When you review cars, the good cars are the worst. You see, bad cars allow you to get snarky. You get a chance to gleefully rip years of work by thousands of people into utter shreds. You can reach for colorful metaphors involving the incompetence, ancestry, and probable spiritual destination of everyone involved in the car’s production. You can make fun of the vehicle’s clownish face, and go on for paragraphs about turbo lag, slow shifting, bad suspension, and cheap plastic dashboards.
It’s therapeutic, too. All of the dark, hidden rage you have at not being skilled enough to drive professionally and make millions of dollars can be unleashed. You can channel your disappointment at having a conventional, middle-class life into the ridicule of others’ work. You sublimate your urges to choke the living crap out of the incompetents that surround you in daily life by writing horrifically vicious things about inoffensive bits of machinery. You can just vent at something, which, really, makes you a much nicer person to the people around you. I quite like it.
You can’t do that with good cars. You have to be nice. You end up writing complimentary things. Frankly, that doesn’t help you exorcise any personal demons at all. You just end up sounding like a silly fan-boy to the smart-alecs who accuse you of writing nice things because you’re afraid to lose your press fleet privileges with the manufacturer.
Which brings us, I suppose, to the 2014 Ford Fiesta ST. It’s basically Ford’s newest and tiniest sports car, camouflaged as a subcompact hatchback. It’s built in Britain. It costs around $24,000, reasonably well-equipped. Sadly, it’s quite nice.
How it looks
From the front, it’s very aggressive, with squinty, angry headlights and a blacked-out grill. The descending roofline is lengthened in the back by a long—though, one suspects, completely non-functional—spoiler. In the US, we will only get the 5-door hatchback version, which is more practical, but less sleek-looking than the 3-door hatchback they also get in Europe. Europeans always get the best cars.
Seriously, I can’t believe we spent billions of dollars in American treasure and blood to raze Europe’s cities to the ground, just to let them keep all the good hot hatchbacks and V-8 station wagons to themselves. Even our so-called “allies”, like France, refuse to let us have Citroën DS3s or Renault Meganes. Sure, Volvo lets us have the V60. Big whoop.
Anyway, the Fiesta ST not only looks nice on the outside, it looks pretty good on the inside, too. The dashboard is soft-touch rubber, and, while there’s hard plastic in there, it’s mainly in the less obvious places. The Fiesta is the base car in Ford’s lineup, so, unless you’re willing to pay an extra two grand for leather-trimmed Recaro seats—which is not necessary—you’re stuck with ST-badged cloth seats. But, they’re pretty good. Sure, Recaro seats are good, too, but I’m not sure they’re $2,000 good.
What’s also pretty good are the interior features. You’ve got a 6” touch screen with sat-nav, SiriusXM radio, and Radio/CD controls. There’s also electric windows and doors, keyless entry and start, and Bluetooth connectivity with hands-free phone connectivity. Voice command ability is provided by the Ford/Microsoft Sync® technology. The center console armrest hides two USB ports, an Aux audio input, and SD Card slots. The sat-nav card takes up one of those slots, and you can get updated navigation cards from the dealer. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has a delightfully chunky grip, and all the requisite thumb switches to control the techy bits.
Seating is comfortable, and there’s decent headroom front and back. Rear legroom is also surprisingly good for a subcompact. The wheels are set about as close to the corners of the car as is possible, opening up a large space for the passenger cabin. It’s not luxury-car roomy in the back, but it’s comfortable enough for running around town.
Where you do run out of room is in the rear storage area. The back seats both fold down, giving you a proper amount of storage space. With them up, however, you’ll be limited to errands and grocery store trips. It’s how you pay for the seating room. All in all, though, it’s about as nice and roomy as you can expect a subcompact car to be.
