Key to the exercise is the car’s simplicity. Intrusive stability nannies are often dialled down or made redundant at the press of a button, there’s just about always a six-speed manual gearbox and a hungry, keen-to-please engine in front. Small hot hatches are affordable and blindingly quick point-to-point, meaning they have the ability of slaying cars worth three times as much on roads which dominate our countryside.
Would you really want to be behind the wheel of a low-slung supercar that’s worth nearly as much as your house on a twisty, narrow B-road? You become a nervous wreck, pre-empting mindless motorists’ behaviour, constantly worrying about them getting too close or grazing a ludicrously expensive carbon fibre splitter on speed bumps which you normally wouldn’t give a second thought about. That’s where hot hatches - which belie their humble origins and turn into crazed, corner-loving terriers at the first glimpse of a B-road - come into the equation and show just why they’re loved by the UK market.
Today’s market is very different to what it was a decade or so ago. We were blessed with a series of naturally aspirated, manual Renaultsport Clios and Honda Civic Type Rs which were affordable to most people, but now a German-led power battle has ensued and simple cars are a thing of the past. Twin-clutch gearboxes, 400bhp and sub-four-second sprints to 60mph are commonplace - unthinkable a handful of years ago and once reserved for cars with six-figure price tags.
Ford Performance, the sporty arm of the famous manufacturer renowned for its hot hatches of the whale-tailed variety, has given us something thoroughly modern in the new Fiesta ST as it’s powered by a three-cylinder, 1.5-litre turbocharged engine. It’s a clever one, too, and can run on just two of its three to boost economy when it’s cruising. However, they’ve also managed to instil a traditional feel in how it drives, and it’s an absolute revelation.
Now in its eighth generation, the Fiesta has always been the perfect base to benefit from beefed-up arches, more power and stiffer suspension and after the previous model’s undeniable success, the new version has a lot to live up to in a market dominated by smaller hatches such as Peugeot’s brilliant 208 GTI and the more grown-up VW Polo GTI. The ST has all the usual go-faster addenda: twin-exit exhaust pipes, look-at-me badging, deeper grilles and bigger wheels which hide bigger brakes. It looks great - particularly from the front - and now has a much-improved interior which features a pair of figure-hugging Recaro seats, a thick-rimmed steering wheel and a clever touchscreen infotainment system.
Prod the starter button and your ears pick up the ST’s distinctive three-cylinder sound which is loud, somewhat rough but full of sporting intent. A trio of cylinders might still be something of a novelty in a sector cluttered with uninspiring four-pot motors, but Ford’s move to three has reaped the rewards as they possess so much more character.
It doesn’t take long for the manual gearbox to shine - Ford know how to make transmissions and this six-speeder is a peach. It’s positioned possibly a tad low, not helped by the awkward and immovable arm rest, but you can’t not fall for its slick, precise movement. Thankfully, an automatic isn’t an option.
The steering weight is heavy at low speed, perhaps feeling a little on the artificial side at times when you’re manoeuvring, but it comes into its own when you make quicker progress. There’s a distinct bite, an alertness to your input, no matter how minimal it may appear to be. You ask, it takes on the challenge, and that manifests itself with a smile appearing on your face.
What’s apparent when you throw it into a corner is the beautifully judged partnership between the steering and how the car actually handles; the pin-sharp front end dives in keenly, conveying messages back through the wheel to the driver. It feels a bit of a throwback in truth - a traditional hot hatch in a modern package.
The three-cylinder engine, which produces 197bhp, is a great partner for the Fiesta as it’s more than powerful enough for those dinky dimensions. Zero to 60mph takes 6.5 seconds and the ST has a 208 GTI-matching 144mph top speed. As with most three-cylinder units, it’s strong from low revs and maintains that performance in its mid-range, although it can feel breathless if you hold on to the limiter, making the last 1,000rpm largely pointless as its best work has been delivered earlier.
There are three driving modes to plump for - Normal, Sport and Track - which sees each up the ante with regards to throttle response, damping and stability control. Normal, as you’d expect, is its default and performs well in all areas, although the inner child in you soon opts for the racier two options. In truth there’s little difference between Sport and Track; you’ll immediately notice the engine being keener to push on and the steering’s weight become heavier, but the only stand-out feature to separate the two is the traction control being switched off in Track.
The ride can feel on the harsh side on motorway commutes as its suspension is stiff, but it comes into its own when you’re on a challenging road. It excels in smoothening out undulations at speed, never failing to impress no matter how much you appear to be asking too much of it, helped in part by its limited-slip differential which keeps the ST true to its line. The brakes, despite not being huge, have tremendous stopping power but most impressive about them is how they act through the pedal and your command. The travel is judged perfectly and there’s no confidence-sapping sponginess which ultimately builds your trust in the car’s ability. You lean on them later, knowing fully that they’re up to the job.
Its tenacity, its pace and its phenomenal handling make it a better car than its main rival. Its character shines and despite its clever, ultra-modern engine, you feel like you’re driving a hot hatch from what I’d call the golden era, the one which gave us innumerable hot Clios before Renaultsport lost their mind and ruined their tried-and-tested small hot hatch recipe. That’s the biggest compliment you can pay the new Fiesta ST: it’s full of new technology but the way it goes about its business is refreshing as it invokes memories of special cars from days gone by - it possesses the characteristics I thought had been lost.