the first fast Fiesta to be available with a helical limitedslip differential for its driven front axle will be the headlinegrabbing titbit plucked by many from its specification sheet (itís expected to be standard in Oz and supplied by Quaife).

But this is actually a car with so much new and interesting technical content that Iíll do well to cover all of it and find enough room for driving impressions over the following pages.

The carís departure point is a Fiesta chassis braced in key areas on the underside of the body-in-white, which is itself 14 per cent more rigid than that of the standard car. The new ST also has the fastest steering rack and the stiffest torsion beam yet to be fitted to a performance Ford.

THERE ARE HINTS OF THE ORIGINAL FIVE-CYLINDER FOCUS ST ABOUT THE WAY THIS ENGINE WARBLES

It has particularly interesting suspension, too. Frequency selective dampers from Tenneco feature front and rear. They are double-valved in order to better handle both high- and lowfrequency inputs than a conventional passive damper could, but theyíre not Ďadaptiveí as such Ė just clever. Moreover, Ford fits asymmetrical, directionally wound springs onto the carís rear axle, which are in effect bent into their fittings in order to apply a stabilising lateral force onto the rear wheels as well as performing the usual load-bearing job.

The springs address a key problem that hot hatchbacks with twist-beam rear suspension have always had: that, in order to effectively locate the rear axle and deliver top-level handling precision, you have to fit very rigid suspension mounting bushes which have a detrimental effect on the ride. These Ďtorque vectoringí springs, says Ford, do as good a job as a Wattís linkage in solving that problem and permit the fitment of much softer bushes. Additionally, theyíre also significantly lighter than a Wattís linkage would be.

The Fiesta ST has a dedicated front hub design of the sort becoming common among cars of its ilk. It has allowed Ford to lower the carís ride height without lowering its front suspension roll centre too much, and it keeps control of front kingpin angle and wheel offset as necessary in order to avoid too much torque steer and bump steer. The spring rate is slightly higher than that of the outgoing car but, as the engineers behind the carís chassis development will tell you, the new damping and bushing in combination contribute to a more mature, rounded feel to the new carís ride. It was also achieved without taking the allimportant playful dynamic balance and cutting-edge response away from the handling.

Those engineers will also tell you that while they loved the last Fiesta ST, it certainly had a yobby, antisocial ride that they simply couldnít justify transferring directly onto this new version. But before you doubt them, these are the same engineers who, half way through the development program, sent the Pilot Sport 4S tyres originally intended for the car back to Michelin and insisted only grippier Pilot Super Sports would do.

ON A TRAILING THROTTLE, THE FIESTA ST CAN BE TEASED INTO EASILY TAMED OVERSTEER

The STís new engine is one about which, I dare say, you may already have read: an all-aluminium, three-cylinder, 1.5-litre turbocharged motor which gives the car identical peak power and torque figures to those of the outgoing STís 1.6-litre fourpot. However, it can also deactivate its middle cylinder and run on 66 per cent of its normal swept volume in conditions of light load. Thatís a three-cylinder engine capable of running on two: a car industry first. Upshot? A 20 per cent improvement on labtest fuel economy and CO2 emissions compared with the old ST.

Perhaps of more interest, the new motor is also lighter than the one it replaces. This is also the first Fiesta ST to have selectable driving modes: Normal, Sport and Track. As you cycle through them, that engine gets fruitier and fruitier-sounding as its active exhaust and engine sound synthesising system combine to bring additional layers of noise. Thereís a distant flavour of the original five-cylinder Focus ST both about the way this engine warbles and its torquey mid-range feel.

Iím not totally sold on the time it takes the crankshaft to slow down from high revs, I have to say (itís a function of the counterbalance measures that three-pots need in order to run smoothly at low engine speeds). Canít help wondering, either, how much faster the engine would spin, and how much more power it would develop, if Ford dropped the flywheel completely. Still, perhaps thatís just me. All in all, thereís certainly plenty of urgency, plenty of character and, in spite of the torque, a likeable willingness to rev.

In lots of ways the Fiesta feels like the car it replaces: it has meaty, fixed-ratio steering with which itís easy to gel in spite of its pace, as well as supreme handling response and brilliantly flat body control. But the way it rides is something else. Having only driven the car at a test track I canít tell with certainty how it might deal with Aussie back roads, but thereís quite a lot more suppleness and ride dexterity here than there used to be.

Over what lumps and bumps I could find on our test drive, over which the outgoing STís dampers might have bristled and its body fidgeted, the new modelís suspension just sucks up the punishment and lets you get on with it. Perhaps more importantly, on surfaces over which drivers of the old ST might have felt the need to apologise to their passenger for the selfishness of their buying decision, I suspect you wonít in the new one. And thatís a bit of a revelation: a Fiesta ST that passes the partner/mother-in-law test. Hurrah.

VW POLO GTI

2.0-litre turbo inline-4, FWD, 147kW/320Nm, 0-100km/h 6.7sec 1355kg, $28,000 (est)

YET TO BE released in Australia, the next-generation Polo GTI grows up in just about every respect. Itís physically bigger and gains more power and torque (147kW/320Nm) thanks to a detuned Golf unit. The stakes have been raised.

Equally brilliant is the carís handling Ė although that much we expect of a Ford Performance product. The ST feels a shade more precise in its steering response than the last one did, turning in more crisply, gripping harder and staying slightly truer to your intended path than its forebear did as the lateral load builds into the rear tyres. Itís certainly capable of carrying more cornering speed than the old car and it has a bit more mid-corner stability, while traction on corner exit is subtly, but notably stronger than it was thanks to the machinations of that Quaife limited-slip diff.

But fear not: the car is still a barrel of fun when you disengage the stability control and unload the rear axle. On a trailing throttle, the Fiesta can be teased into easily tamed oversteer more dependably and willingly than any other hot supermini I can think of. Its handling balance and adjustability remain exceptional, and in a way that speaks volumes about the philosophy of chassis engineers who think a front-drive performance car that isnít sensitive to controllable lift-off oversteer just isnít worth their time and who canít understand why so many of their rivals seem to be so afraid of the phenomenon that they try to engineer it out entirely. Lucky for Ford, I guess, that they are.

THE FIESTA ST WILL TAKE SOME BEATING AS ONE OF THE YEARí S BEST AFFORDABLE PERFORMANCE CARS

Given how many new arrivals have lately come into the market niche that the last Fiesta ST so plainly bossed, and how short our initial test drive was, weíll leave the ultimate decision as to whether this car is another Ford Performance worldbeater for another day. It has to be right up there. And itís none the worse as a driverís car for whatís plainly an attempt to give it a broader sales appeal. When this yearís best affordable performance cars are measured, the Fiesta ST will take some beating.