The Route Napoléon. Picturesque road-test venue for Aston Martins, Lamborghinis, Ferraris… and now this: the new, limited-edition Fiesta ST200. Question is, has Ford gone far enough to justify the hefty price tag?
by DAN PROSSER
PHOTOGRAPHY by ASTON PARROTT
light BA0344 touches down at Nice airport right on schedule. It’s just gone 2.30 in the afternoon and as we wait to disembark the aircraft, I run through our plan one last time. It’s an ambitious one. Hastily laid, too, and the closer I look at the timings, the more convinced I become it’ll go awry.
A rank of new Ford Fiesta ST200s is lined up somewhere outside the terminal building. The ST200 is a faster, limited-edition version of our favourite small hot hatch, the Fiesta ST, which makes it an important car here on planet evo. If we manage to execute the plan exactly as it’s been written, we’ll get to drive the ST200 on some of the most scenic roads continental Europe has to offer, shoot a full-size magazine feature and make it to the hotel in time for an 8pm dinner with our hosts, including one or two senior representatives from Ford. You know, the kind of people you don’t stand up.
Time is going to be tight. The plan assumes we’ll be in the car by half past three – a breezy disembarkation from the plane keeps us on track – and at our photography location by 5pm. That’ll give us until 7pm to photograph and get beneath the skin of the car and an hour to drive to the hotel. Google Maps reckons that final journey will take an hour and a half, so we’ll have to press on. There is no allowance in the plan for traffic, for car trouble, for bad weather, for a misfiring photographer or for any wrong turns.
So the plan is ambitious and there’s a reasonable chance it’ll turn to dust. At the baggage carousel I briefly consider binning it off and heading instead for a closer stretch of road – the Col de Vence is only 30 minutes away, for instance, and it’s really quite spectacular – but I’m aiming higher: the Route Napoléon.
I’ve never driven it before, which puts me in the same league as film critics who have never watched Star Wars, so I’m more than willing to take a punt on a risky plan to put that right. Several of my colleagues reckon the Route Napoléon is the best road they’ve ever driven, and I’ve just got to see it for myself.
We hurry through customs and into the short-stay car park, where we’re handed the keys to our car a minute or two ahead of schedule. Dark, moody clouds are gathering overhead, but I reckon the skies will clear as we move away from the coast. Those grey clouds mimic the Storm Grey paintwork of our ST200 (an exclusive colour for this model), which also gets 17-inch matt-black wheels with a grey accent and ‘ST200’ badging on the bootlid. The revisions inside the cabin are fewer still – grey stripes on the seatbelts and unique seat trim – but beneath the skin there are more meaningful changes.
The final drive ratio, for instance, is shorter by around 15 per cent to give more urgent acceleration through the gears. As the badging suggests, power and torque have also been bumped up, notionally to 197bhp and 214lb ft. In fact, the standard car, though quoted at 179bhp and 177lb ft, is able to match those basic ST200 figures on overboost, so to keep its nose ahead, the new model’s otherwise identical 1.6-litre turbo unit delivers 212bhp for 20 seconds in third and fourth gears, along with 236lb ft. In a car this size, those are very useful numbers indeed.
The development team has made a handful of tweaks to the chassis, too. Starting with the rear end, they increased the stiffness of the torsion beam by 33 per cent to make the car feel more agile, then slackened the springs and dampers off slightly to improve its ride quality. Similar changes were made to the front axle, including a 33 per cent stiffer anti-roll bar. Ford’s engineers now reckon they’ve taken all understeer out of the car, which should make it even more fun to drive.
Although these setup revisions were all part of the ST200 development programme, they’re not exclusive to the limited-edition model. It isn’t practicable, says Ford, to have one chassis tune for the standard ST and another for the ST200 – with 1600 Fiestas of all flavours rolling off the production line every single day, such complexities are not workable, apparently – so the new chassis settings have actually been applied to every Fiesta ST since late summer 2015. Only now the ST200 has arrived has Ford cared to communicate that fact. Of the 1000 ST200s that will be built, some 400 will come to the UK, although if the demand is there for more, Ford will meet it.
