Pretty much however you quantify it the new Fiesta ST is an improvement over the one it replaces. The engine is smaller and more efficient but matches the outgoing one for power and torque, it’s a bit bigger so there’s more space inside, the toy count has gone up and there are token tenths off the 0-62 time and a few more mph on the top end. Then there’s the new technology, up to and including the driver modes, launch control, optional Quaife limited-slip differential, self-adjusting frequency dependent dampers and intriguing sounding ‘force vectoring’ rear springs.

 

So, it goes. But is the new Fiesta ST actually better? That’s not something you can measure by comparing numbers on a spec sheet. It’s something you can only find out by going for a long drive, preferably one with lots of open roads, hairpin bends and plenty of opportunities to drive it like a bit of a yob away from wagging fingers and speed cameras.

 

Expectations are high. But so are standards.

 

You probably already know the basics but to re-cap the 1.6-litre, four-cylinder EcoBoost is gone and replaced by a 1.5-litre, three-cylinder equivalent. In one of those funny little coincidences the stats are 200PS/197bhp and 214lb.ft, or exactly the same as the old engine on overboost. Funny that, eh? Despite putting on 101kg at the kerb and being a little bigger in every dimension the new ST nails 0-62 in 6.5 seconds and tops out at 144mph, or four tenths and 7mph faster than the current car in its standard form. Not a difference you’ll really notice on the road, in other words. So, the comparisons will come down to how it feels. Or, more importantly, how it makes YOU feel.

You can have the new car in three- or five-door form, with a manual gearbox only and it comes in familiar ST-1, -2 and -3 trim levels. Once again ST-2 from £19,995 looks like the sweet spot, the top trim adding 18-inch wheels and the kind of automation for stuff like lights, wipers, traffic sign recognition and all the rest any sentient driver should be able to do for themselves. And if you really need parking sensors on a Fiesta you’ve got bigger spatial awareness issues than bleepers and a rear-view camera can help with. Still, it’s all there if you want it and yours for £21,495. But if it’s either/or you should instead be spending the money on the £850 Performance Pack instead, this bundling in a Quaife limited-slip differential, launch control and shift lights. Reasons why you’d want to do this were covered comprehensively in the August issue (398) last month, but given that’s similar cost to a diff (before fitting) on an existing ST, it looks like a no-brainer.

 

Download a brochure if you want the forensic spec info though – there’s driving to be done. The moment you get in you feel the interior quality is definitely up a notch and from ST-2 upwards the 8.0-inch SYNC3 touchscreen reduces the clutter of the outgoing car, ST-3 gaining nav and other functionality. Recaros are standard on all models and are just the right side of cosy while the wheel pulls out close into your chest for an authentic Ogier-like seating position. Meanwhile the stumpy little gear lever has some decent weight to it and a short throw around its six ratios.

 

The engine fires up with a naughty little rasp and you immediately pick up on that off-beat, three-cylinder noise. It’s thankfully a little more exotic sounding than a Smart car, the visible flap on one of the two pipes and extra piped-in amplification upping the excitement when required. Thankfully the latter sounds natural enough not to be intrusive and way more convincing than the monotone drone you get in hot VWs and related SEATs. From the outside or with the windows down it sounds even better, the crackly exhaust note overlayed with an exciting whistle of turbo that’s just the right side of being sociable. Even when you give in to temptation and drive around a gear or two down from what’s necessary.

 

Throttle response can’t match the familiar four-cylinder 1.6 though, the loss of a cylinder and greater dependence on the turbo inevitably meaning a softer pedal, even in the Sport or Race modes. The exhaust manifold is integrated into the cylinder head to shorten the gas flow and improve response but there’s no escaping the fact you need a moment for the boost to build. It feels like there’s more inertia in the engine too, which makes rev-matching your gearchanges easier but robs it of that zing the best hot hatch engines have. In short you need to keep it on the boil to get its best but that’s no hardship thanks to that gearbox and the spot-on placement of the pedals.

 

It gets more interesting in the handling department. The steering is super-fast, the rack ratio going from 13:69:1 to just 12:1 and giving the car a real sense of pointiness. If you had the same on the outgoing ST it’d probably feel a little on the nervous side but the more sophisticated spring and damper set-up makes sense of it and instead the new version manages to be both more refined and comfortable without giving anything away in agility.

 

Some of the existing car’s rawness has been lost though, which will either be a good or a bad thing depending on your viewpoint. Certainly where the current one feels always on its toes and ready for a scrap the new one has a broader range of ability and greater sense of refinement, which will increase the potential audience for sure. At the risk of alienating the hardcore?

 

Well, it would if they’d also dialled out the playfulness. Thankfully they haven’t, the fast steering paired with the stiffest rear torsion beam ever used on a Ford Performance product. And you don’t need to be a suspension engineer to know what the combination of a pointy front end and stiff rear does to the handling balance.

The engineers on the launch all apologise for the fact we arrive to rain and greasy roads but really they needn’t worry. Because in these conditions you get a feel for what the car can do at much lower speeds than you would on a dry road. And driven normally in its standard mode it’s an impressively fun and refined car. Grown-up almost.

 

Those (wrongly) equating a Quaife differential with the wheel-grabbing antics of the original Focus RS will be relieved to find there’s next to no interference to the steering from the throttle and the Fiesta can be driven fast, smoothly and safely without any dramas. What if you want to concentrate on ‘fast’ and have some fun though?

 

Sport mode unleashes some amusing pa-pa-pa-PAP! theatrics from the exhaust as you come off the throttle, a little more weight to the steering and a slightly sharper throttle. In Track mode you lose traction control and the stability control is at its ‘wide-slip’ mode; there’s fully off if you want to go full hero too. The position of the buttons means you might do that accidentally while selecting your driving mode too but don’t worry, it’s still unlikely to bite you.

