In the list named 'unenviable automotive development tasks', replacing the Mk7Fiesta ST must rank pretty highly, up there with creating turbocharged M cars and making a Range Rover go around racetracks. It ranks so highly because the last ST was just so good - for cheap, fast, hilarious fun on four wheels, you couldn't do better. What this Mk8 needs to do, then, is retain that happy-go-lucky side while addressing a few flaws and adding a sliver of maturity to make it more amenable every day. If it can do all that then, well, it should be nigh unbeatable.
Four key areas were identified in the development process to be improved: engine, ride and handling, seating position and noise. Anybody who spent much time in the previous car can certainly vouch for its irritatingly lofty driving perch and good, if unexceptional, 1.6-litre turbocharged engine. As for the dynamics, nobody could argue with the fairly tough ride of the previous incumbent, yet the car was almost unequivocally praised for its sense of naughtiness right up to - and beyond - the limit of grip.
You'll most likely be up to speed with the significant advances made by this ST, and the positives are there almost immediately. The ST looks, feels and generally functions like a higher quality product now, arguably one that belies its fairly modest price. The materials are nicer, the infotainment is vastly improved (it needed to be) and the impression is of a more upmarket hot hatch. Perhaps most importantly, the driving position is so much better; it feels how it must have felt as a child going from a high chair at the table to a normal seat - you feel part of the action, everything you want to get your hands on is closer, and it's just a more comfortable place to park your bum.
Beyond that, the engine change is probably the most notable alteration, so it makes sense to start there. The new 1.5 is, after all, the smallest engine to ever feature in a fast Fiesta (because even the XR2s were 1.6s) and yet the most powerful as well. Indeed it's worth noting that this engine has 25 per cent less capacity, yet 33 per cent more power, than the 2.0-litre Fiesta ST that went out of production just a decade ago. Quite some progress.
It's a great little three-pot too, preferable to the old Ecoboost and feeling at least the equal of anything else in the class. Bar some rather excessive flywheel effect, leaving the revs lingering a little longer than you'd like, it's a very hard engine to fault. Lag is reduced from before yet high rev energy is up; it feels faster than the old Fiesta yet can run on two cylinders (!) imperceptibly, and it sounds more interesting than the four-cylinder that went before.
Well, most of the time. Ford, in its infinite and incorrect wisdom, has equipped the ST with drive modes, which quite frankly it didn't need. Moreover, in an attempt to inject a tangible difference in feel, the most aggressive mode - Race Track follows Normal and Sport - is overdone. So you get too much mini-Giulia Quadrifoglio piped in, too many manufactured overrun pops and too intrusive a drone at constant throttle. It spoils the steering as well, so is best left alone. In Normal mode the engine, and indeed the car, is allowed to show off its talents unencumbered by theatrics: it's energetic, entertaining, revvy and rapid. Top work.
Moreover, while it may still be a tad too far away, the gearbox is the same slick and positive set of six it was before, with reasonably close ratios and a satisfying action. Where previously the powertrain in the Fiesta ST sometimes felt like it was merely a way of transporting you to the next bend-rounding tripod event, it now actively complements the package.
You'll absolutely still be seeking out those bends however, because this ST remains tremendous fun on a twisty road. It's agile, direct and accurate, without ever coming across too seriously. There is undoubtedly a more mature edge to the Fiesta dynamically now though, chassis tweaks giving it greater refinement and composure than before. In fact, they're well worth mentioning, because this ST boasts some very clever suspension tech. The dampers are frequency dependent Tenneco items, in theory delivering both control and refinement. New directionally wound springs are unique to the class and aim to give the rear torsion beam greater lateral stiffness without compromising the ride, or adding the weight a Watt's linkage would bring. There's even a rumour that Michelin's current Pilot Sport 4S was dropped for the Super Sport that's standard fit because it's a gripper tyre.
The result? A Fiesta that still feels pleasingly neutral, adjustable and responsive, although it's become harder to realise those edge-of-grip moments that made it so delicious to lean on the previous model's chassis. The often gratuitous sense of silliness is conspicuous in its absence, and sometimes sorely missed. It's a more precise and focused Fiesta ST, for sure, and for the large part that feels great: more speed can be carried, bumps are certainly more confidently dealt with and there's a load more adhesion. On occasion though, it can feel a bit too grown up.
All cars we had access to on the launch event were equipped with the PerformancePack, which feels like a worthwhile spend of £850 on this experience. The shift lights (or rather, shift light) are fairly naff and the launch control surely won't get much use, but the Quaife differential is a nice addition. While less aggressive and proactive than something like the Torsen item in a 208 GTI, it does mean you get on the throttle hard and early out of bends without fear of any one tyre firing. Working in conjunction with those Michelins (where Bridgestone Potenzas were used before), the ST's traction is very strong, albeit on warm, smooth French roads. The brakes are great too, all the way through the pedal travel, which should transfer to all situations.
To be honest, final assessment of the Fiesta ST comes down to those few things that slightly irk rather than those which impress, because it so convincingly fulfils its wider brief. The drive modes are unnecessary, particularly when the engine's din is combined with steering that has an odd off-centre resistance; the ride can still feel a tad restless on occasion, too, despite the overhaul - and, er, the voice for the sat-nav directions is rather annoying.
It really is difficult to fault the Fiesta ST on much, especially since it delivers such a fine first impression. Quick, engaging, capable and affordable, it's everything you would want from an updated fast Ford in 2018. But there is much left to consider. Could it prove a little too mature for those addicted to the old ST's hooligan nature? What about that ride back in the UK? Can a three-cylinder engine, good in isolation, really match the Yaris's supercharged 1.8 and the Peugeot's very rapid 1.6 for sheer fun? Those are all questions to tackle in the not too distant future, of course. At the very least, the Fiesta has got us truly excited about discovering the answers...
|2018 Ford Fiesta ST - Specifications|
|Engine||1,497cc, turbocharged 3-cyl|
|Transmission||6-speed manual, front-wheel drive|
|Torque (lb ft)||214@1,600-4,000rpm|
|Weight||1,262kg (EU, with driver)|