I've never owned a hot hatchback. I'm not entirely sure why, maybe there's just some part of me that never really saw the appeal, or possibly that I don't feel I suit smaller cars. I would, however, go some way to conceding that spending a weekend with one of the new Ford Fiesta STs has changed my mind massively on this idea.
For as long as I can remember I've been obsessed mainly with Japanese cars. I hold growing up with Gran Turismo and having the Lancer as my first car to account for this, but it was never really something that I found myself particularly discontented with. Recently, this has begun to change. In the last year I've managed to become besotted with a crusty old Jaguar XJ6, and have experienced no greater love for a car than I do for my Twingo, neither of which fit in the previously held prerequisite for a car to be Japanese in order for me to enjoy it.
My realisation that there is, indeed, a world outside of Japanese automobiles for me to explore, was illuminated wonderfully by the car pictured, a 1.5 litre, three cylinder Fiesta ST-2.
Now, I'd like to begin by mentioning that this is not my car. As much as it was comical at the time to joke about me having traded in one of the cars for the Fiesta, it is indeed a company vehicle and was only with me for the weekend due to complications with the bank holiday rota at work meaning that, in order to facilitate the demonstration of a vehicle to a customer, I had to swap into it for a few days.
I've known for a while that the most recent 'Mk8' revision of the Fiesta ST is meant to be one hell of a car. You can read or watch pretty much any review to be given an idea of the regard to which this car is held by the automotive press, and it needed to be good given the popularity of the previous generation Fiesta ST - but while Ford also needed to make it as quick, grippy and entertaining to drive as the Mk7 ST, they also needed to give the car a helping hand in terms of growing up a little. The public image of the previous generation is, at best, shaky. Many can be seen tarted up with distasteful modifications at car gatherings, racing around inner-city ring-roads at night and making unbearable amounts of noise with various types of exhausts and rev-limiters.
I wasn't quite ready, though, for just how good the Mk8 is. The moment you get in the car, it's noticeable the sheer extent to which it's become a more complete package. The kit level is far higher, the cabin quality has been improved massively, and the seats are an absolute joy to place yourself in. The interior has become far less chav-spec with red interior lighting ditched in favour of a calmer cool-blue hue, although red dials remain to remind you that you're not sitting in an economy hatch. On the outside, the styling is noticeably different to the standard Fiesta, with a far more aggressive front bumper and grille, and a sporty-looking rear diffuser. The characteristic ST badge sits on the bumper, giving away the engine that lies aft of it, another of the Fiesta's more grown-up features.
And what an engine it is. Despite displacing just 1497 cubic centimetres and touting just three cylinders, this engine manages to provide 197hp and 214lb-ft of torque - not only that, but it manages to supply these figures while retaining an industry average service interval and being not significantly more expensive to upkeep than any other petrol engine in the Fiesta range in terms of servicing and parts. It also features cylinder de-activation and can see well above 40mpg on a long trip, thus providing more evidence of the growing-up this new model has gone through.
The best thing about the Mk8 Fiesta ST however, by a country mile, is the way the thing drives. This is the bit I wasn't quite prepared for. This one had the performance pack fitted, which gives a mechanical limited-slip front differential, and currently all Fiesta STs come fitted with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres as standard equipment. These aspects, combined with the frankly magical standard Fiesta chassis having been fettled by the boffins at Ford Performance, has resulted in a car that defies belief as to how well a small hatchback can tackle a winding country road. The passing of a national speed limit sign on a country road provides an almost instinctive reaction to grab the gloriously-weighted gear knob and complete a short throw into third, blipping the throttle pedal to match the revs and then allowing the massive mid-range torque of the engine to carry you towards the redline. Entering a corner, you feel the chassis and tyres work together to carry you through the initial turn, and the fantastic front diff means you don't have to fear applying power early to exit the turn, unlike most powerful hatches beleaguered with an open diff that understeer freely at the slightest hint of throttle-in-turn, the limited-slip unit doesn't allow the inside wheel to let go, and only goes further to add front end bite in the corner. Under braking, rev matching rewards you with WRC-style pops from the exhaust, which in itself does a fabulous job of amplifying the inherent roar of the three-pot unit. But while being capable of all of this, the suspension is still capable of avoiding unwanted interruptions making their way through to the cabin - even on a poor quality B-road there are very few vibrations, and it's capable of dealing with pot-holes, speed bumps and anything else that would present a far larger issue for the 'more-focused' sports cars. I genuinely believe that on a tight, winding B-road, you'd be quicker in a Fiesta ST than any of the current entry-level offerings from Ferrari or Lamborghini.
But despite my love for it, the Mk8 ST hasn't won over all of the target audience it's aimed at. Some people claim that it's a little too soft, that some of the rawness has been lost when compared to the Mk7, or other comparable hot-hatches available on the UK market. To some extent, it's difficult to disagree. It is a little less engaging than the last generation, mainly because of the amount of extra kit you get, designed to make the car quicker, and easier to drive fast. Maybe it has, indeed, gone a little soft, sacrificing the harsh ride that some loved for a more comfortable drive, that some hate.
However when all is said and done, I truly believe that the overall package offered by the Mk8 Fiesta ST is one that the Mk7 can be no rival to. It's more grown up for sure, and you could argue that some of the fun has been lost, but when you're actually behind the wheel none of that really matters. Because the way it makes you feel, the true euphoria it gives when tackling the tarmac of the British countryside, that's a feeling that some people pay a lot of money to achieve for a few hours. Drive a Fiesta ST, and you can get that high every time you drive to work.