LITTLE WONDER

Ford’s smallest hot hatch delivers conclusive, downsized proof that it’s not how big it is, it’s what you can do with it

WORDS TONY O’KANE

IT’S A CHEEKY move by Ford to stage the launch of its third-generation Fiesta ST in France, given La Republique is home ground for scorching B-segmenters like the Clio RS and Peugeot 208 GTi.

Yet here we are, on one of the twistier portions of the Route Napoleon, sitting inside the Blue Oval’s newest and most affordable performance car. The Fiesta is well and truly behind enemy lines right now, but it’s clutching a garotte in one hand.

Ford’s European arm knows a thing or two about making compact hatches go fast. This 2018 model might be the third generation of car to wear the Fiesta ST moniker, but the lineage stretches all the way back to the 1981 Fiesta XR2. Those decades of experience are manifest in the way the latest Fiesta ST drives.

“What we wanted to achieve was to improve in four areas,” says Leo Roeks, director of Ford Performance’s European operation. “One was the powertrain, the engine. Power obviously, but also CO2 emissions. Then there was the seating position.

“Another thing that’s very important is ride, handling and steering, and the other thing is noise. Does a three-cylinder actually work for a sports car? I can guarantee you; yes, it does.”

Proving naysayers wrong will be the Fiesta ST’s greatest challenge. The decision to deploy a three-cylinder with just 1.5 litres of swept volume makes it an outlier in a segment populated by four-pots and will no doubt have spec-sheet fiends scratching their heads, especially given it weighs more than the old car and its Polo GTI rival now boasts a big-block 2.0L. But Roeks and his team have equipped the Fiesta with an arsenal of go-faster tricks to compensate for its smaller heart.

The ST suffix stands for ‘Sport Technology’, and there’s plenty of both in the fastest Fiesta. Tech helps counteract the reductions in capacity and cylinder count, with the new triple’s 147kW of peak power and 290Nm of maximum torque exceeding the official stats of the outgoing 1.6 by 13kW and 50Nm respectively. Interestingly, those numbers also line up with what the second-gen ST generated when operating in overboost, which could only be done for 20 seconds at a time.

High-pressure direct fuel injection (working in concert with port injection), variable intake and exhaust cam timing, and clever turbine geometry are responsible for the 1.5’s prodigious muscle, and also help mitigate turbo lag. The result of all this is a 6.5sec 0-100km/h sprint, 0.4 seconds faster despite the new car’s 90kg of extra mass.

Amazingly, the ST also has cylinder deactivation. By decoupling the rocker arms for cylinder number one, the Fiesta ST’s three-pot can morph into a two-pot to curb its thirst on light-throttle cruising.

The tech story continues underneath. The rear suspension is a mechanically simple torsion beam but it’s augmented by what Ford Performance calls ‘force vectoring’ springs. Banana-shaped in profile and, wound in opposite directions to each other, they work to increase the rear axle’s lateral stiffness without requiring a Watts linkage – thus netting a weight saving of 10kg. The front knuckles have ST-specific geometry, and no matter whether you spec the standard 17-inch alloys or their more attractive 18-inch counterparts, the new ST rolls on grippy Michelin Pilot Super Sports – rubber that’s more commonly found on things like BMW M3s, rather than sub-$30K hatches.

Launch control also features, but the most transformational improvement is the addition of a Quaife limited-slip differential to the six-speed transaxle. It’s a proper mechanical unit rather than the brake-based virtual LSDs used by every other B-segment hottie, and while it’s optional in Europe, Wheels understands it’s likely to be standard-issue in Australia. Helping it out is brake torque vectoring, which varies braking force between the left and right wheels to aid turn-in response and mitigate understeer.

MEANWHILE, back to the Route Napoleon. It’s Ascension Day, a public holiday in France, and everyone with a fast car or motorcycle seems to have gravitated toward this road. Little wonder, considering the exceptional mix of fast sweepers and tight corners that can be found on the route around the town of Castellane. Prime hot-hatch territory. We’re in a three-door ST equipped with the LSD and 18s – the lightest, most focused configuration – and it feels eager to attack.

The rubbery shifter isn’t especially precise, but the vague friction point that plagued the old car’s clutch pedal has been banished for good. Tipping in the throttle, the first impression is that the engine is far gutsier than expected of a 1.5-litre, and the swell of torque from just off idle endows it with outstanding tractability. In sport mode with the muffler flaps flipped open, the three-cylinder has a meaty burble – and surprisingly vocal crackles on the overrun.

And the more revs you give it, the better it becomes. It’s torque-rich, yes, but it doesn’t mind chasing the redline either. Keep the needle above 3000rpm and response is swift up until 6000rpm, where thrust begins to taper off ahead of a 6200rpm redline.

