After five years with an infinitely troublesome, but fun to drive Saxo VTS, I was looking seriously at a Clio 182 Cup, but had reservations about the build quality and reliability. Two friends who had (admittedly older) Clio 172's were thoroughly disgusted with the quality and faults of their cars, and backup from Renault UK, so despite the Clio's very impressive driving characteristics, I was reluctant to hand over the cash. When the ST was announced I decided to hold off and try one, and I'm very pleased I did.
Let's get one thing out of the way. The ST is not as quick off the mark as the Clio. The Renault's engine is an absolute screamer and goes like a missile when you give it its head. The Fiesta's is a bit lazier and more midrange orientated. That's not to say it isn't quick or won't rev - far from it, but the Clio definitely has the edge. On the flip side, the ST feels just as quick if not quicker than the Clio below 5,000 RPM which let's face it is more useful in day to day driving.
In all other respects however, and after nearly 5,000 miles of use, I cannot fault the ST. The handling is brilliant - proper old school hot hatch stuff with a bit of lift off oversteer always available, lovely, quick geared and perfectly weighted steering that is full of feel, and a general "thrash the living daylights out of me" feel as soon as you slip behind the wheel. After the Focus' 6 year reign as the drivers car of its class, it would have been little short of criminal for Ford to have screwed up here.
Like most Fords, the driving position is very natural (something again I couldn't really get on with in the Clio) and it has lovely Recaro style seats which are snug and firm, but very comfortable. The dash plastics and build quality wouldn't disgrace a car of twice this price, and coming from the flimsy Saxo, it feels like a substantially better piece of engineering all round.
The engine was very tight when new, and my car felt substantially less responsive than the 1500 mile demonstrator I tried. However, patience and restraint for 1,000 miles (my choice, not the manufacturers) paid off and now it flies. The engine is a little coarse at high revs, and there is quite a lot of intrusion when you're working it hard, but they've engineered in just the right amount of induction roar and tailpipe noise to give it a purposeful quality. It's not as sweet as the Clio's unit, but I like the fact that you can hear it working. Too many modern cars are silenced to the point of blandness.
Reliability has so far been impeccable, and to be honest I would expect nothing else at this age and mileage. The 2.0 Zetec engine is well proven, and I know several Mondeos and Focuses with this engine that have blitzed 150,000 miles without a single mechanical hiccup. It used a bit of oil in the first 2,000 miles, but this has settled nicely. I last topped it up at 3,200 miles and it's still over half way to max on the dipstick. The car gets driven hard (it just begs for it) so that's quite acceptable for me.
It's too early to comment on dealers as the car hasn't needed any attention yet. My brother-in-law runs a company Focus and uses a local dealer which he recommends, so hopefully they will be OK. The other good thing with Ford ownership is having three dealers within a 15 mile radius of my house.
So to summarise, it's a fast, fun, slightly coarse rocketship which really feels like it's been set up by people who care about driving. It's well made, reliable (so far touch wood) and comfortable enough to use daily without discomfort. Power junkies will buy the Clio for its insane engine, but as a package, and to own and pay for out of your own pocket, I would argue this is the better car. As for performance, bear in mind that German magazine Auto Bild got this car around the infamous Nurburgring Nordschleife just a tenth of a second slower than the more powerful 182.
I only use it on the road anyway, and so far I'm chuffed to bits.