Ford Fiesta ST vs Ford Fiesta XR2

We test Ford's latest Fiesta ST against the archaic Ford Fiesta XR2

SpecsFord Fiesta XR2Ford Fiesta ST
Price new(1988) £8,430£16,995
Engine1.6-litre 4cyl1.6-litre 4cyl turbo
0-62mph8.7 seconds6.9 seconds

British car buyers have enjoyed a love affair with fast Fords that stretches back more than 40 years. And while the relationship has had its share of ups and downs over the decades, the mere hint of a new ST, XR or RS still stirs up huge interest among enthusiasts.

Ford’s latest star is the new Fiesta ST. Arguably the finest performance supermini the company has put its badge on so far, it’s our reigning Best Hot Hatch and a multiple group test winner. Spend only a few minutes behind the wheel, and you instantly understand what the fuss is all about.

The ST feels like a car built by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. From the 180bhp 1.6-litre turbocharged engine’s linear power delivery to the gearshift’s fluid, mechanical action, it takes driver involvement to a new level.

The chassis feels perfectly balanced – as we now expect from Ford – with steering responses that strike the perfect balance between agility and stability. It may not be the most powerful or fastest hot hatch on the market, but if you’re the kind of buyer who puts emotion and seat-of-the-pants feelings above figures and stats, there’s nothing better around.

Yet let’s not get too carried away with the superlatives. Back in the eighties, it was another hot Ford supermini – the Fiesta XR2 – that was winning over buyers in big numbers. By 1988, however, the XR2 was living on borrowed time. Newer, faster, more engaging pocket rockets from the likes of Peugeot and Citroen were setting new standards for performance and driver involvement. Although Ford’s marketing department kept it under the noses of buyers, the Fiesta’s best days were over.

Today, the XR2 still has the capacity to turn grown men into boys – even those who were still in short trousers during the car’s heyday. Its simple charms and classic design recall an era when a set of cheap spotlights and black plastic trim were all you needed to turn heads. As with the new ST, the XR2 has a 1.6-litre engine – albeit with around half the power output of its 21st century successor. A classic Ford CVH unit, it rattles and wheezes up to speed but enjoys decent throttle response and a surprisingly broad powerband.

The five-speed gearbox – still something of a novelty in the supermini market in the late eighties – is light and well weighted, making swift progress easy. Does the car feel sporty? Well, if we put our rose-tinted spectacles to one side here, the answer has to be a reluctant no. Even if you ignore the obvious advances in engine tech and drivetrain refinement over the years, the XR2 flatters to deceive in virtually every area.

The suspension is doughy and underdamped, while the brakes struggle to rein in the engine’s power. The non-assisted steering and fat tyres also let the side down, making heavy weather of low-speed direction changes. Then there’s the interior. Apart from the mildly bolstered seats, there are precious few design elements to remind you that you’re in a hot hatch. From the plain white-on-black dials to the ghastly blue and red pinstripe trim, the XR2 looks and feels like a car that’s been cobbled together with whatever was left in the parts bin.

Yet despite all its flaws, this Fiesta is a thoroughly lovable machine. Eager to please and endowed with just enough performance to keep you entertained, it still has the power to raise a smile. It may not be among Ford’s greatest feats of hot hatch engineering, but in terms of marketing triumphs it represents one of the company’s finest hours.

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