Forget the Aston Martin DBS, the new Porsche Cayman GT4 or the Lamborghini Aventador SVJ - the Fiesta ST is the most important fast car of 2018. Its predecessor was so popular, so talented and such good value that the anticipation around this replacement simply will not subside. If this ST is too similar to the old model, questions will be raised about progress; make it too accommodating, however, and the fizzy, happy-go-lucky charm of the previous version - one of its greatest assets - could fall by the wayside.
Initial impressions have been positive - reservations about the ride and steering notwithstanding - although nothing really serves to test a car properly like driving it in the same place, at the same time, with a key rival. But what to choose? The Peugeot Sport 208 GTI would seem like the most natural choice, seeing as it pipped the previous Fiesta ST200 just a few months ago. But that's no longer on sale, with a replacement 208 due in the autumn. A Mini Cooper S perhaps? A worthy shout, especially after our time with the Works 210, but the only one available (and which you might see in a couple of pics) was a regular Cooper S on the 18-inch wheels and run-flat tyres. And, to be frank, they spoil the car.
Otherwise there's the Polo GTI (too staid), DS 3 Performance (too old) or the Vauxhall Corsa GSI (too slow). Which leaves the Fiesta up against the Toyota Yaris GRMN; its spec can't be spoilt (because there aren't any options), by the stats it's quicker than the Fiesta and, with the Ford in this fully loaded ST3 guise, it's not that much more expensive. Alright, so the UK allocation is sold out, but we still couldn't resist. Choose your side now...
This Performance Blue car should represent the three-cylinder Fiesta ST at its very best, boasting as it does the optional Performance Pack (principally featuring that Quaife limited-slip diff). All told it makes for a Fiesta ST that costs £24,515, but there we are.
The test begins on the B-roads of North Lincolnshire and in the Ford because, well, it's the new car here, and journalists will flock to shiny things on four wheels like the nosiest murder of crows. Is it good? Well yes - spoiler alert and all that - it is good, extremely good in places, but that doesn't mean a few irks aren't apparent.
The steering is odd, super sharp in the first few degrees, springy in feel and extremely keen to self-centre. It does give the Fiesta considerable agility, but in a distinctly unnatural way. Despite the addition of the Tenneco RC1 dampers and force vectoring springs, the Fiesta's low speed ride is pretty unforgiving. And the drive modes do still seem unnecessary.
It feels fairly mature, this ST, which will be anathema for those enamoured to the old car's impish charm. It also seems the direct opposite of the Yaris GRMN. Here's a car with the sort of insistent, urgent, indomitable character that the best Japanese fast cars are known for, begging to be thrashed at a moment's notice. It doesn't especially care if the speed limit is 20mph, if the photographer needs you going slower or the fuel tank is nearly empty, the GRMN really only knows one way to be driven. It makes a raspy, addictive noise, has better throttle response than the Ford and steers more naturally too, if not perfectly.
However, there's good news for the Fiesta: its maturity is not much more than a facade, like your mate who's much more silly out of the office. Delve a little deeper and there's certainly a Fiesta ST buried in there. Push and you'll discover another finely balanced Ford chassis, grip perfectly proportioned between front and rear, with a pleasingly naughty side accessible through both throttle and brake. That engine is remarkably keen for a small displacement turbo, the steering makes more sense with some load through it and the ride - above 30mph or so - is spot on: assured and composed, yes, but with the sort of feel we all crave from a junior hot hatch.
Day two is reserved for track; with the first day started in the Fiesta, it only seems fair to kick things off in the Yaris now. There was a suspicion on the road, both in this test and during prior drives, that the GRMN would suit a track pasting, and that's borne out here. Well, mostly. On circuit the Yaris has the sort of dogged determination and stamina that would shame many a more expensive track car: the brake pedal stays resolutely firm, the gearbox can be rushed as fast as you like, and that engine just will not give in. Torque may be useful on road, but to rev out an engine for every last drop of power is an addictive challenge on track. Over kerbs it's poised and alive, Sachs dampers keeping movement in check. With a diff that feels more proactive than the Fiestas, the GRMN is tremendous fun here.
Problems? A few. It's a bit prescriptive dynamically, your options limited once the understeer sets in. And a car this focused really deserves a more aggressive tyre, the standard Bridgestone Potenza RE050 lacking in bite and staying power - all the more frustrating when the rest of the car is so up for it. With stickier tyres the prospect of playing at mini tin-top racer with the GRMN is a hugely appealing one.
The Fiesta plays a very different tune on track to the Yaris. Everything feels a bit synthetic to begin with, clutch extremely light, gear shift baggier and engine less sprightly. Of course that's in comparison to the razor sharp Yaris, but worth noting - it feels immediately less track focused. What it offers by comparison is a more engaging, more entertaining chassis balance, the Fiesta's line significantly more responsive to throttle and brake inputs than the Yaris. The brakes can be used to lock the car onto an apex, a closed throttle to tighten a line and momentum to provoke some of the most outrageous lift-off oversteer you've ever seen. It's a proper little hoot when you cut it loose, the Fiesta, with a handy ESC Sport setting to keep the marshals on side at a track day.
What it lacks that the Toyota possesses is that sense of indefatigability, that it could just keep on lapping at full pace for hour after hour. The brakes go spongier sooner, the gearbox feels less positive on brisk upchanges and the damping loses its finesse right at the ragged edge.
Should that matter? Not really, because the Fiesta's track ability will be more than enough for most. A slight lack of composure right at limit isn't especially relevant, even if the Yaris demonstrates the value of spending money on certain hardware. What the Fiesta ST has proven in this comparison, put really simply, is that it's a more entertaining hot hatch than a Yaris GRMN, more of the time. If track days are a priority, then buyers will adore the Toyota's unflinching focus - and with a set of more track-focused tyres it would be an absolute blast for sprints, hillclimbs and so on, with sufficient civility to make it usable elsewhere.
What the Fiesta will do, on the other hand, is make the majority of journeys a right hoot, while also being good fun on track. It's not quite the tearaway it once was, this ST, but in place of that little scamp is a more rounded, more capable and less demanding pocket rocket, yet one that still has the capacity to entertain and engage. As such it's the best hot hatch here and, as far as PH is concerned at least, the best small hot hatch on sale. It's going to take something very good indeed to surpass it.
SPECIFICATION - FORD FIESTA ST-3
Engine: 1,497cc, turbocharged 3-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 200@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 214@1,600-4,000rpm
Top speed: 144mph
Weight: 1,262kg (EU, with driver)
Price: £21,495 (for standard ST-3; price as tested £24,515 comprised of Performance Blue paint for £745, full LED headlamps for £600, Blind Spot Information System for £475, ST Performance Pack for £850, B&O In-car Audio Premium Sound System for £350)
SPECFICATION - TOYOTA YARIS GRMN
Engine: 1,798cc, supercharged 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 212@6,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 184@4,800rpm
0-62mph: 6.4 sec
Top speed: 143mph
MPG: 37.7 (NEDC combined)
Price: £26,295 (and £26,295 as tested!)