Still king of the road

It looks a little softer than its forebear, but don't be fooled by appearances

When we pass through a golden era, I’ve often wondered just how aware of it we are at the time. When I watched Porsches, Saubers and Jaguars do battle in Group C at the end of the 1980s, did I appreciate exactly what it was that I was seeing? And were those old enough to witness the titanic McLaren vs Ferrari battles in the pre-ground effect Formula 1 era really tuned into just how special it was to be there? And how many people today realise that fast hatchbacks have not been as good as they are right now in at least 30 years?

Back then it was the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Peugeot 205 GTI and Renault 5 GT Turbo, while today the Golf is still slugging it out but alongside the Honda Civic Type-R and new RenaultSport Mégane, the last of which I will review next month.

But for a while there has been a more affordable small hatchback that’s been reminding us that, for those who like cars from this genre, things have rarely if ever been better than right now. It is, of course, the Ford Fiesta ST and it has ruled the compact class of fast hatchback since the day it came out five years ago. Nothing has got close to it.

his new ST, based on the seventh-generation Fiesta platform, seems somehow diminished. Its styling has been quite subtly updated but in the process lost some sharpness and presence. The interior, though more luxurious and better built, appears less characterful. The 2-litre four cylinder turbo engine of the old car has been replaced by a 1.5-litre motor with just three pistons and, while it’s claimed to have more grunt, all it actually does is produce the same power all the time as the old ST did on overboost. The car is heavier, too.

Which just goes to show how little you can rely on how things look and how they appear on paper. Love the old ST though I did, this new one is better in every regard that matters to me. While the old engine was just a characterless tool for doing a job, this fizzing, rasping new motor brings a new, relentlessly enthusiastic dimension to the car. And so long as you specify the optional limited-slip differential, the Fiesta is never less than a joy to hurl around, pivoting around its axis, as alert to the changes in throttle position as steering angle. It’s a little unruly when accelerating out of slow corners, but in a perverse kind of way I quite liked that too.

But what’s best about it is that all this fun comes in a package that’s far more capable at the mundane realities of everyday life. It’s quieter, more comfortable and easier to operate.

In short, it shows those who seek to create such cars precisely how it should be done. It’s a delicate balance and even skilled exponents of the hot hatch art can get it badly wrong, as VW has with the latest Polo GTI reviewed last month. But this Fiesta is more assured, capable and fun than ever. Its reign continues.