New 2019 Ford Fiesta ST Driven: It's Absolutely Brilliant

It's too bad it's not coming here.

Marc Noordelooswriter, photographer

You learn a lot about a car when negotiating Britain's famous roundabouts. Take the latest Ford Fiesta ST. The solid feel of the brake pedal inspires deep entry and the positive, quick-ratio steering communicates when the sticky Michelin tires finally begin to lose grip. Trailing throttle allows minute adjustment of your cornering line, allowing you to dance the front-wheel-drive Ford into entertaining oversteer as daylight appears between the inside rear tire and the pavement. It's brilliant stuff.

But the last-generation Fiesta ST also impressed when pushed and Americans could actually buy one. Sadly, that's not the case with the newest go-fast small hatchback from the Blue Oval. We can't get any new Ford hatchbacks, let alone a performance version. When the Fusion sedan eventually disappears, it will only be crossovers, SUVs, trucks and vans, plus the Mustang in Ford's home market. A shame. I spent nearly two weeks with the hotter ST version of the eighth-generation Fiesta to see if it's a budget enthusiast Ford that we should beg and scream for in North America.

Under the hood isn't the engine you'd expect. Out goes the turbocharged 1.6-liter four cylinder, replaced by a tweaked version of Ford's new boosted 1.5-liter three-cylinder, a powerplant that we'll see in more basic form in the all-new 2020 Escape. Horsepower stays the same at 197, but torque bumps up slightly, from 202 to 214 lb-ft. Ford states a zero-to-62-mph time of 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 144 mph, compared to 6.9 seconds and 139 mph for the old car. Fuel economy also improves, helped by imperceivable cylinder deactivation and a new stop-start system. Your transmission choice is once again solely a six-speed manual. Fine with me, though I wish your elbow didn't constantly bang into the silly, fixed center armrest. New for this latest ST is an optional Quaife mechanical limited-slip differential. The standard wheels measure 17 inches, but my test car carried the optional 18-inch wheels wrapped in sticky 205/40YR-18 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires.

Inside the cabin, it's a generally similar story to the last Fiesta ST but with welcomed upgrades. Cloth Recaro seats are standard and the Euro version of the supportive perches are much more comfortable than the old (optional) U.S. Recaros, though they're still a tight fit for some. Overall interior quality is up, although I'm no fan of the cheesy faux-carbon-fiber trim. And there's a new drive mode button, allowing the choice of Normal, Sport, or Track. The latter two modes add some nice pops and bangs to the aural experience but some of that drama is piped in via the audio system. Plus, the throttle and electric power steering tunes are best in Normal. I'd love the ability to toggle the sportier soundtrack separately. Luckily, the car allows separate adjustment of the stability control, giving you a simple button to choose between all on, Sport, and all off. Refreshingly, there's also an old-school handbrake and no silly auto rev-matching feature. Thank you, Ford.

Speaking of simple fun, the Fiesta ST begs you to grab it by the scruff of the neck. It's a proper hot hatch and one that I didn't want to stop pounding around the English countryside. It's been ages since I enjoyed driving a car this much on U.K. public roads. It's a wonderful throwback to a simpler, less-complicated generation of hot hatchbacks that were built primarily for fun while still being usable. The engine makes gobs of torque with zero lag and is full of character. It feels as if it develops more power than Ford's stated output. The only powertrain experience missing compared to the old Fiesta ST is a bit of excitement when pushed to the upper reaches of the tachometer. Overall, I think I'll take the compromise. It's an impressively smooth and flexible engine hitched to a nicely judged clutch and positive-feeling and engaging gearbox.

But along with this amusement comes quite the concession—ride quality. Now, this was a bone of contention with the last Fiesta ST, too. Things have improved, but not by as much as some may have hoped. When my wife and our two kids rode in this latest Fiesta ST, they all complained about the bouncy, busy ride. It's normal for passengers to be more affected by ride quality, especially when a car rewards the driver like the Fiesta ST. But my wife is a car geek, so I did a little experiment. I put her behind the wheel, and I hopped in the passenger seat. Yes, ride quality while sitting shotgun indeed isn't great, but something amusing happened after only about a mile down the road—she fell in love with the Fiesta ST. She started dancing the hatchback through the twisty bits and quickly upped her pace. A big smile appeared on her face and she exclaimed that the ride quality is totally worth the driving experience. She smartly coined the Fiesta ST a "solo car," one that's best for day-to-day use by just the driver on their own but still able to handle the occasional cargo and passenger duties. It is a hatchback, after all.

Early the next morning, I took the Fiesta ST out for an unaccompanied thrashing in the hills of the Cotswolds. I tapped the stability-control button to select the more relaxed Sport mode and had tremendous fun. It's no doubt a marvelous car. Yes, the stiff suspension does cause the Fiesta to move around on the undulating tarmac, but the chassis is so communicative that you feel everything that's happening, making corrections the definition of intuitive. There's no doubt in my mind that most supercars couldn't keep up with the Ford on these wicked-tight, twisty, and lumpy British roads. It's that good. The suspension never runs out of travel and the chassis maintains composure when most other cars would be pitched into a hedge or run a damper through the hood. And during all this adolescent mischief, I never really missed the optional limited-slip differential that my test car lacked. I'm sure you'd want it for proper track work, and it would likely add another element to the dynamic brilliance, but the standard open diff with electronic assistance works quite well. Overall, this latest Fiesta ST may still be compromised in ride comfort, but it carries a depth of chassis quality that is a big step up from the last version, as well as my old Focus RS.

I desperately want Ford to send the latest Fiesta ST to the USA, and you should, too. They even make a five-door version, which is what Americans got the last time. I'd love to replace my 2017 Toyota 86 with a Fiesta ST. I use the Japanese rear-drive sports car as personal transportation most of the time, but I'd like the Ford's added bonus of hatchback versatility and a back seat that can fit adults for occasional quick journeys. A Volkswagen Golf GTI is a wonderful car but it's significantly bigger and nowhere near as rewarding as the Ford when flogged. I just wish there was a strong business case to sell the breathed-on Fiesta to America. What about just taking the risk, Ford? Worst case is that it's a loss leader on paper. There's much more to this game than your pencil pushers may realize. Remember that you need to bring enthusiasts on board your brand at a young age, and this go-fast, fuel-efficient small hatchback would be an excellent tool in that fight. Good luck accomplishing that with the ST versions of your SUVs.

2019 Ford Fiesta ST Specifications

ON SALE Now (Europe)
PRICE $25,000 (U.K, est. including tax)
ENGINE 1.5L turbocharged DOHC 12-valve I-3; 197 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 214 lb-ft                                 @1,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION  6-speed manual
LAYOUT  4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine FWD hatchback
EPA MILEAGE 31/37 mpg (est)
L x W x H 160.2 x 68.3 x 57.8 in
WHEELBASE  98.1 in
WEIGHT 2700 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 6.4 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 144 mph
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