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Top Gear's big Ford Fiesta ST test: part 4

An 850bhp American exchange student joins the last leg of our tour of the UK in Ford's new hatch

Warning: if you’ve not read part onepart two and part three of our massive Fiesta test, click those blue words now

Location: Exmoor National Park

Miles: 1680 Mood: gung-ho Words: Ollie Marriage Photography: Mark Riccioni

I spy with my little eye a… victim. Look at it, dawdling along in the slow lane. It’s so small and plain. What do they call that dreary shade – Performance Blue? And what ‘performance’ anyway? It’s only got three cylinders. See those skinny little wheels, best-not-rock-the-boat bodywork and apologetic ST badging, and compare…

HPE850, baby, shock yellow with black stripes, 305-width front tyres, a fat V8 that revs to 8,500 and a supercharger sat on top that alone has twice the volume of the Fiesta’s whole engine. A vast 858bhp, people, and an exhaust that tears the atmosphere apart, like a tornado through Texas. That’s right, I am the Texan tornado, and sat deep in the dark, dark cockpit of the Hennessey Mustang, I see the cowering Fiesta ahead and I smell victory. 

There’s a chance I’ve got a bit carried away, but this Mustang… well, it skews your perspective. We might be in Britain, but isn’t Britain a town in Texas? No, actually. And if I’m honest, while the Mustang is visually and aurally dominating not just the Fiesta ST, but the whole landscape of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset, its brash charms are clearly lost on the surface of the A303. The road is fighting back, and the Mustang’s answer is to duck, buck, weave and dodge. Blows are landing and the Stang is defenceless. Despite my gung-ho posturing, this has nothing to do with me. I’m trying to hold the damn thing steady, but it just doesn’t want to know. This is because the Hennessey is a highly tuned Shelby GT350R, which runs race-derived suspension and track-day Michelin Cup 2s, where the front tyres wider than most supercars’ rears. 

Relaxing it is not. And thankfully it’s not raining. I mean the manual gearbox is actually amazingly usable and the clutch light, considering it’s managing 673lb ft through the wheels, but the last car that gave me this level of wet-road fear was a Radical SR3. I’m exhausted as we near Exeter. My shoulders ache, ears buzz, I’m frazzled. I flash the Fiesta, which promptly jinks into the next services. I lift off and the Mustang does the direction change for me. Stopped, I sit in silence and recover for a moment, and then watch as Pinky and Perky pop out of the Fiesta and gambol across the forecourt like a pair of spring lambs. 

OK, OK, advantage Fiesta. Ollie Kew and Tom Harrison have accompanied the Fiesta for the whole of its six-day, 1,850-mile adventure, and they’re clearly not suffering. This is important, the knowledge that the new ST could do a Euro tour and you’d be fresh enough to scale an Alp or windsurf the Med when you stopped. In stark contrast to this particular Mustang where, after 150 miles, I feel as if I have already scaled the Alp and windsurfed to Africa. I ache. 

But that’s the idea, to bring the two ends of the Ford performance spectrum together and find out what happens when hot hatch meets supercar. A car swap is clearly in order. Ollie and Tom regale me with how good the new ST sounds, how deft it is, how energetic and alert. But after the bellowing Mustang, the first few miles pass… vaguely. The noise is thin, the chassis calm, the whole car tolerant. In hindsight, I have vivid memories of Mustang motorway miles, but the Fiesta? Just did the job. But this is the point, isn’t it? We’ve already discovered there’s a new-found placidity to the ST’s cruising, and that’s what you want when this is the car you drive day-in, day-out. 

But you want it to have duality, to come alive when you demand. And this is precisely what happens. On Exmoor the Fiesta performed the same trick it had pulled off in Scotland, the North York Moors and Wales. Got a sniff of empty Tarmac and sprang into life. There are things you can criticise on board, and not just when you have a supercar for company. The steering isn’t as lively as the old ST200’s, the revs don’t die away fast enough, but they do nothing to diminish the simple joy of this Fiesta. It loves to entertain. To lean into corners, dig deep and scuttle round. 

The Mustang doesn’t have this bandwidth. There’s no off switch, and you find yourself muscling it along no faster than the Fiesta and thinking: “If only I was on a silky-smooth race track then I’d be having proper fun,” and soon after, “and able to use my 858bhp to show that pipsqueak who’s boss”. Because the truth is that the Fiesta, with its better visibility, narrower body, less aggressive suspension and game handling is just as fast over a testing B-road. And much less nerve-wracking. And more F-U-N. The Mustang is good, it really does handle, but you’re having to fight to make it obey. Driving the Fiesta is a partnership.

My favourite thing is tipping it into a corner off-throttle. Because there is roll, and that means as the outside front takes the pressure, I can feel the inside rear lift off… and then touch back down when I get back on the power and feel the diff work so hard to maintain the line. I can sense it pant with effort, and it is joyous. Third-gear corners are where the Fiesta ST is at its best. And there are plenty of them to enjoy, a wonderful muddle of roads as we gradually work our way west across Exmoor chasing sunset.

We finish tracing our ‘3’ at Saunton, watching the warming sun drop peachily into the Atlantic, the perfect orange full stop at the end of our tour. As is the way of things, the Fiesta ST has grown up. It’s not quite as playful as before, has gained maturity. But the capabilities it has, the daily long-range comfort it delivers at one end against the peppy, swift handling at the other – that’s impressive. As is the engine. Three cylinders, yet I have no qualms about it being the right strategy for the car or having the necessary abilities. It’s a gem. So’s the whole car.  

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