As host of the Cannes Film Festival, this city on France's Cote d'Azur is attuned to the pecking orders of stars. Ford, for its part, seemed to nail the lead role in hot hatches with last year's Focus ST, leaving little room for an understudy. But the Fiesta ST, when it premieres in America this August, will test the opening power of an action hatch on a smaller scale and budget.
After partying with the 197-hp Fiesta in the cinematic Alps above Cannes and Nice, the prevailing gossip may blow away Americans who assume the more powerful car is always better: It's the little Fiesta that proves the more, um, focused, fun-to-drive machine. Considering that the Focus ST rivals the VW GTI as the compact hatchback king, that's no idle flattery.
We had the advantage of back-to-back drives over three days in these Sports Technologies upgrades of the Fiesta and the Focus, something not afforded to any other journalists at this international launch. And the Fiesta instantly flaunted an edge in agility and sensation that's impossible to fake.
It helps to toss out nearly 500 pounds of performance-sapping ballast -- the vast spread between the 2754-pound Fiesta and the 3223-pound Focus. (That's for the four-door Fiesta that's exclusive to America. Europe's two-door version weighs about 130 fewer pounds.)
The door count, happily, is the only sop to marketing in U.S. showrooms: Euro and American Fiesta STs are blessedly identical in all key respects, including their stiffened spring and damper rates and 17-inch wheels and tires. Ford cites 19 more horses for the Yankee version, but only because it counts turbo overboost from the 1.6-liter Ecoboost engine. Available for 20 seconds at a throttle pop, at a max pressure of 1.45 bar (21 psi), that overboost is essentially the engine's full-time power anyway.
The ST toughens up the standard Fiesta with the signature, glowering grille of the Focus ST; a meaner chin spoiler and awning-sized roof spoiler; a sport steering wheel; alloy pedals; carbon-fiber dash trim; illuminated door sills; and available extra-chunky Recaro seats. Unique colors include a winning Molten Orange. A rear fascia blackened to look like a diffuser is one objectionable bit of fakery.
The car hunkers 0.6 inch lower. New steering knuckles goose the steering ratio to 13.7:1, which is five percent quicker than the standard Fiesta. Rear disc brakes step in for workaday drums. Front brakes get larger 10.9-inch discs and there are higher-performing pads all around and an enlarged tandem brake master cylinder.
The twist-beam rear axle is 75 percent stiffer. A six-speed manual transmission -- with a shorter throw than the Focus ST -- is take-it-or-leave-it. The Fiesta also adopts the Focus's brake-based Torque Vectoring Control, an electronic limited slip differential, and Sound Symposer. The latter plucks useful frequencies from the intake manifold and sends them through a firewall port into the cabin.
With 214 lb-ft of torque -- 7 more than the mighty-yet-pricey Mini JCW -- the ST feels wound-up, eager, and flexible. The raspy demon hustled up roller-coaster-steep hairpins -- that would have forced many subcompacts to grab first -- in second gear. Ford says the Fiesta tops out at 138 mph and takes 6.9 seconds to scoot from 0 to 100 kph (62 mph). That acceleration figure seems conservative. But, yes, the Focus ST is at least half a second quicker to 60 mph.
Straight lines were laughably irrelevant along the famous Route Napoleon. The gut-clenching route, including arched tunnels bored through cliff sides, has been featured in Bond films and car ads. Here, the Fiesta dug in and charged with the daring and nimbleness of a mountaineer. The Focus traveled at least as fast, but it felt somewhat less willing to sling through corners and meld with its pilot.
Tyrone Johnson, engineering manager for Europe's Team RS, goes way back at Ford, having toiled on the first SVT Cobra in '91 before leading tech for Ford's F1 and World Rally programs. Surprisingly perhaps, Johnson and other Ford honchos admit a preference for the little underdog.
"We certainly like what we did with the Focus," Johnson says. "But with the Fiesta, we went a little further."
The Fiesta has benefited from ongoing learning, including the equivalent of 100 laps on the Nürburgring Nordschleife. Compared with the Focus, Ford baked in more roll stabilization decoupling, a fancy way of saying that the Fiesta transfers more weight to its rear under cornering. In tandem with torque vectoring, the weight transfer helps the Fiesta resist understeer and pivot like a pro. A three-mode stability system includes a Sport setting, with torque vectoring operable even with ESC shut off.
Rolling through Grasse, the center of the world's perfume industry, the Fiesta did reveal a whiff of head toss, creating suspicion over how smoothly it will manage the meaner streets of Detroit or New York. The Fiesta's clutch feels lighter than its big brother's, although take-up can be abrupt in first gear. There's also less torque steer than in the 254-hp Focus.
In action-movie terms, the Focus ST is Jason Statham, a compact gorilla. The Fiesta is Jackie Chan -- slender and seemingly friendlier, but with more lethal moves and technique. Or, consider the Fiesta a Mini for people with a life, with a genuinely useful back seat and cargo space. The $22,195 base price feels eminently fair. For certain power- and space-conscious Americans, however, the Focus ST will seem well worth its $2300 premium.
Ford's hot co-stars raise an interesting choice. Will it be the Focus ST, with more style, power, space, and features? Or the more spritely, still-quick Fiesta, a choice that keeps a few grand in your rocketing pocket? Fortunately, there's no wrong answer.