2016 Ford Fiesta ST Review: The Tempest in the Teapot
I'm paranoid by nature. I always look for the negatives before the positives, and so it went when I picked up my Fiesta ST. I was afraid that after two weeks, I'd be over the "honeymoon phase" of owning a "slower" (but newer) car; I'd want my Subaru WRX back. Two months in, though, and it's clear: my trepidation was a tempest in a teapot. This is one of the best cars I've ever driven.
Okay, I'll come out of the gate with my defense. The Subaru WRX is indeed a genuinely fast car. It'll run the quarter mile in the mid 13-second range, provided you're willing to part with about a fifth of its clutch life. Outright speed, however, is only one part of what makes a fun car; the Subaru lacks some critical ingredients. The steering in the WRX is loose, electric, and dead. The transmission is not only incredibly noisy, but rather terrible; I felt as if I were shifting through three-day-old oatmeal to get between gears. The brakes lacked in overall stopping power, and the pedal feel is apathetic and half-baked.
The excitement of driving that WRX came through G-forces alone, which simply wasn't enough for me. Without the necessary feedback from the car's interfaces, driving the WRX feels like eating your favorite meal with a stifling head cold; you can appreciate it, but from a distance that's too far to be engaging. You're along for the ride. Coupled with a dour, plastic-laden interior and an atrocious sound system, this makes the WRX an interesting car based on its rallying pedigree and outright speed, but I was willing to part with it.
Straight-line speed aside, the Fiesta ST has the WRX bested in nearly every category.
The standard Fiesta is a good looking and tastefully understated car. Ford recognized as much, and they didn't add too much spice to the pot for the ST. They had every opportunity to put a fat bodykit on it, which would've looked cool in 2001. There are no design awards to be had here, but it's clean-cut and less garish than the WRX. Apart from a non-functional diffuser on the rear bumper, things here and neat and tidy; the tray-like rear wing is the most forward clue that this Fiesta is a bit 'roided up. The White Platinum tri-coat paint matched with the gloss black wheels is a gorgeous combination, but a magnet for tree sap and road debris. Some good Bug & Tar cleaner is the order of the day for this color combo.
The Ford's interior doesn't wow me, and I didn't really expect it to. This is a driver's car, and the extra money headed straight into the engine, suspension and drivetrain. Like the Subaru, the cabin is rife with textured plastics that, once the car is broken in, begin to buzz and resonate with the engine (especially after installing an aftermarket rear engine mount). Comparisons between the two cars end there, however. The interior in the Fiesta is a nicer place to be; buttons are tactile and everything seems just a bit more intuitive. And fun.
On my second day with this car, I found myself toggling through the various ambient lighting colors, visible in the image above. I was grinning, and a moment or two away from letting out an Ed-like chuckle at this inconsequential but fun little feature. After getting my fill of the light show and settling on blue, I tested the voice recognition to its limits: the car nailed the radio stations I wanted, located seven different addresses in seven different states, and texted two friends. I never once had to repeat myself. Well done, Ford. In the Subaru, I may as well have been speaking Klingon at the voice recognition software.
When the sound system is turned on and cranked, it does a great job at keeping Metallica or synthwave (I'm on an weird music kick right now) distortion-free at high volumes. On the $30,000 WRX, that was a tall order, and one which it rarely fulfilled without turning every interior trim piece into a rattling resonator.
Finally, the Recaro sport seats option is a must. No question. Not only are they bolstered enough for atmospheric re-entry, they're supremely comfortable over long drives. The seat warmers are at maximum within 30 seconds, and they're hot enough to keep your takeout Chinese food warm. As I've been driving, the seat has been molding itself to my frame, which is a nice touch. If you're in the market, the Recaros are the only real option you need on this car.
Before getting behind the wheel, the single biggest concern I had with this car is that it drives the wrong wheels. As gearheads, we're supposed to lust after rear-wheel drive. If that's not an option, we're generally happy with a rear-biased all-wheel drive car. Front-wheel drive is typically our anathema, and we take to it as well as Donald Trump takes to constructive criticism. Here's the thing about the Fiesta ST, which is equally confounding and joyous: it not only makes front-wheel drive fun, it makes it hardly noticeable.
