A110 & Fi­esta ST: fun makes its come­back

New Fi­esta ST and Alpine A110 re­vive the dy­ing art of guilt-free, flat-out driv­ing

CAR (UK) - - Contents - Words Mark Wal­ton | Pho­tog­ra­phy Alex Tap­ley

CON­FUSED? No, you’re ab­so­lutely right, these two cars don’t be­long to­gether. They’re not com­peti­tors and they never hang out as friends. So why bring them here? Well, be­cause it’s 2018, and the news these days is all about au­ton­o­mous elec­tric cars and ride-shar­ing apps. Life is get­ting safer and more ster­ile and we all use hand-sani­tis­ers and drink fil­tered wa­ter and conkers are clas­si­fied as dan­ger­ous weapons. Speed is bad, loud ex­hausts are frowned upon and over­tak­ing on the pub­lic road is now likely to pro­voke a fu­ri­ous re­ac­tion in peo­ple, sim­i­lar to how they’d be­have if they saw you club­bing seals or tor­tur­ing bunny rab­bits.

But in the midst of all this – when en­thu­si­asts like you and

me are won­der­ing if we might have to pack it all in and take up stamp col­lect­ing or (God for­bid) foot­ball – these two ar­rive. Two new cars that share the same pur­pose, and I don’t just mean wishy-washy ‘driv­ing fun’. It’s deeper than that. These two are both built to thrash: find a good road, clear your mind of dis­trac­tions, and wring their scrawny necks un­til your palms sweat and the fuel tank is drained. They unashamedly cel­e­brate petrol en­gines, do-it-your­self steer­ing and the nu­ances of a Miche­lin tyre.

Un­less you have ac­tu­ally been col­lect­ing stamps or play­ing foot­ball the last cou­ple of years, you’ll know about the Alpine. Re­vived by Re­nault and in­spired by the Alpine A110 that won the first World Rally Cham­pi­onship back in 1973, this bright blue sports car is new from the ground up, and pow­ered by a mid-mounted, 1.8-litre, tur­bocharged four-cylin­der. Along­side it is a hot hatch with a much newer, brasher rep­u­ta­tion to de­fend: the new Ford Fi­esta ST. It fol­lows in the foot­steps of the 2012 Fi­esta ST, a car that caught every­one by sur­prise with its de­fi­ant, gi­ant-killer at­ti­tude and amaz­ingly co­he­sive dy­nam­ics. The new car hopes to re­peat the same recipe, with a re­vised chas­sis, an im­proved in­te­rior and – con­tro­ver­sially per­haps – a new 1.5-litre turbo triple, re­plac­ing the 1.6-litre four-cylin­der.

The new three-door Fi­esta is only four me­tres long and un­der two me­tres wide, but when you ap­proach these two parked side by side it’s the Alpine that ap­pears to be the del­i­cate minia­ture. The French car is a tiny, lovely thing: 20cm lower and 14cm nar­rower than the Fi­esta. It’s 20cm shorter than a Porsche Cay­man, its more typ­i­cal play­mate.

The A110 is also a strik­ingly un­usual shape. By fol­low­ing the styling of the orig­i­nal A110 – a car that dates back to4

TWO NEW CARS BUILT TO THRASH CLEAR YOUR MIND AND WRING THEIR SCRAWNY NECKS UN­TIL THE FUEL TANKS

ARE DRAINED

1961 – the new car has pro­por­tions and de­tails that I don’t think any mod­ern car de­signer would dream up, if they started with a blank sheet of pa­per. Like those quad lights on the nose, mim­ick­ing the rally lights of the orig­i­nal, or that long, swept­back tail that orig­i­nally wrapped a rear-mounted en­gine, though it now con­tains a lit­tle boot. Add in lit­tle de­tails like the rear badge, made up of in­di­vid­ual chrome let­ters, and the Alpine fuses modernism and clas­sic ap­peal with­out spilling over into pas­tiche.

