Hot hatch

Ford has played an­other blinder with the new Fi­esta ST. But to see where you’re go­ing, you need to know where you’ve been...

Top Gear (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS TOM HAR­RI­SON / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MARK RIC­CIONI

The new Ford Fi­esta ST is no fluke – the Blue Oval has been do­ing this for years. Time to meet the an­ces­tors...

I’ve no idea, mostly be­cause I wasn’t there, but I refuse to be­lieve brakes were this in­ef­fec­tive. I mean, how did any­one make it through the decade in­tact?

The XR2 must have brakes of some form hid­den be­hind those pep­per-pot wheels, I rea­son. That’s what I’m hop­ing, any­way, as I all but push the mid­dle pedal through the flimsy bulk­head try­ing to avoid an Uber driver who’s de­cided, quite un­rea­son­ably, to ef­fec­tively do an emer­gency stop in the mid­dle lane of the A13.

Dis­as­ter avoided and Uber chap duly chas­tised, time to fo­cus on the car, and be­gin our pot­ted his­tory of fast Fi­es­tas. This isn’t a MkI XR2. Ford doesn’t have one of those squir­relled away in its Her­itage Col­lec­tion, which none­the­less (more than) fills an in­nocu­ous, leaky, size­able ware­house in deep­est Da­gen­ham. It does have two of these MkIIs, though.

And that’s an achieve­ment be­cause, like the Peu­geot 205 GTI, Volk­swa­gen Golf GTI, Re­nault 5 Turbo and so on, find­ing XR2s that haven’t been taste­lessly mod­i­fied/nicked/rolled/all of the above is nigh-on im­pos­si­ble nowa­days. And the ones that are out there are start­ing to com­mand big money. Well, rel­a­tively speak­ing.

The MkI XR2 was a funny lit­tle car. Pretty, in a way the MkII just isn’t, and the Fi­esta wouldn’t be for an­other twen­tysome­thing years, and by mod­ern stan­dards re­ally quite slow. It would do 100mph, though – just about – thanks to a de­vel­op­ment of Ford’s 1.6-litre “Kent” car­bu­ret­ted four-cylin­der en­gine that gave 83bhp and 92lb ft. Ford claimed 0–60mph in 9.3 sec­onds and a sub-800kg kerb­weight, and all for the early-Eight­ies equiv­a­lent of some £17k.

Af­ter just a cou­ple of years on sale, that pretty lit­tle thing be­came this – the MkII XR2. Still car­bu­ret­ted, right up un­til it was canned in 1989, the MkII made a smidge more power than its pre­de­ces­sor. And had a 5spd man­ual to the old car’s 4spd. But be­cause it weighed an ex­tra 50kg, no doubt in part due to all that Es­sex-spec body­work, it wasn’t re­ally any faster.

It’s fair to say that time has not been as kind to the XR2 as it has to its con­tem­po­raries. While the Golf GTI and 205 GTI have soared in value and are rou­tinely her­alded as all-time hot-hatch greats, the Fi­esta… hasn’t and isn’t. It’s not a high-qual­ity item like the Golf, it doesn’t drive with the panache of the Peu­geot and its im­age is, well, ques­tion­able at best. But that’s not to say it isn’t fun in its own way.

Like an old Mercedes G63 or an Abarth 500, it’s a car that isn’t ob­jec­tively bril­liant to

drive, but none­the­less paints a wry smile on your face as you wres­tle it along. Once you get past the old car tropes – the largely dec­o­ra­tive brake pedal, the unas­sisted steer­ing, spin­dle-thin A-pil­lars and Sty­ro­foam dash­board to name but four – you’re left with a fizzy, happy thing you can’t help but en­joy.

Sadly, the same can­not be said of the XR2’s re­place­ment, the, erm… XR2. Now with added fuel in­jec­tion, the MkIII XR2i ar­rived in 1989. And peo­ple liked it, though we strug­gle to see why. The 205 GTI was still faster, more fun and more so­phis­ti­cated, and it wasn’t sad­dled with the Ford’s seedy im­age. While the peppy Eight­ies XR2 off­set its dy­namic de­fi­cien­cies with charm, the MkIII of the early Nineties couldn’t quite man­age the same.

