Driven: Ford Fiesta ST hot hatchback

Ford Fiesta ST transforms the diminutive economy car into a credible sports compact | Ford
Ford Fiesta ST transforms the diminutive economy car into a credible sports compact | Ford

While it’s hard to think of the compact Ford Focus ST as anybody’s big brother, that’s exactly the relationship we have with the Fiesta ST, a surprisingly sophisticated little hot rod that takes a similar performance approach and applies it to an even-smaller package.

Taking the standard subcompact Fiesta economy car, Ford engineers have added enough spice to turn it into an engagingly hot hatchback with sparkling performance and super-sharp handling, while keeping it civilized enough for normal driving.

ST stands for Sport Technologies | Ford
ST stands for Sport Technologies | Ford

Not that you’d want to drive the Fiesta ST normally. Like the Focus ST and other performance-tweaked munchkins, such as Mini Cooper S and Fiat 500 Abarth, the Fiesta ST is way too much fun for just plodding along. It’s a creature for carving back roads and, if you’re lucky enough, race track runs.

The key word here is fun, which Fiesta ST delivers in a big way despite its tiny proportions. Even everyday driving is fun as you row through the crisp-shifting gears and zip away from stoplights. The Fiesta ST comes exclusively with six-speed manual transmission. Bravo!

Plus, the four-door hatchback configuration makes it a practical car for young drivers who require a good all-around vehicle. And it gets decent gas mileage. Fun and sensible, a very favorable combination.

The Fiesta ST was new for 2014 and continues essentially unchanged for 2015. The Europeans have had versions of this car since 2005, so I wonder why it took so long to get here.

The look is sharpened with styling tweaks and vibrant paint hues | Ford
The five-door setup adds practicality to the sporty mix| Ford

Unlike much of the competition, the price tag is accessible enough for cash-strapped millennials. The Fiesta ST stickers around $22,000 and rises to about $25,000 fully equipped, compared with the standard Fiesta that starts off at around $14,000.

Sure, $25-grand might seem pricey for a tiny Fiesta hatchback, but consider that the Fiesta ST is powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter engine that generates an admirable 197 horsepower and 202 pound-feet of torque. There’s plenty of pull for a car that weighs just 2,742 pounds, and it goes like stink.

The suspension has been firmed up and the body lowered to improve handling. Electronic Torque Vectoring Control reduces understeer during hard cornering, and torque steer – the bane of front-drive performance cars – has been pretty much eliminated. There’s a driver-selectable electronic stability control with the choice of standard, sport or turned off entirely.

The five-door configuration adds practicality to the sporty mix | Ford
The ST gets special styling tweaks and vibrant paint hues| Ford

There also are such styling enhancements as unique grille and chin spoiler, rear diffuser and high-mount spoiler, bright-tipped dual exhaust, ST badges and uniquely styled 17-inch alloy wheels. Buyers can select from a vibrant selection of paint colors.

Inside, the fully equipped Fiesta ST comes with a package of features – video screen with navigation, decent audio, computer functions, etc. The FordTouch interface can be a trial initially, but you get used to it.

So, with all that, Fiesta ST starts to seem like some kind of a performance bargain.

Fiesta ST feels quick and balanced on its stiff suspension, although some might find it too buffeting over rough surfaces. Control is always good, though, and enthusiast drivers should be willing to make the tradeoff of edgy handling over a comfortable ride.

The $25,000 price tag includes what should be a highly desirable feature: sporty Recaro front seats that are stiffly bolstered for enthusiast driving. But while the bolsters on the seats and backrests might be great for holding you in place during fast cornering, they are really too tight for anyone but the smallest, slimmest drivers and passengers.

The optional Recaro sport seats are effective but tight | Ford
The optional Recaro sport seats are effective but tight | Ford

I’m tall but not too wide and I found them unacceptably uncomfortable. Nobody who rode with me liked them, and any folks with a bit of meat on their bones would feel likewise. Members of the youthful target audience might be a better fit, though. But anyone who is considering this $2,000 option would be advised to try it on for size beforehand.

There’s also a piece of gimmickry on board, the “active sound symposer” that feeds the car’s sonorous exhaust note into the cabin to enhance the sporty experience. This is more than just the common sound tube found in some performance cars but an electronically controlled system that directs only certain acceleration tones to the occupants’ ears. It’s also found in the Focus ST.

It’s a good, rich sound but it can get tiresome, and I don’t really see where it’s necessary for a little car like the Fiesta ST. FYI: In a Google search, I found a company that offers a “sound symposer delete” system for Focus ST. So there you go.

Otherwise, the small engine is quite strong and smooth, with just about the right amount of free-revving power so that you can enjoy driving it hard without going into stratospherically illegal speeds. The six-speed manual is a pleasure to shift, quick and direct with effectively spaced close-ration gearing. And the Fiesta ST is a blast on winding roads.

No doubt, it’s a great setup at this price point. Just mind those seats.

Ford Fiesta ST

Vehicle type: Four-passenger, four-door hatchback, front-wheel drive.
Base price: $21,400.
Price as tested: $24,985.
Engine: 1.6-liter inline-4, 197 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 202 pound0feet of torque at 3,500 rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Wheelbase: 98 inches.
Curb weight: 2,742 pounds.
EPA mileage estimates: 26 mpg city/35 mpg highway/29 mpg combined

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