As Jason Fenske of Engineering Explained would tell you in his fabulously soothing voice, the concept of an inline-three cylinder engine is inherently compromised. If you’ll let me thoroughly geek out for just a second, I’ll explain why.
In an inline-three, piston one will reach top dead centre (or TDC) while the other two are half way from either TDC or bottom dead centre. This means there’s no symmetry to the way it’s firing, giving a unfortunate rocking sensation that’s counteracted by a balancing shaft, which the crank has to work against. That’s why, for all their delicious six-cylinder-like fizzy noises, inline-threes are always a little lethargic, and pass a load of vibrations into the cabin. So when Ford announced that its next ST would drop from a four-cylinder engine to a three, I was a little worried that the Blue Oval had dropped the ball, all in the name of improved emissions figures.
Still with me? Good, but you can forget everything I said in the last two paragraphs, because however high your expectations are for this thing, it’s even better than you were hoping for…
Let’s start with the engine. Yes, it’s maybe not quite as eager as the old four-pot was, and it is all out of ideas just after 6000rpm, but the mid-range thrust on offer is incredibly punchy, to the point you question just how accurate Ford’s 197bhp and 214lb ft official figures really are. The engineers worked hard to reduce friction as much as possible, and there’s a lightweight flywheel too, all contributing to a much more responsive feel than any other inline-three I’ve ever used.
For once there’s a proper ‘hard’ rev limiter to smash into, with the exhaust letting out a furiously little ‘BABABABA’ noise if you leave your shift a little too late. On the subject of sound, we’ve good news there too - the 1.5-litre turbo performs a surprisingly gutsy inline-six impression, and while it’s artificially augmented, you don’t mind, since the execution is so pleasing to the ear. It is quicker than the old one too: 0-62mph takes 6.5 seconds (down from 6.9), and the top speed is 144mph.
The engine in the old car was never a stand-out feature, while the three-pot in this new car really is, and it’s married to a chassis which exceeds the talented underpinnings of the old one.
Somehow, using a kind of wizardry so potent it’d get you chucked out of Hogwarts, Ford has improved on what was already the best handling hot hatch in class. All the right ingredients are there, like feelsome steering which is ruthlessly quick off-centre, a wickedly sharp turn-in and absurd amounts of grip.
The point at which the grippy front end lets go will vary depending on how you spec the car - there’s an £850 Performance Pack available, which includes a shift light, a launch control system and a Quaife Automatic Torque-Biasing (ATB) differential. The shift light is surprisingly discreet and the launch control is a little underwhelming, so really, you’re buying it for the ATB, which shoves anything up to 80 per cent of torque to either driven wheel.
It’s ridiculously effective and never grabby - as Torsen-type diffs tend to be FWD setups - and we’d recommend you spec it for your ST. But that’s not to say that it’s a ‘must have’. Having also tried a car without the Performance Pack, I’m happy to report that it’s just as delirious to drive, and grip levels are still very good. The ATB doesn’t ‘make’ the car, it merely enhances what’s already a damn fine chassis. Diff or no diff, you’ll want to drive this car until the brakes are cooked. Which actually happened to the car we drove on the launch, so if you’re going to take this thing on track or down some mountain roads, you need to have a serious think about getting sturdier pads.
But it’s the rear axle that impresses the most: no other front-wheel drive car gives this much feedback from the rear-end as this, nor does any other FWD car behave quite like this. The ST tripods constantly, and is well up for wiggling its arse either with a well-timed lift or a bit of trail braking. And when it does go, you know exactly what’s going on out back, meaning you’re not intimidated by slidey moments. Far from it: you relish them.
I suspect a lot of it is down to the ST’s unusual suspension setup at the rear. It’s a twist beam affair, and there’s nothing odd about that, but Ford has added what it calls “directionally-wound springs to apply vectoring forces to the rear suspension” which allow for “cornering forces to travel directly into the spring, for increased lateral stiffness.” Which I appreciate is brain-scramblingly hard to understand, but one engineer’s description of them being “banana-shaped” might help you picture the unusual arrangement a little better.
The damping is worth mentioning too. Ford hasn’t made it ultra-stiff - if anything, I suspect it’s a little softer than the old ST. It’s that little bit of roll mid corner that makes the ST so satisfying to hustle down a bendy bit of road - you can easily fall into a delicious flow as the car feels as though it’s working with the road rather than against it.
As if having a more interesting engine and an even more sublime chassis than the old car wasn’t enough, it’s also more of a success both inside and out. The Fiesta range as a whole has a much improved interior, meaning there isn’t the same plasticy button-fest as before. And while the old ST looked awkward and dumpy from some angles, the new one’s a neat but lightly aggressive thing, especially on those lovely 18-inch five-spoke wheels.
Surely, you must be thinking, there have to be a few things wrong with it? Well, I’m racking my brains, but struggling. I suppose the driving modes - Normal, Sport and Race - seem a little needless. There isn’t a lot of difference between them, save for a slightly meatier exhaust note in Sport and Race, and the ESP switching off in Race. I suppose the gear change is just OK rather than exceptional, and…nope, that’s all I can come up with.
It’s not even expensive: the entry-level ‘ST-1’ costs just £18,995 - suddenly that £17,995 Suzuki Swift Sport we drove the other week seems like even more of a rip-off. And if you want a Peugeot 208 GTI by Peugeot Sport and don’t mind the fact it has ‘Peugeot’ in its name twice for some reason, you’ll be out of pocket to the tune of £23,555. You could have the top-spec ST-3 with the Performance Pack and still be over a grand better off.
How the hell has Ford managed this? This is a car that doesn’t just beat the competition, it bludgeons them to death with a maniacal grin on its face, amused at its own bonkers cheap pricing. Ford hasn’t built a car - it’s built something that thoroughly trolls the hot hatch world. And it does so in spectacular fashion.