If the ex­te­rior styling is a suc­cess, the in­te­rior is a tri­umph: the light­weight door swings open to re­veal a two-seater cock­pit, nar­row and low-slung and full of char­ac­ter. From a mass-mar­ket make like Re­nault, it’s a sur­prise the bean-coun­ters al­lowed such play­ful­ness – like the deep, fixed-back race seats with their di­a­mond-pat­tern stitch­ing, the arch­ing cen­tre con­sole, the tog­gle switches and metal foot plates. Sure, the stalks are straight out of a Me­gane, but they don’t de­tract from the over­all im­pres­sion of a low-vol­ume car. That vivid, metal­lic blue ‘A’ in the cen­tre of the steer­ing wheel per­suades you: this is some­thing new, some­thing dif­fer­ent and orig­i­nal.

The Fi­esta’s in­te­rior is, of course, a world away from such lux­ury de­tail­ing – it’s less than half the price, af­ter all. But like the Alpine it too screams ‘DRIVE ME!’ as soon as you open the door. The in­te­rior is a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment, with a cleaner dash dom­i­nated by a big colour touch­screen. The Re­caro seats hug your sides and al­low you to sit deeper in the car than the old ST, and the leather steer­ing wheel is flat-bot­tomed, fatrimmed and full of prom­ise. Sit­ting in the ST is like hold­ing a per­fectly weighted base­ball bat in your hand – sud­denly you have an over­whelm­ing urge to swing it.

I like the ex­te­rior styling of the new Fi­esta, with its a scowl­ing fish-face and hon­ey­comb grille. CAR’s James Tay­lor reck­ons it looks like a minia­turised Galaxy – a grown-up, one-box shape with un­der­stated rear lights – which he doesn’t see as a good thing. It cer­tainly looks more ma­ture than the out­go­ing car, and if you deleted the ST badge it wouldn’t stand out much in traf­fic. But don’t be fooled by its low-key ap­pear­ance – on the right road, this lit­tle gem could em­bar­rass a su­per­car.

nd And no, I don’t mean the Alpine when I say that. De­spite its mid-en­gined lay­out and head-turn­ing looks, the new A110 isn’t a su­per­car: pro­duc­ing just 249bhp, it can’t even match the hottest of hot hatches in terms of raw power.

But don’t worry, be­cause it makes the most of what it has with an ex­tra­or­di­nary kerb­weight. From the out­set, the Alpine en­gi­neer­ing team took a Lo­tus-like ap­proach, fret­ting about every last gram. That led to some big, fun­da­men­tal de­ci­sions, like the all-alu­minium chas­sis and body; and some lit­tle de­ci­sions, like those Sa­belt sports seats that weigh just 13.1kg each, and the hand­brake built into the main rear Brembo caliper, sav­ing an­other 2.5kg. The re­sult is an un­laden weight of 1080kg in stan­dard trim, and 1103kg for the car you’re look­ing at here, one of the lim­ited-edi­tion launch cars. That’s 250kg less than a PDK-equipped Porsche 718 Cay­man.

That kind of ded­i­ca­tion is re­fresh­ing, when ev­ery­thing seems to gets big­ger and flab­bier. Light­weight cars cre­ate a vir­tu­ous cir­cle: light­ness means nar­rower tyres, smaller brakes and softer springs, and so it is with the Alpine. Climb in and set­tle into the won­der­fully snug bucket seat, and press the big red start but­ton un­der your el­bow in the cen­tre con­sole.

The 1.8-litre fires with a snarl be­hind4

DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE FI­ESTA’S AP­PEAR­ANCE ON THE RIGHT ROAD IT COULD EM­BAR­RASS A SU­PER­CAR

your head and ticks over with a low bur­ble. Although this en­gine can be found in the new Re­nault Me­gane RS, Alpine says the in­take, ex­haust, and turbo sys­tems are all unique. It drives the rear wheels through a seven-speed Ge­trag pad­dleshift with both auto and manual func­tions – so pull back the right-hand lever and you’re off.

