DIGITAL EDITOR ANDREW STOY: I don't think I can ever fall in love with a front-drive performance car -- the dynamics just never feel quite right to me. But there are two I'd happily have in my garage: The Volkswagen GTI and now the 2014 Ford Fiesta ST. Throw value into the mix and the Fiesta is an absolute must-drive for anyone thinking about the current crop of hot hatches.
The trick is to not think of the ST as a $25,000 Fiesta. One has to look at all this car offers: It's only down 3 hp and 5 lb-ft on a GTI, but weighs 400 pounds less and offers the kind of equipment that'll cost at least $4,000 more on the Volkswagen. It's a lot cheaper than its big brother, the Focus ST, too, though it's down significantly on power; fortunately, it's also down significantly on torque steer, wheel hop and unintended smoky front-wheel burnouts.
That's one of the things Fiesta ST does well: balance. Like the GTI, it offers just about the right amount of power for its chassis and FWD architecture. It sounds great (though the sound pipe or whatever is a little gimmicky), the transmission shifts with firm, short throws and is geared perfectly for the output, and the quick steering makes the Fiesta easy to toss around -- though it gets just a bit twitchy on the freeway.
Our tester had the optional Recaro seating package that includes Recaro seats, of course, along with seat heaters and heated side mirrors; the seats offer excellent support, though the side bolsters can occasionally intrude on shifting; folks with a different build will likely have different opinions on this, but make sure to test the seats' fit before you opt for the package. Ahead of the driver sits a full complement of equipment: MyFord Touch handles infotainment duties via a clear LCD screen atop the dash, automatic climate control handles comfort and redundant steering wheel controls let the driver keep his or her hands where they belong. It's a very purposeful cabin for what's at heart a B-segment economy car; the only oversight is the lack of a rearview camera, which is an essential safety feature, as far as I'm concerned.
Interior volume is also surprisingly good. The Fiesta ST is no Explorer, but I got both kids with boosters into the back seat with only minor seat-belt-buckle fumbling, and my son had just enough foot room with the driver's seat set where I needed it. The Fiesta ST does a nice job of offering four doors (five with the hatch, of course) while still looking sleek and coupe-like, and there's ample storage under the high-opening hatch, too. Bottom line: Potential Fiesta ST customers with small families shouldn't be afraid of the car's size -- there's plenty of room for a grocery run with four passengers aboard, especially if two are children.
The Fiesta ST is a really compelling package. Yes, it's expensive for a Fiesta, but it's cheap for a performance car. Thanks to generous equipment levels, buyers won't feel like they've sacrificed comfort and convenience for go-fast ability either. And, while the Fiesta doesn't have the type of interior space the Honda Fit is blessed with, that company seems to have abandoned any performance pretense so we're not expecting a Fit Type R to mount a challenge anytime soon.
Kudos to Ford for bringing this car to market. As far as affordable, livable performance cars go, the Fiesta ST has to be near the top of the list.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: I didn't notice the “RECARO” stitching on the seats as I hopped in the Fiesta ST for the first time; the black leather seats with garish synthetic red insets distracted me. So it was the aggressive, grippy bolsters that clued me in to the fact that the ST is a serious little hot hatch, or at least wants to be seen as one.
If the (optional) seats weren't enough alert me to the Fiesta ST's sporting cred, the clutch would have. It doesn't bite, really, but it's hardly standard B-segment issue. The crisp six-speed is anther warning.
Anyway, it's good to have a few hints that this 2,720-pound car is not a wheezing econobox before mashing down the accelerator and getting into trouble with the law, which amazingly is very easy to do in this petite five-door.
The horsepower boost (up from 120 in the base naturally aspirate 1.6-liter) is nice, but the increase in torque -- 202 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm versus 112 lb-ft at 5,000 -- that makes all the difference. You never feel like you're going to burn rubber (although I did hear a little tire chirp in second gear) or fly off the road and into a tree, but this car moves, quickly, nary a complaint.
When you're not pushing the car (which, let's be honest, is going to be most of the time), the accessibility of this torque helps make driving infinitely more pleasant. And there's no torque steer to speak of. I'll take the several mpg hit to fuel economy for this much more enjoyable driving experience.
So the engine is a nice piece of work. I guess I have to mention the sound symposer -- a strangely obvious bit of artificiality on a car that is otherwise pretty straightforward. The sound symposer seems kind of dumb at first. I know it isn't a synthetic engine note per se, but it still sounds like a Tibetan throat singer crossed with an orbital sander depending on the rpm and which gear you're in. It seems kind of dumb after some time behind the wheel, too, but you get used to it or just turn up the radio.
Like the larger Focus ST, the Fiesta lacks the rawness of, say, the Mazda Mazdaspeed 3. It makes for a more livable vehicle in the end, but I kind of liked the rough edge on the Mazda; I thought it had more character. The suspension on the Fiesta ST may be stiff, but it's never jarring -- or even close to it. Again, more livable, but with a bit less character as a consequence.
Fair warning: I don't have a family and there are more than a few good, new, two-door, RWD alternatives out there in this price range (to say nothing of the limitless offerings that can be had used for half the price) to really push a $25K hatch pretty far down my list of vehicle purchase options.
But while I might tell my friends that there's plenty of time in life for hatches now, I'm sure that tune will change once they have kids. Compromises must be made eventually, and as far as compromises go, the Fiesta ST could hardly be called a bad one -- especially for under $25,000. Andy is right about not seeing it as a Fiesta, exactly. Look at the ST as a performance car based on the Fiesta rather than a Fiesta trim level, and it makes a lot more sense. Better yet, don't look at it -- take one for a spin and see if you don't think the price is fair.
2014 Ford Fiesta ST
Base Price: $22,195
As-Tested Price: $24,785
Drivetrain: 1.6-liter turbocharged I4; FWD, six-speed manual
Output: 197 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 202 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,720 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 26/35/29 mpg
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 27.5 mpg
Options: ST Recaro package including heated Recaro front seats, heated front mirrors ($1,995); orange exterior paint ($595).
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