With Aston Parrott’s photography equipment jammed into the Fiesta’s boot and the fiddly satnav set for Castellane, we roll out of the airport, pick up the A8 autoroute for a few miles, then turn onto the D2085 towards Grasse. The Route Napoléon runs for close to 200 miles in its entirety, starting from the coastal town of Golfe-Juan, near to Cannes. It skirts the Alpes-Maritimes, drops into the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region and passes through Digne-les-Baines, Sisteron and Gap before reaching its end at Grenoble. The road, today formed of the N85, D1085, D4085 and D6085, is said to follow the route that former French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte travelled in 1815, having escaped exile on Elba as he marched towards Paris to retake control of France.
‘The ST200 is a faster, limited-edition version of our favourite small hot hatch, which makes it an important car here on planet evo’
Napoléon, great military leader that he was, mollified the forces that were sent to capture him and subsequently recruited them to his cause, building an army as he marched on Paris. The unpopular King Louis XVIII fled to Belgium, handing power to Napoléon for a short period now known as the Hundred Days. Then came the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, the Prussians, defeat for Napoléon, exile to Saint Helena and several other defining events that you’ll probably remember from history class.
Given our time constraints, we’re focusing on a 55-mile stretch of the Route Napoléon. From Grasse, the D6085 climbs through sequences of switchbacks and clings to rocky hillsides for 30 miles until it becomes the D4085. That road runs through Castellane and on to Barrême. It’s a pity there isn’t time to trace the full length of the road today, but from what I’ve heard, the Grasse-Barrême section is the most dramatic and photogenic of the entire route anyway.
It’s 4.30 by the time we get through Grasse, but the plan is still in shape. At this rate we’ll get our two hours of photography time and the hour we’ll need to dash back to the hotel. There’s bound to be a drinks reception before everybody sits down for dinner, I figure, and that’ll buy us another 20 minutes. The D6085 finds its way past the last of the houses on the outskirts of town, then immediately becomes interesting. It happens almost before you’re ready for it, like a film starting at the cinema before you’ve found your seat. If this had been almost any other modern performance car, I’d have been in all the wrong chassis and drivetrain modes for the first few hundred metres out of Grasse, but the ST200 has none of that. Just one mode to suit all roads and all journeys. I rather like that about it.
The view out to the left is vast, with sand-coloured towns, verdant hills and glimpses of the azure Mediterranean in the distance. Blue skies above put to rest any worries about the weather. The road itself is fast, mostly fourth- and fifth-gear stuff, but at this time of day there are still cars and motorbikes and trucks and buses labouring along it, so we choose to press on further to a quieter spot rather than stop here for photography.
To a person very well accustomed to the Great British road network, the quality of this road surface is scarcely believable. It’s just so perfectly smooth, but with good grip, and enough width to accommodate three cars abreast. The sweeping corners are sweetly cambered, too, which gives the downhill sections the feel of a luge run.
The very instant the D6085 gives way to the D4085, the Route Napoléon begins to bunch up, but the impeccable road surface remains. I’m using third gear now, sometimes dropping into second for the very tightest hairpins. These shorter corners mean I can lean harder on the ST200’s chassis and feel for its limits. It’s wonderfully neutral for a front-wheel-drive car and only in these hairpins does the front end begin to wash wide. Everywhere else it works its outside rear tyre just as hard as the front.
The road eventually finds its way into the pretty town of Castellane and past the Chapelle Notre Dame du Roc, a chapel that sits atop a 184 metre-high rock that overlooks the town. We pass through Castellane and onwards along the D4085, which begins to wind its way sharply up a hillside a mile or so out of town. That’s when the plan begins to slip.
Aston and I spend the better part of an hour shuffling up and down this short sequence, him finding new angles from which to shoot while the increasingly golden sunlight picks out the spectacular mountainous backdrop, me getting lost in the ST200’s preternatural marriage of steering precision and front-end response rate. We both let the location and the car distract us from the passing of time, so before we know it the clock is reading 6pm and we’re still 20 minutes from the location we’d earmarked for the bulk of the photography. Perhaps we can skip the starter and make it in time for main.
We move on further inland, and the road escapes the switchbacks and soon finds itself spearing across a plateau for a short while, lined either side by evergreens, before turning into the section we’d come all this way to see. The D4085 approaches two sheer cliff faces, then ducks sharply around to the right behind one of the great walls, the corner so tight and unsighted you can only creep around it.
