For as long as I’ve been enthusiastic about cars (basically, all my life), I’ve been envious of other countries and the cars they are offered. Most of my childhood was spent laying on my bed, surrounded by various car magazines, reading about all kinds of cars that were offered in Europe and Asia, but, for whatever reason, just didn’t make sense in the American market.
But there is now a car for sale that might be able to convince me that here is where the greenest grass is of all. For once, an automaker actually made the American driving enthusiast a priority.
That automaker is Ford, and the car is the Fiesta ST.
The One Ford strategy, which is both unprecedented and head-scratchingly simple, boils down to this: Ford has utilized global platforms in as much of its lineup as is feasible to meet market demands. Though, yes, Europe gets a 3-door version to which we are not entitled, the 5-door Fiesta here in the States is essentially the same as the one in Europe, and that means we, too, now get the Fiesta ST.
Though there are no badges anywhere on the Fiesta ST that say so, the engine, known internally to Ford as part of the Sigma powerplant family, utilizes Ford’s EcoBoost technology, which means turbocharging, intercooling, and direct fuel injection. It’s the same 1.6L 4cyl engine that’s available in mid-range versions of the Escape crossover. But while the Escape must make do with 178hp, the smaller and lighter Fiesta ST is tuned to 197hp and 202 ft-lbs of torque. That’s also 18 more horsepower than the Fiesta ST sold in Europe.
6.7 seconds gets you to 60mph, and 15 seconds dead puts you across the quarter mile marker, with a 94mph trap speed. Though it does have a power advantage over its European counterpart, ultimately, high-rpm, high-speed power is not what the Fiesta ST is all about. It’s more comfortable providing a wallop of mid-range torque, right in the sweet spot of the turbo, so you can execute a perfect exit from a highway on-ramp and surprise quite a few bigger and more threatening cars, as well as yourself. Though I would prefer that Ford had enriched the Fiesta ST’s soundtrack through the exhaust instead, there’s a sound-enhancing hose running from the intake piping to the dashboard to make the engine more audible inside the cabin, so you can hear the thrum of the engine, and if you listen carefully enough, the hiss from the turbocharger and the “pssh” from the recirculating valve.
Connecting that raunchy little EcoBoost engine to the front wheels is a six-speed manual transmission, and that’s another part about the Fiesta ST that makes it specifically designed for the driving enthusiast: that’s the only transmission available. There is no automatic option at all. No torque-converting drudgery, no double-clutch tomfoolery. That puts it into a very tiny group of cars for sale in America where you, the driver, must operate both the clutch and the gears yourself with genuine mechanical force, and what a delight they are to operate. The clutch is light, yet easy to modulate, and the action of shifting gears is so pleasant and so free of complication, it completely invalidates the argument that shifting gears is a chore or a burden in a traffic jam.
If you do manage to escape the traffic jam and find yourself on some back roads, you’ll be met with another one of the Fiesta ST’s features that make it unique among its competitors: torque vectoring. By slightly applying the brakes to the inside front wheel during a corner, torque vectoring sets out to accomplish two missions: to help initiate the car’s change of direction at the beginning of the corner, and to mitigate wheelspin as the power is reapplied during the exit of the corner.
In the Fiesta ST, the torque vectoring system does a marvelous job of accomplishing one of those missions. Though the ST retains the torsion-bar rear suspension design as the base model Fiesta rather than an independent setup, a thicker stabilizer bar is added in the front and the shock absorbers are upgraded all around, so turn-in is virtually immediate, with understeer only resulting from the sloppiest of driving techniques. The ST’s electrically-assisted steering has a quicker ratio than the standard Fiesta, and the small leather-wrapped steering wheel, with the ST logo adorning the bottom, makes the Fiesta ST one of the zippiest and quickest-reacting cars in America that has fenders. Another area particularly deserving of praise is the brakes. Frankly, I don’t remember the last time I felt a Ford’s brakes were noteworthy, but on the Fiesta ST, which has rear discs in place of the base Fiesta’s drums, they’re exceptional, with surprising initial bite (they’re even on the cusp of being grabby) and very little fade.
The Fiesta ST’s athletics are deficient in one area, though, and it leads back to the job that the torque vectoring system doesn’t perform so well: wheelspin. Exit the corner with your right foot against the firewall, and you will likely hear some squawking from the inside tire, or at least feel it tug on the steering wheel in a momentary surge of torque steer. The torque vectoring system does quell this to an extent; it would certainly be worse without it. However, the Fiesta ST would benefit immensely from having a true mechanical limited-slip differential in addition to the torque vectoring system.
The lively suspension setup is also undoubtedly a compromise when it comes to ride quality. The consequences of putting such stiff shocks and springs on a car with a 2,742-lb curb weight are a definitively firm ride, and if you hit a succession of bumps at speed on a highway, you could even describe the ride as bouncy. It’s not quiet either, with the road noise from the 17-inch summer tires easily protruding into the cabin at highway speeds.
The rest of the interior of the Fiesta ST is reasonably every-day-able, however. My test car came with the one option you really want, the terrific Recaro leather front seats. In a car like the Fiesta, which has small interior dimensions even by subcompact standards, the significant additional side bolstering makes getting in and out a bit more difficult than the standard cloth seats. But they’re supremely comfortable once you do wedge yourself into them, and once you find yourself in the middle of a hairpin corner, that bolstering will be well worth the extra money. Also to my surprise, the ill-fated MyFord Touch system, which I’ve had issues with in the past and which Ford announced the demise of late last year, didn’t give me a single minute’s trouble in the Fiesta ST.
Whether the in-car entertainment works or the ride is too rough is honestly irrelevant, though. In fact, I can’t think of a car in recent memory in which those factors are less relevant.
The automotive world keeps trying new and different things, yet, the Fiesta ST’s formula isn’t really that new or different. Ostensibly, it’s just a subcompact front-wheel-drive hatchback with three pedals and a turbocharger. That’s been a successful formula for hot hatchbacks in Europe for decades.
But even at the young age that I was reading those magazines, I completely subscribed to the concept of a car that wasn’t about brutal power or flashy styling, but about sneaking its way through the densest urban environment or belting down a mountainous switchback, offering all of the thrills of those bigger and faster cars without any of their cumbersome drawbacks.
No car for sale in America right now adheres to that concept quite like the Ford Fiesta ST does. There are other cars here that meet the qualifications for “hot hatchbacks,” but the Fiesta ST’s spirit is what makes it special. It’s eager and energetic, but it’s not overbearing or threatening about it.
It’s here (finally) for you to have fun behind the wheel, and that’s all you need from a hot hatchback.
Price as tested: N/A
0-60mph: 6.7 sec
1/4-mile time: 15.0 seconds at 94mph
Lateral skidpad acceleration: 0.94g
60-0 braking distance: 112ft
Torque: 202 ft-lbs
Weight: 2,742 lbs
Fuel economy: 25.7 mpg
Test vehicle provided by Ford Motor Company.
Be sure to check out the other two hot hatchbacks in this comparison, the Hyundai Veloster Turbo and the Fiat 500 Abarth.
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