Within 100 me­tres of travel you no­tice the most re­mark­able and dis­tinc­tive thing about this car: the elec­tric power steer­ing al­most feels unas­sisted, it’s so loose and free and light. Most man­u­fac­tur­ers equate sporti­ness with ar­ti­fi­cially stiff steer­ing, as though all that sticky, rub­bery grip at the front is trav­el­ling up the steer­ing col­umn to give you a big, beefy steer­ing ef­fort in your fore­arms. Grrr! Ma­cho! Trou­ble is, it never feels real – the fake stiff­ness just feels like the rack is trapped in a vice, lined with ba­nana skins.

The Alpine takes a com­pletely dif­fer­ent route: its steer­ing is light and lim­ber, spry and sharp, but not over-as­sisted or numb. It’s rest­less, con­stantly jog­ging and jiggling in your hands as the car fol­lows the road, com­mu­ni­cat­ing its light­ness beau­ti­fully, lend­ing the Alpine its own dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter. Within min­utes, you un­der­stand this is a key ap­peal of the car – the thing you’ll men­tion first, if some­one asks you what it’s like, the fac­tor that might well make you choose it over a Porsche. It is noth­ing short of sen­sa­tional.

And so is the ride. The light­ness that in­forms ev­ery­thing is com­bined with softly sprung dou­ble-wishbone sus­pen­sion at each cor­ner. The re­sult is a deft­ness, a kind of park­our ath­leti­cism that makes you feel like you’re skim­ming over bumps rather than crash­ing into pot­holes. The lightly sprung body rolls a lit­tle in the cor­ners, but its cen­tre of grav­ity is so low, it’s not in­tru­sive. More im­por­tantly, the Alpine’s ap­petite for soak­ing up back roads gives you li­cence to press on hard…

The ST’s ap­proach couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. The last-gen­er­a­tion Fi­esta ST was a tight lit­tle fist of a car. It some­how pulled off a care­ful bal­ance of con­fi­dent com­po­sure with play­ful ad­justa­bil­ity, but it also suf­fered from a rock-hard ride that made your head wob­ble on your shoul­ders, and the en­gine was pow­er­ful enough, but a bit vanilla.

Ford prom­ises it has fixed both com­plaints in the new model with some im­pres­sive jar­gon: the sus­pen­sion now fea­tures ‘non-uni­form, non-in­ter­change­able, di­rec­tion­ally-wound force vec­tor springs’; and the 1.6 four-pot is re­placed by an all­new 1.5-litre, three-cylin­der EcoBoost that puts out 197bhp at 6000rpm, the same numbers as the last it­er­a­tion of the old car.

On that no­to­ri­ously hard ride, the new car may have soft­ened a bit, but with­out driv­ing old and new back-to-back it seems very mar­ginal – this is still an in­cred­i­bly stiff ride, the com­pro­mise you have to make to ac­cess ev­ery­thing else. But the new power unit – wow, Ford has per­formed mir­a­cles. De­spite its three cylin­ders, this is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing wasp of an en­gine, full of en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm. The way it pro­pels the car down a road de­fies be­lief, los­ing noth­ing in terms of speed over the old car, yet it’s gained so much, in terms of per­son­al­ity, a bet­ter sound­track (thanks to an ac­tive ex­haust valve and a bit of elec­tronic ma­nip­u­la­tion) and bet­ter fuel con­sump­tion, thanks to pi­o­neer­ing cylin­der de­ac­ti­va­tion – when you’re cruis­ing, it’s ac­tu­ally a fru­gal 1.0-litre twin.