This really sank in when I was halfway beyond a right-hand turn that I needed to make. In what was (looking back) a fairly dumb idea, I more or less said, "fuck it" aloud to myself and chucked the car into the corner. The Bridgestone tires vocalized a bit in protest, but the car wasn't really all that phased. It hunkered down and tossed itself to the right with such ferocity that a shopping bag, previously on my passenger seat, was tossed over my lap and into the pocket on the driver's door. I made the corner without a whiff of understeer, there was little to no body roll, and more importantly, I didn't have a catastrophic accident.
Not wishing to test my luck in such a belligerent manner again, I then took the car for a quick sojourn on a nearby country road for some more predictable entertainment. There, the Fiesta ST demonstrated the virtue of having only ~200 horsepower and ~215 lb/ft of torque: you can use virtually all of it whenever you want. So I did.
Steering the car is precise and communicative, requiring only quick flicks of input thanks to a very short rack ratio. The shifter's throws are a little long, but always land on their mark with reassuring precision. The brakes are immediate and provide a wall of stopping power. The 1.6-liter turbo-four is an angry, percolating little ball of fat torque and turbo noise. The real magic, though, is the chassis. Unless you're plowing into a 90-degree corner at highway speeds, this car just won't understeer. Certainly, you can thank the ST's torque-vectoring system for part of that, which basically means that the car will brake the inside front wheel during cornering.
Therein lies the crux of Ford's work on the ST. There's a wonderful confluence of engineering alchemy and plain-old chassis tuning that will tickle the staunchest of gearhead elitists, despite the ST having the "wrong" drive wheels. It's sublime. Not only is it a near-perfectly balanced car, it has that immeasurable but omnipresent sense of fun and playfulness that much more expensive cars sometimes fail to capture.
I volunteer to drive friends and family everywhere. I go on drives when I really don't need to. Everyone does this with their new cars, but I haven't stopped yet, and I don't see the end in sight. I'm kicking myself for not getting the car earlier in the year, when a track day visit was more practical.
The Wrap Up
This car is the friend with a bad influence. When driven even remotely quickly, it flaunts the fact that it's not even slightly challenged. Thus begins the vicious cycle: prod it a bit, and it'll merely invite more prodding, which can lead you into serious traffic violation territory. When you do eventually slow down, much to its dismay, it's no more theatrical than the standard Fiesta, bar a mildly bouncy ride at slower speeds.
Like anything else in the world, the Fiesta ST isn't perfect. At the very least, I would've added some more insulation in the interior to prevent the plastic from creaking and buzzing. The cup holder is precariously close to the handbrake. Dual-stage seat warmers would be welcome, because right now they're either off or radioactive. The UK version of the car gets nifty xenon-projector headlights, which I'd have gladly paid a few extra bucks for. The pedals could be more optimally-placed for heel-toe downshifting, but I'm adapting to it. Ford would also benefit from better quality control and service, because I have two minor issues already. For one, the engine will bog or stall immediately after getting gas; this will hopefully be mitigated by a $25 part (on order). Recently, I also noticed a dip in power...after measuring the turbo boost, it seems I have a minor boost leak somewhere. Based on research, it seems that this is fixed by simply tightening the hose clamps in the intake system, as they can be loose from the factory.
Ultimately, though, the good far outweighs the bad. The ST holds lots of stuff. It gets 40 miles per gallon on the highway. It's practical and a treat to drive at virtually any speed. It's compact enough to park inside a Kleenex box. It has an infotainment system that really doesn't suck. I'm saving a ton on insurance and gas money, and I'm having more fun with this car than I ever had with my last two...for far less money. Sure, it has its quirks, but that's all they are.
I suppose the Fiesta ST is helping me to see the positives over the negatives after all.