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Reasons to be cheerful: Ford Fiesta ST vs XR2

  1. Our Hot Hatch of the Year award, perhaps the most coveted of all the shiny TopGear trophies, goes to the Ford Fiesta ST. Of course, it does all of the things a hot hatch must do. But so do many other hot hatches. The difference with the Ford is that it does them for £16,995. Often this would mean it lacks something the others all have. But no. It has 180bhp. It looks cracking. The chassis is as lovingly engineered as a McLaren’s. It grips and goes better than the others and - as far as we can see - there is no catch. The dealers could charge a few grand more, and it’d still feel like a good deal. But they don’t, and good on them. Power to the People? It’s borderline socialist.

    Fast Fiestas have been this way for 30-odd years. Cast your minds back to the 1983 XR2, of which 150,000 were sold. It cost £5,957 when new, which - when adjusted for inflation - is £17,023. Almost equal to what the ST costs today. It wasn’t the first Fiesta to wear the XR badge - there was a MkI in the late Seventies - but it’s the one that we all remember, with its rally-style fog lamps, pepperpot alloys and special ‘buzzbox’ exhaust section to help tickle your nethers (if these things don’t make you happy, may we suggest you swap this magazine for a copy of Shrubbery Digest?).

    Pictures: James Lipman

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. They were the work of Ford’s Special Vehicle Engineering department, a sort of skunkworks formed in early Eighties Essex and tasked with beefing up everyday saloons and hatches. The ‘X’, by the way, takes its name from the ‘X Pack’ - bodykits, performance bits - sold by Ford dealerships back in the day. ‘R’ is for racing.

    The red car you can see here is a spotless 60,000-miler. Like the ST, it has a 1.6-litre petrol engine. It weighs only 840kg. It feels honest and mechanical, and acceleration is instant and perky. There’s a rightness to its proportions, helped by black cladding for a little extra attitude. Inside, it’s simple and airy, and the pillars are so thin that all-round visibility could only be improved if you were an owl.

  3. It appears to have aged well, though a few things have weakened over time. The suspension groans here and there. It sounds like there’s a bee stuck somewhere in the air vents. The brakes require written notice. And if your music isn’t stored on magnetic tape in plastic rectangles, you’ll be driving in silence. But many things have changed since the Eighties. Music. Madonna’s bras. Jeremy Clarkson’s hair. It doesn’t mean we love them any less.

    The XR2 helped fast Fords take on a national importance. Whether its XR-this or RS-that, there isn’t a pub in the country where those letters have gone unmentioned. The ST brand arrived later, essentially substituting the XR by wedging itself in the sweet spot between everyday hatches and the really fast stuff. Perhaps the secret to its popularity lies in solid foundations of the volume products.

  4. A three-cylinder Fiesta, for example, is still a hoot. The ST is that, times ten. It’s playful. It has a sense of humour. It’s a good-mood car. And it doesn’t matter what speed you’re doing, because there’s always a quick-fix of fun to be had, without waiting for that elusive empty road. And did we mention it costs just £16,995?

    It’s a tough category, this, and our hot hatch shortlist was long. There’s the 208 GTi, and the Clio RS. Neither are too shabby, but they lack the ST’s magic. It’s more memorable. More resolved. And even if you upsize to the next class, the little Ford punches above its weight. We could’ve reasonably given this award to the Golf GTI, which is still an enduringly excellent machine. Of course, it’s more expensive than the Fiesta, which - get this - costs £16,995.

  5. But remove price from the equation, employ cold objectivity, and you know what? We’d still take the Ford. The fact it’s eight grand cheaper is merely a bonus. But in a world of rampant prices and squeezed middles, that’s quite some bonus. We’d even go for the £599 Mountune upgrade.

    It buys you another 33bhp and your warranty will remain intact, as will your wallet.

    Perhaps the ST’s greatest asset, though, is self-restraint. While other carmakers obsess about active dampers, speed-sensitive steering and various other complications, Ford has stuck to an upright policy of well-executed simplicity. Why go to the vast expense of engineering a million different settings, when you could concentrate on a decent, one-size-fits-all set-up? It’s what the XR2 was all about.

  6. Of course, the intervening decades have led to some necessary fattening - mostly life-saving safety blubber - and the Fiesta has grown up with the cars around it. But, fundamentally, it’s from the same stock as the XR2. Think of it as a reliable family recipe, guarded and refined from one generation to the next. Add a pinch of horsepower here, a sprinkle of garnish there. Heat gently for 30 years. Serve. Enjoy.

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