Cheap. Fast. Reliable. Pick two. This is a conundrum that plagues enthusiasts of vast dreams and scant means. There’s very little out there that fulfills the requirement for an economical performance car that also works when you need it to. A garage-built tuner vehicle fulfills the first two criteria, but you can’t be sure it will start every time. Cheap and reliable will get you to work…and that’s about it. Fast and reliable? Yeah, maybe if you’re one of the lucky few who can afford a fancy sports car, and the associated running costs (insurance, tires and the now-astronomical price of premium gasoline).
Some of you have paid off homes, well-funded retirement accounts and jobs that pay handsomely, and can also afford something fun and exciting. I have precisely none of these, and thus my desire for automotive thrills has to be balanced with having the financial means to assemble the trappings of an adult life. In that light, a Mustang GT, a 370Z and even a new WRX (which loves to imbibe pricey 91 octane) start to look like options that would leave me endorphin-rich but cash poor (and also living at home well into my 30’s).
On the other hand, most entry-level performance cars still leave something to be desired: the Fiat 500 Abarth has but three doors (I’d prefer a second set) and sounds a lot faster than it really is. The all-new Volkswagen GTI is for a more mature crowd. The Honda Civic Si is a shadow of its former self. And the Ford Focus ST has just been made redundant by this car.
Yes, the Fiesta ST is a bit slower than its big brother. It makes 197 horsepower and hits 60 mph in 7 seconds flat. You would swear that those performance figures would be doubled and halved respectively. It might be fun to drive a slow car fast. It’s even more fun to drive a fairly quick, fairly small and fairly light (2,700 lbs) at a breakneck pace.
The boosted 1.6L mill feels heroically powerful in such a tiny package. You would have no idea that this is the same engine that struggles to motivate the Fusion and Escape, while drinking dino juice at a prodigious rate. Previous tests of the 1.6L engine have yielded subpar fuel economy, even on the highway. On our 800 mile drive through the Canadian Rockies on the way to Montana, the Fiesta returned as high as 40 mpg on relatively flat stretches of road. As the elevation climbed, the turns got sharper and the turbo worked harder, fuel consumption dipped into the high 20’s, but it’s hard to fault the car in those conditions.
The ST also has a way of preventing you from keeping your foot out of the throttle on said roads. Turbo lag is slightly perceptible below 1500 rpm, but once the turbo starts spooling up (which you can audibly detect with the windows down), power is delivered in a linear fashion all the way to the 6500 rpm redline. In the lower gears, torque steer is still present, but not nearly as much as the Focus ST – credit to Ford’s chassis engineers for somehow taming the 214 lb-ft worth of torque being delivered through the front wheels. Even so, this isn’t a car that will let you safely pass on a two-lane road by shifting from 6th to 5th, but the tall sixth ratio more than pays for itself given the excellent highway fuel economy.
But focusing on straight-line speed misses the point completely. Handling is the Fiesta’s forte, with Ford handing this car off to SVT to help liven the 5-door chassis for North American tastes (Europe gets a three-door version). The twisty mountain passes near Whitefish, Montana let us sample the full capabilities of the ST, and it soon became evident that this is a special car. Steering is direct and quick, but like most electric systems, it doesn’t provide the purity of feedback that hot hatch fans might expect. Initial turn-in is quick, with tenacious grip and only truly ham-fisted driving seems to invoke any semblance of understeer. The brakes are firm, scrubbing off speed quickly, at the expense of immense amount of brake dust (which you’ll notice even with the optional gunmetal wheels). The one flaw in the driving experience is the shifter, which has somewhat long throws and a bit of a vague feel. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise thrilling package.
Inside, the Fiesta ST’s interior looks a lot like a regular Fiesta, save for the portion-controlled nav screen with MyFord Touch. If you’d never seen the full-size version, you wouldn’t think that there was anything wrong with the system, but it’s fairly small, and hitting the right keys on the touchscreen can be a bit challenging. The optional Recaros fit me just fine, but anyone with a stocky build might find them challenging. The thick shells of the seat backs also render the rear seats more suitable for objects than people, and you can forget about putting child seats in a Recaro equipped Fiesta.
Altogether may sound like hyperbolic praise for the smallest Fast Ford, but the team at SVT (and our own Tresmonos) have managed to assemble an astounding package: one that is quick, practical, efficient and affordable. It’s one of the most exciting cars I’ve driven at any price, and even though I have a paid off car, access to the press fleet and no real need for a new car, I’m seriously considering spending my own, hard-earned dollars to make this the next TTAC long-term test car. Who says young people don’t care about cars anymore?
N.B. Yes, the main image is a homage to our [email protected], who without fail, manages to leave the first comment on nearly every single article.