How it drives
When you press the starter button, the first thing you notice is the exhaust noise. The Fiesta ST is powered by a 1.6L I-4 turbocharged EcoBoost® engine. It sounds fantastic. It sounds angry. And well it should, since it outputs 197 HP and 202 lb-ft of torque. That doesn’t sound like a lot, until you realize the Fiesta ST weighs only 2,720 lbs with the 6-speed manual transmission. That means 197 dinky little horsies pull the Fiesta ST to 60 MPH in under 7 seconds, and past the quarter-mile mark in 15 seconds. That doesn’t seem blindingly fast on paper, but inside the Fiesta, it seems pretty darned quick.
Compare and contrast that to the performance of the Scion FRS/Subaru BRZ that everyone was creaming themselves over last year, and you see the Fiesta’s performance is the same. Maybe the FRS is a bit faster to 60 MPH, but the Fiesta will run a faster quarter mile. The Fiesta certainly seems faster than the FRS. Tromp on the accelerator and release the clutch, and Mr. Inertia pins you to the seat, while the motor joyfully growls and barks.
The Fiesta’s suspension is on the sporty side, being a bit stiff, so the ride is rather harsh, but not unreasonably so. If you want a sporty car with limited body roll as you blast it through corners, you have to give up a plushy ride. It’s on the livable, daily-driver side of harsh, though, so it’s OK.
What’s surprising with the Fiesta ST is how good it is in the corners. It’s a front-wheel drive car, so you expect it to be dull and horrible and chock full of understeer. But, apparently, British druids or wizards did some sort of incantation over the electronic slip diff it has in front. You go into the corners and…it corners. Even with the traction control system turned completely off. They also worked their magic on the steering, which is really good for an electrically-assisted unit.
Part of its cornering ability is that Ford kept the engine under 200 HP. Everyone in pre-electronic days reckoned that 200 ponies was the maximum power you could put into front-wheel drive without serious understeer problems. The electronics just improve on the moderate horsepower to keep the Fiesta tucked into a turn. It’s fairly confidence-inspiring. There’s no noticeable torque steer, either. Please note, this is precisely the opposite of what the Focus ST feels like with the traction control off.
Next, I’d like to tell you about the Fiesta’s six-speed manual transmission, and how well it worked. But I can’t. I don’t really remember a thing about it. It is the most unobtrusive manual transmission I’ve ever used. You don’t think about it at all. You just press the clutch and move the lever and stop pressing the clutch. You could read a novel while shifting and never miss a word on the page. No effort at all.
Having said that, though, the first two gears are pretty short. The Fiesta only has a 6,500 RPM redline, and in first and second, you reach it in a snap. So, jumping off the starting line is a bit frenetic at first, until you get into third.
Maybe I could complain about the clutch a bit, I suppose. The friction point isn’t close to the floor, or close to full release. It’s somewhere in the middle. It will take you almost halfway through your first trip to the grocery store before you get used to this.
Finally, there’s the braking. It’s pretty good, too, but the Fiesta squirms under hard braking. That comes from only having a 98” wheelbase. Surprisingly, the short wheelbase doesn’t make the Fiesta ST wander about the road like a drunken hobo.
What’s good about it
The engine has a great sound and torquey feel. It’s comfortable and roomy. It looks great. It drives great. The traction control isn’t intrusive. It drives well, and asks to be driven hard. The suspension isn’t so stiff that it ruins the ride. The steering and handling are very sporty, very sharp, and very fun. Basically, it’s a hoot. Also, the sound-proofing in the cabin is pretty good, eliminating the wind and road noises—though not, it must be said, the sound of the Fiesta’s exhaust. I think Ford really wants you to hear that.
What’s bad about it
The trunk is a bit small with the back seats up. There’s some squirminess when you brake hard. There’s a complete lack of leather.
Frankly, the whole experience of driving the Fiesta ST was hugely disappointing. There was nothing about this car I disliked enough to complain about. There’s no horrible design flaw to laugh at. It’s a good car, built by people who like cars, for people who like cars. So now I have to say it’s a great car, and can’t work out my frustrations and aggression on paper.
I’ll be kicking puppies by the end of the week, most likely.