Tiny Ford Fiesta ST still walks tall
Compact cars live in the shadows of big BMWs and Benzes these days, bullied by Escalades and F-150s.
Most can barely step into the fast lane, much less live there.
Their profile is so low now they hardly muster a blip on anyone's radar, even when they're running flat-out on 635 or the Bush.
It's kind of like being stuck in the seventh grade.
But with gas way cheaper than beer, drivers don't care anymore about buzzing around all day in a small, sensible sedan on a spoonful of fuel. They would rather spend time with a bigger, flashier crossover or SUV or maybe a burly, heavy-metal, tobacco-chewing pickup.
Just don't tell Ford about small cars' hard fall from grace.
The Blue Oval still builds a couple of sneering, strutting compacts — back-alley lightweights with a welterweight punch.
And the best of this tiny roughhouse gang remains the Ford Fiesta ST, a dinky overachiever sedan that must see muscle and long legs when it looks in a mirror.
Even in a shade of metallic orange that can kill weeds, the 2015 ST I had recently was 2,700 pounds of pure grins and grit.
The Fiesta is Ford's most European car, shrunk to fit on narrow cobblestone streets and sip $8-a-gallon English gas. Lean and razor-cut, the ST appears shaped for speed, despite its tiresome, oversized grille.
Long, glaring headlamps push hard against that grille, cutting up into fenders so short they look like afterthoughts.
Meanwhile, a sloping hood flows into a huge, raked-back windshield and a taut roof that appears to be about four feet tall (and is actually 57.2 inches).
Though definitely small, the ST sports relatively large doors — mainly because its meaty 205/40 tires and big-boy 17-inch wheels got pushed to the corners of the car.
Moreover, the ST sits about an inch lower than a standard Fiesta as part of its tighter, corner-carving suspension.
With its aggressive dual-outlet exhaust system in back, the ST looks like a midget on a mission.
It feels that way, too. Beneath the ST's short hood lives a lusty turbocharged 1.6-liter four cranking out 197 edgy horsepower and putting the power to the pavement through the front wheels.
Normally, that's not a formula for fun — a healthy wave of horsepower and torque engulfing the front wheels.
But differentials have gotten so sophisticated that torque steer just isn't much of an issue.
The engine in the ST comes alive with a muted snarl and pulls strongly away from stops, free also of any noticeable turbo lag.
At about 2,500 rpm, the engine surges into the meaty part of its power band, romping to 60 mph in 7 seconds, according to Car and Driver.
And it feels even faster, crackling with the intensity you only get in a good road car, and able even to pull smoothly at 75 mph in sixth gear — a decent feat for a compact.
You probably won't do a lot of that in the ST. The car's light clutch and positive shifter are so good that it's more fun to downshift a couple of times and play with the gearbox, spurring the engine to its 6,400 rpm red line.
As good as it feels in a straight line, the ST excels in corners, turning into curves with almost rear-wheel-drive aggression and precision.
The suspension — and ride — are stiff, so the body barely flinches in hard, fast corners, and the little sedan will drift lightly before it lapses into understeer.
But even nearing the limit, the ST maintains good balance and composure.
And thanks to lightning-quick steering with a hefty, reassuring feel, you will be tempted at every curve in the road — just like lots of good things in life.
Go ahead and enjoy it. The ST is rated at 26 miles per gallon in town and 35 on the highway. No matter how western you get, it will usually still deliver more than 20 mpg.
What more can you ask, especially for $25,500?
Actually, I would have preferred a slightly less flinty ride and an interior that didn't shout "happy Halloween, heathen" every time I opened the door.
But that's relatively minor stuff. The black-and-orange interior in my ST came with the extrovert "molten orange" exterior.
Fortunately, it still offered some interesting shapes. A deep, rolling black dashboard included a quirky squared-off hood over the tachometer and speedometer.
The ST also flashed a busy center stack that had its own hood, looking kind of like some small house on a blackland prairie.
Still, most everything on the center stack was fairly functional and easy to use.
As you might expect in a car at this price point, the black door panels were mostly plastic with cloth inserts on the armrests. Just ignore the shocking orange-suede centers in the front seats. Focus on the fact that they are Recaros that provide excellent support.
The ST, of course, is happiest with few people aboard and a minimum amount of weight to lug.
But if you have to lug your in-laws somewhere, the back seat has surprisingly good headroom and acceptable legroom.
I just hope the ST and other really entertaining small cars can survive this bout of $2-a-gallon gas.
Four-dollar-a-gallon gas prompted the engineering and design that went into the ST.
With sales of the Fiesta fairly flat, Ford may be tempted someday to take all of the goodness in the ST and try to transfer it to a bigger, more profitable crossover.
So we may need to stash the ST in someone's garage until Wall Street and Big Oil can push the price of gas back over $4 a gallon.
2015 Ford Fiesta ST
Type of vehicle: Four-passenger, front-wheel-drive, four-door hatchback
Price as tested: $25,530
Fuel economy: 26 miles per gallon city, 35 highway
Weight: 2,745 pounds
Engine: Turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder with 197 horsepower and 202 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Performance: 0 to 60 mph in 7 seconds
SOURCES: Ford Motor Co.; Car and Driver