Not that you’ll be cruis­ing much, be­cause the good news is the core ap­peal of the ST re­mains undi­min­ished: this car loves to be spanked. There are changes over the out­go­ing model – the track is wider, the mono­coque is tor­sion­ally stiffer, the4

THE STEER­ING IS LIGHT AND LIM­BER, SPRY AND SHARP, CON­STANTLY JOG­GING AND JIGGLING. IT IS NOTH­ING SHORT

OF SEN­SA­TIONAL

steer­ing is faster; but im­por­tantly, it all still works as a co­he­sive whole. You hus­tle it into a bend, stand on the brakes, quickly drop through the manual gear­box and pitch it in.

The turn-in bites so im­me­di­ately, so con­fi­dently on the Miche­lin Pi­lot Su­per Sport tyres that the swerve of the nose in­tro­duces a whiff of yaw, bring­ing the tail round to tighten your an­gle. If that sounds un­nerv­ing, it’s not. It’s play­ful and ad­justable but al­ways un­der con­trol. Now, as you ac­cel­er­ate out, the new ST de­ploys its se­cret weapon: a me­chan­i­cal lim­ited-slip diff that en­sures none of your 197bhp will spin away use­lessly. Avail­able as an op­tion, it helps cat­a­pult the ST out of tight bends with lit­tle scrub and mod­icum of torque steer. There’s even a new ‘flat shift’ func­tion that al­lows you to grab the next gear with­out dip­ping the clutch.

All this means that the Fi­esta ST re­ally can keep up with an equally thrashed Alpine on a twisty road, which is im­pres­sive. How­ever, the A110 driver is en­joy­ing a very dif­fer­ent driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Like the ST, the Alpine has three driv­ing modes, Nor­mal, Sport and Track. As you switch up, ev­ery­thing from throt­tle re­sponse to gearshift and ex­haust note are changed, but im­por­tantly not the ride, which is per­fect as it is. I drove the A110 in Track the whole time – it al­lows purely manual gearshifts, it makes a great noise and the dig­i­tal dis­play gives you a beep­ing shift light. That means you can con­cen­trate on the im­por­tant stuff, like the way it ac­cel­er­ates with a faint lag but still pow­er­fully in every gear, the ex­haust growl­ing on the throt­tle and pop­ping loudly off it.

Turn-in is just as sharp as the Fi­esta but – counter-in­tu­itively per­haps – the Alpine doesn’t have the over­steery feel of the Ford at speed. In­stead the han­dling is def­i­nitely set-up for safe un­der­steer if you prod the throt­tle mid-cor­ner. It can be pro­voked, of course, with a hard lift, but it takes com­mit­ment. Drive it clean and fast, and the trac­tion (aided by a 44:56 rear­ward weight bias) will just see you power cleanly out of even the tight­est of bends.

At first I felt a pang of dis­ap­point­ment at this, be­cause I love rear-wheel drive, but then I had to give my­self a slap – it’s not all about ban­zai tail-slid­ing stuff. Is it? No. You sure? No, re­ally, it’s not. The Alpine feels best when you drive it hard but you keep it neat, rev­el­ling in that amaz­ing steer­ing, the feed­back through your hands, the way it re­sponds to your small­est in­puts.

We’re so lucky to have these two cars. I hope they find suc­cess – the Alpine is ex­pen­sive, and the ST is far too stiffly sprung for your av­er­age Fi­esta shop­per. But I think they’ll carve out a cult ap­peal in their re­spec­tive mar­kets. I hope so – en­thu­si­asts like us need cars like this, to keep the faith, to prove we don’t have to give up our steer­ing wheels just yet. And I hate foot­ball.

WE’RE LUCKY TO HAVE THESE TWO CARS. EN­THU­SI­ASTS LIKE US NEED CARS LIKE THIS TO KEEP THE FAITH

‘I pressed this, drove, and be­fore I knew it the tank was empty’

Three-note ri blast­ing from un­der here soon

This hap­pens a lot, but gives you a chance to in­ally blink and breathe

A110 isn’t far away from the ST. It’s just very, very tiny

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