That straight-line go is matched by a properly tieddown front end. The Michelin/LSD combo lays power down beautifully, with just a smidge of torque steer when at greater steering angles. And while the Quaife diff is yet to be locked in for Australia, the profound impact it makes on performance ensures that it ought to be. We had a punt in an open-diffed five-door and, while fast, it lacked the almost effortless traction of the LSD-equipped three-door, and was slower as a result.

Forget the rest, we get the best

Next year, the Fiesta ST will be the only Fiesta you’ll be able to buy brand-new from an Australian Ford dealer. Why? Because with production of the new-gen car now centralised in Europe, there’s no longer a fat enough profit margin in lower-grade Fiestas to enable a business case on our shores. However with a $25K-plus price tag, the Fiesta ST has enough meat on the bone to make it economically worthwhile for Ford Australia and the dealerships that will sell them.

DIY cog shuffle

Automatic transmissions may be Kryptonite for many keen drivers, but self-shifting ’boxes are critical for mainstream commercial success. Despite the clear buyer preference, Ford has no immediate plans for an auto Fiesta ST. Leo Roeks, head of Ford Performance in Europe, acknowledged the growing importance of offering an auto option and said that one could potentially join the family in the future, but was adamant that for the time being all Fiesta STs will come with three pedals – no fewer.

Model Ford Fiesta ST three-door

Engine 1497cc 3cyl, dohc, 12v, turbo

Max power 147kW @ 6000rpm

Max torque 290Nm @ 1600-4000rpm

Transmission 6-speed manual L/W/H 4068/1735/1469mm

Wheelbase 2493mm

Weight 1262kg 0-100km/h 6.5sec (claimed)

Economy 6.0L/100km (EU)

Price $28,000 (estimated)

On sale Q1, 2019

Both cars feel exceptionally alert through the steering wheel though, with a fat leather-wrapped rim connected to an ultra-sharp and incredibly direct steering rack, with a crisp 12:1 ratio. As with its predecessor there’s virtually zero slack in the steering, though now, thanks to new geometry, those forcevectoring rear springs, frequency-selective dampers and improved suspension bushings, there’s a level of pliancy and fluidity to the Fiesta ST’s ride and handling that helps it cope with choppier roads. In other words, it’s actually comfortable.

And that marks it apart from the Frenchies. With a chassis that’s more contained and sporty than the 208 GTi yet not as single-mindedly firm as the Clio RS, the Fiesta ST eats up French roads with ease, displaying peerless traction and few, if any, compromises.

Its limpet grip on the tarmac is hard to breach, but with enough inertia, the slacker ESC of the ‘Race’ drive mode, and a sharp lift of the throttle and flick of the steering, the Fiesta ST’s rear end goes light and rotates around. It’s not the flamboyant kind of pirouette that the Clio RS excels at, but at the same time it feels far more approachable, progressive and predictable when driven at the limit. Quite like its big bro, the Focus ST.

It’s hard to discern a dynamic distinction between the three-door and five-door, in case you were wondering. With just 21 kilograms separating them and identical length, track width and wheelbase, the two bodystyles perform virtually identically.

Problems? Very few. The pedals are still a little awkwardly spaced for neat heel-toe downshifts, and there’s no downshift rev-matching – or automatic option – to counter that. The shift gate itself could also be tighter, and the lid for the centre console box gets in the way when selecting second, fourth or sixth.

As with the outgoing car there’s a pair of Recaros up front, but this time they’re mounted on rails with plenty of height adjustment, while the steering column has greater range of movement in both reach and rake. Getting comfy behind the wheel of a Fiesta ST is no longer an ergonomic challenge. And while the secondgen ST was let down by a dated interior that boasted Nokia aesthetics in the iPhone era, its replacement suffers no such ailment. The new ST’s box-fresh interior lifts the sense of cabin quality significantly while also flaunting Ford’s latest SYNC3 infotainment system on an 8.0-inch tombstone-style screen (6.5in on low-spec Euro models) surrounded by much nicer plastics.

The worst part is that we’ll have to wait for it. While it will have already launched in Europe by the time you read this, the Fiesta ST isn’t coming to our shores until the end of Q1, 2019. The final specifications of our cars have yet to be locked down, too. For bodystyle, it’ll be a hard decision for Ford Australia to make: to bring in the more overtly sporty, better-looking and somewhat selfish three-door, or capitulate to the demands of the public and give them the one with better everyday utility – the five-door. With the Fiesta ST being the sole Fiesta to go on sale in Australia (see sidebar), it’s unlikely that we’ll receive both. Profit margins must be maintained, and amortising the cost of an additional bodystyle will be a challenge for a low-volume car.

And while the excellent Quaife differential should be a sure-fire inclusion for Australia, it’s less clear whether we’ll get the 17-inch alloys or the slightly sharper handling 18-inch items instead. Price is still an unknown, but a realistic window lies between $27-30K. With the new Polo GTI lobbing at $30,990 with an auto transmission as standard, the fast Fiesta will have to be priced well under that mark.

But whatever the price, be thankful that we’re getting it at all.