It was just rub­bish. Con­tem­po­rary re­views de­rided its steer­ing, chas­sis and en­gine. Things got worse with the way­ward RS Turbo in 1990, but that only lasted for a cou­ple of years be­fore it was re­placed by the 1.8-litre Zetec-en­gined RS1800. While that was a much bet­ter car for all kinds of rea­sons, it’s still not one that’s gone down in his­tory as a great Fast Ford.

Which may or may not be why the Blue Oval de­cided to take a break from overly sporty Fi­es­tas for a bit, once it killed off the MkIII in 1997. In­stead of do­ing an XR ver­sion of the MkIV or MkV, it took the plat­form, stuck it un­der a pretty, two-door coupe body and gave it a new name: Puma. There were fast-ish Fi­es­tas in that time, but it was the Puma that did the heavy lift­ing, and did it well. Nowa­days you can get one for pen­nies. And you should, be­cause they’re bril­liant.

It was 2005 when we got our first Fi­esta ST – our first proper ST full stop, ac­tu­ally. The first car from Team RS – the divi­sion within Ford that would later go on to engi­neer the Fo­cus ST and RS – was among the last nat­u­rally as­pi­rated hot hatches. And it was good enough, without ever be­ing truly great. See, like the MkI and MkII XR2s from all those years ago, the MkVI Fi­esta’s big­gest prob­lem

was its com­peti­tors. This time, it wasn’t VW and Peu­geot rain­ing on Ford’s pa­rade, but Re­nault with the Re­naultS­port Clio. It wasn’t the ob­ject the Ford was, but it was much bet­ter to drive. And be­cause Ford was re­ly­ing on the ST’s chas­sis, not out­right power, to win it fans, that the Clio was bet­ter was quite in­con­ve­nient.

Now we’re well into the Noughties, and Ford is yet to make a prop­erly great fast Fi­esta. But don’t fret, be­cause that’s about to change in fairly dra­matic fash­ion.

See, the MkVI’s demise once more pre­ceded an ex­tended hia­tus for the fast Fi­esta – the MkVII landed in 2008, but the ST didn’t emerge un­til five years later, in 2013. And it was su­perb. Ev­ery­one thought so. We named it Car of The Year, and some 25,000 of you went out and spent ac­tual money on one.

The rea­sons for its suc­cess are many­fold. First, it was gen­uinely bril­liant. A bet­ter car than all its ri­vals. If un­til now Ford had been build­ing de­cent hot hatches, only to come un­stuck when a com­peti­tor re­leased a truly ex­cel­lent one, now things were the other way around. The Clio Re­naultS­port had its prob­lems, the Polo was te­dious and, though bril­liant, the Peu­geot 208 GTI you re­ally wanted was sev­eral grand more ex­pen­sive. That’s the sec­ond thing: not only was the ST bet­ter than all its ri­vals, but it was cheaper too. Much cheaper.

The ST was a car that was ex­actly as good as the sum of its parts, be­cause they were all re­ally good parts. Strong en­gine, good gearshift, the al­ready amus­ing chas­sis of the reg­u­lar Fi­esta – it would have been harder for Ford to get it wrong than oh, so right.

By the stan­dards of mod­ern per­for­mance cars, the ST was bril­liantly sim­ple. A 1.6-litre tur­bocharged en­gine, no sus­pen­sion or drive modes, a six-speed man­ual and no op­tion of an auto, front-wheel drive, no trick ex­haust… the list goes on. And it was all the bet­ter for it. Just look at how over­com­pli­ca­tion com­pro­mised the Clio.

So when Ford an­nounced the new ST was to get drive modes, a trick three-cylin­der en­gine and much be­sides, in­stead of rub­bing our hands to­gether with glee, we crossed our fin­gers and prayed to the hot hatch gods it would be a wor­thy suc­ces­sor.

We needn’t have wor­ried. Isn’t that right, Chris?

Turn back time. TopGear breaks out the white gloves and glow­sticks

Older meets newer meets older still. Ar­gu­ments about re­spect­ing el­ders en­sue

It’s all about per­spec­tive. The new one is nearer the cam­era... but also big­ger

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