Then opens up the most spectacular valley, cliff face reaching to the skies to the right, endless drop beyond a shin-high stone wall to the left. The grey rocks serve as a perfect camouflage for our grey Ford. I get out to peer down into the abyss towards the bottom of the Ravin de Taulane way down below. It’s so far away I can’t begin to imagine how long the drop might be.
At the far end a great arch serves as the gateway to the final section of the road, which opens and straightens on the final run towards Barrême. We turn back around and spend far longer than we should photographing the dramatic valley section, Aston climbing to precarious heights to bag the perfect angles. We’re not going to make it back for dinner.
We decide to shoot until we lose the light and go to bed hungry. It gives me as much time as I could possibly need to drive the ST200, which by now has entirely won me over. It’s just so readable and predictable, the entire structure fizzing with such detail and feel that you can find the limit of its abilities and simply hold it at that point for mile after mile. You can use all of its straight-line performance, too, which means you can extract every ounce of speed it has to give over the full length of our road. You soon start to believe no other car could possibly travel faster along here. Incorrect as that undoubtedly is, it’s an enormously satisfying feeling.
Despite the stiffer anti-roll bars, there is still a fair amount of lean in cornering, but it’s a tautly controlled sort of lean that gives an impression of the car working hard in the bends. It also ties in perfectly to the natural chassis balance – neutral, as though it pivots about the gearlever – that makes the car flow beautifully. Throughout the turn you can also feel the outside rear corner being well supported on its spring, which helps to keep the front axle on a tight line.
On these sweeping, perfectly smooth and cambered roads, that’s a truly wonderful sensation. More or less every modern performance car goes, corners and stops with a certain level of precision and control, but this ST200 matches up all of its control weights, responses and body movements in a way that aligns it with the very best performance cars at any price point.
I suppose it can all be summarised with one word: fun. On this road, it’s as enjoyable a driving experience as any you care to mention. No, it isn’t perfect. The engine serves up as much performance as you could need in a car of this size, but never with any real energy or character. It’s worth persevering with, however, as there is a noticeable performance increase as the revs climb towards the red line that rewards your efforts. The gearshift, meanwhile, has a tight action, but requires precise inputs for the fastest shifts.
On the few bumpy stretches of road that we do encounter, the ST200 feels very tautly sprung, just like the regular Fiesta ST, although it’s far from being uncomfortable. Its dynamic behaviour is basically in line with the standard car, too, but there is a touch less roll and the front axle does hold a tighter line now. As for the shorter gearing, I’ve no doubt it gives the ST200 more punch over the standard car, but the new ratios do make more sense in open, flowing sections than in tight, twisty sequences.
With the sun having dropped behind the mountains in the distance and the light fading fast, Aston and I call it a day. The Fiesta ST200 is a staggeringly good car, but on the final drive to the hotel I start to have doubts. At £22,745 it’s far from cheap, but more troublingly it’s almost £2500 more expensive, and no more powerful, than a top-spec Fiesta ST-3 (on which the ST200 is based) fitted with the factory-approved Mountune upgrade. That’s where my money would go, but I can appreciate that some buyers will see value in the limited-edition car’s relative exclusivity.
As a pairing, the Route Napoléon and the Fiesta ST200 is difficult to beat, and this day will stay with me for a long time. By the time we get to the hotel, everybody else has long since retired to bed. I’ll apologise for missing dinner in the morning, but I won’t feel sorry.
Ford Fiesta ST200
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1596cc, turbo CO2 140g/km
Power 212bhp @ 6000rpm Torque 236lb ft @ 2500rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, torque vectoring
Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Torsion beam, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated 278mm discs front, solid 253mm discs rear
Wheels 7 x 17in front and rear Tyres 205/40 R17 front and rear
Weight 1088kg Power-to-weight 198bhp/ton
0-62mph 6.7sec (claimed) Top speed 143mph (claimed)
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evo rating: ★★★★★
‘It’s wonderfully neutral for a front-wheel-drive car, working its outside rear tyre just as hard as the front’
‘On this road, the ST200 is as enjoyable a driving experience as any you care to mention’