 

With the roads a bit slithery you can really start to play, even in Sport mode with everything on. Barrel into a corner on the brakes and you’ll feel the back end start to swing round just a smidge – not so much as you’re throwing on corrective lock but enough to tell you the car is ready to play. Such is the beauty of this set-up that you’re not throwing huge steering inputs at everything but instead controlling the angle of attack through throttle and brake, which is exactly what you’d hope for in a fast Ford.

That stiff rear axle means some very old-school cornering stances are easy to achieve, the ST ready to cock a wheel in the air without too much provocation while the clever rear springs keep everything tidy and on track. Explaining them requires a sketch on a bit of paper by Ford Performance’s European boss Leo Roeks but the principle is pretty simple, directional winding and a slight banana-shaped twist meaning the sideways loads under cornering can actually be used to stop the twist-beam deflecting. This alone saves 10kg over a Watt’s linkage or the cost of a fancier multi-link rear set-up like that used on MINIs. Paired with Tenneco dampers that can self-adjust between light damping for low frequency bumps (motorway and the like) and more control over high frequency ones you can probably strike coil-overs off the potential upgrades list.

 

The supporting role of the Quaife diff in stabilising the front end is also easily overlooked, its design meaning it makes a difference even when you’re off the throttle. So, your assurance is high on corner approach, the car can easily be pivoted to get the front end pointing where you want it go to and all the encouragement you need to get on the power nice and quickly is there.

 

This is where the Fiesta gets to show its party piece and a decisive advantage over its predecessor. Like the Peugeot 208 GTI and megabucks Toyota Yaris GRMN, the ST’s return to a mechanical limited-slip differential (or torque biasing one, to be accurate) is huge news, especially at this price point. But given the previous electronic Torque Vectoring Control didn’t do a bad job and has been carried over in modified form what are you actually gaining?

 

Confidence, in a word. Confidence that when you get on the gas on the inside of a steep hairpin with the inside front wheel hanging you’re still going to get drive torque to pull you through. Confidence that in a fast sweeper you can get on the power way earlier than you’d expect and, if you hold your nerve, feel the front end hold its line like a ditch-hooking rally pro. Confidence that you can do all this and be flat to the floor without any fears you’re going to be wrestling the steering wheel for a say over which hedge the car is then going to punt itself through. Basically, if you’re on the power and the front end is pointing where you want it to go then all is good.

 

Quaife and Ford have been refining this installation from early in the car’s development and the way it’s been integrated with the electronic systems is really impressive. Gaps in the diff’s range of abilities – such as when the inside wheel is in the air or with zero grip – can be filled by brake interventions but the rest of the time it’s putting the power down rather than having it cut as it would if you were relying on a brake-controlled system.

And the car has been so well set up that you can appreciate all this without sawing at the wheel or sliding about all over the road. Fast and a bit unruly was the previous car’s default and only setting. With this new one you can still do that if you want. But you also have the option of being smooth, which is an advantage if you want to make progress without attracting attention from onlookers inside or outside of the car. If you do want to create a bit of a stir at the lights there’s always the Performance Pack’s launch control mode too, easily accessible from the steering wheel menu and a simple case of flooring the throttle, holding the car against the electronically controlled rev limiter and then side-stepping the clutch. It’s pretty brutal and if you’re in Track mode the lack of traction control will spin the wheels up. But it’s a novelty you’ll enjoy playing with, likewise the flatshift function that lets you keep your foot flat on the power when you change up and holds the revs against an electronic limit that sounds more than a bit like anti-lag. This is obviously cool.

 

Achieving this balance in character was something of a challenge, at least according to Ford’s senior development guy Joe Bakaj. From Mondeo to S-Max, he’s been in charge of making sure every Ford has that little sprinkling of handling magic we’ve all become used to. And he says the additional grip of the new two-compound Michelin Pilot Super Sport actually presented something of a dilemma. If you’re going for laptimes he says you dial out the lift-off oversteer but they wanted the car to be “the right side of neutral” and so benchmarked the playfulness against the outgoing ST200. This “lift-off yaw overshoot” metric was then used to tune the response of the new ST and, while he admits it’s not as tied down as it perhaps could be, they wanted the car to have a sense of fun. Experience from behind the wheel suggests they nailed that side too, cornering speeds increasing as the roads dry and tyre squeal also. Still the ST can’t be fazed though, as happy with three wheels on the road as it is four, flattening mid-corner bumps and staying playful and communicative whatever your skill level.

 

Greedily by this point you’re probably asking if this is the base package for the new ST where can it go from here? Leo Roeks only grins and says “I’m very busy!” when asked about the headroom for more power, the possibility of dual clutch gearboxes or other potential additions to the package. Dare we hope for a return of the RS name to a Fiesta some day? A cost sensitive market makes that difficult, the challenge of engineering a decisive performance advantage without pricing the Fiesta into a fight with cars in the class above leaving little margin. Saying that cars like the Yaris GRMN and £30K-plus MINI JCW Challenge have demonstrated there is a market for seriously upgraded special editions and if Ogier keeps winning WRC titles in Fiestas you’d hope Ford feels suitably inspired. Ford fans are a passionate bunch, after all.

 

For now, and in conclusion this is a more sophisticated ST and a more mature one. Both of those might sound like alarm bells for fans of a car with a reputation for being neither but the good news is this new fast Fiesta maintains its spirt while opening up to an even wider audience. The old one made a virtue of being a little one-dimensional and its rawness remains as appealing as ever. Sensibly Ford knew which elements of that to keep and which to improve, the result being the same ST spirit. Just a bit more so. And this is just the start.

 

Read the full feature in the Summer 2018 issue