► The Puma returns, sort of
► But it's not all bad news...
► It's a class-leading B-SUV now
Have we all adjusted to the new Ford Puma yet? For readers of a certain age the Puma nameplate meant a compact, front-wheel drive sports car. Not so now. Repurposed on behalf of the SUV movement, the big cat may still be based on a Ford Fiesta platform, yet it’s wider, taller and absolutely not a sports car. And now we’ve driven it.
Cynical, small SUVs seem to be the way of the world now – but Ford says the Puma isn’t just a box-ticking exercise, and it shares a few, precious strands of DNA with its ‘predecessor.’
When the Puma was first unveiled, the Blue Oval claimed it’d have steering ‘sharper than the Fiesta’s’, tonnes of clever safety kit and some seriously neat storage solutions in its chunky, compact crossover footprint. So does the new Puma keep its word? Keep reading our for our full review of the new Ford Puma.
What does it look like?
Like a Ford Fiesta, baked in a hotter oven with considerably more yeast in the dough mix. The design has a hint of mini-Macan turned up to 11, embellished by an undulating shoulder line and exaggerated rear haunch. With the black rear spoiler, side strips and grille, the Puma looks great – particularly from the rear three-quarter angle. Incredibly for a small SUV, I’m reminded of a Porsche 911 – because of the curved front wings bookending my field of vision – obviously.
What is it like to drive
It’s the fizzy 999cc three-cylinder engine you notice first, pulling you with a surprising and broad spread of punch from one so small. But of course, it has help; Ford’s venerable 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine has been modified with 48-volt mild hybrid technology, where a battery-fed starter/generator can act as a motor and ladle extra torque into the driveline.
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Replacing the alternator off the engine and replacing it with the ‘belt-driven integrated starter/generator’ (BISG) has multiple benefits, from snappier stop/start to fuel saving, but the one that will universally appeal is the enhanced performance.
The benefits are immediate, and the tiny three-cylinder engine exhibits the characteristics of a pushrod V8: it feels sufficiently tractable at low revs that you could spend all day driving around in too high a gear without bogging down the engine. Not that the six-speed manual gearbox is something that discourages interaction: shifts are clean, crisp and close. At medium revs a larger turbocharger takes over, providing decent shove until you reach the 6k rev summit.
The Puma runs on a twist-beam rear suspension with bigger shocks and increased stiffness compared with the related Fiesta; up front, the Puma’s body perches on independent MacPherson struts. The ST-Line X has retuned sports suspension, and the ride quality feels taut on the 18-inch rims shod with Goodyear Eagle rubber.
The contact patches act like a divining rod, feeding back a deep level of detail on the road surface: cat’s eyes can cause a spot of turbulence, and the Puma feels well lashed down over sharp crests. The overall feel is tense but not harsh, and tyre noise is well contained.
However, the rubber doesn’t always feel at ease on this cold, damp morning: a couple of times I scythe into a roundabout, power on, and find the nose gliding off the line. But it all comes together in one afternoon stretch across the Dunstable Downs: Normal-mode-steering carving sweetly as the nose dips and grips into corners, charismatic, e-boosted engine hustling us along, any ride tension dissipated despite the mini-rollercoaster hills.
Tell me more about the hybrid bits
Like most dual-power vehicles, the Puma’s hybrid power can be set up in a range of flavours.
In ‘normal’ mode, the mild hybrid system’s focus is on recuperating energy, which is harvested during braking and coasting to replenish the 48-volt lithium-ion battery in the boot. Kick down and the belt still whips up a torque overboost of 15lb ft compared with the non-hybrid 123bhp Puma, and on average fuel economy is improved by almost two miles per gallon. Thank the electric assistance taking the strain off the engine.
If you’d like another shot of e-boost steroids, stumble across the bank of five microscopic switches somewhere around your knees. Use one button to toggle through the five driving modes – Slippery and Trail adjust the powertrain and braking settings to enhance traction in icy or dicey conditions, Eco optimises economy – and alight on Sport, whereupon the 12.3-inch digital screen glows red and does a jig of animation.
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The revs rise and another mini-slug of overboost is there when you punch the throttle, but it’s the steering tweak that’s most welcome. In normal mode, twist the silken leather steering wheel and the front end reacts responsively, but the action feels light and therefore a touch sloppy. The Normal steering map gets better at speed, but Sport mode irons this out across the board, adding heft and positivity.
And the interior?
Ford could really do with spending a few dollars more on its cabins. There’s some welcome faux-carbon dashboard trim enveloping the digital screens and a trail of red ST-Line upholstery stitching, but otherwise it’s a painfully sober and dull place, occasionally betrayed by some hollow and scratchy plastics as with the door handles. But what you sacrifice in character you gain in spaciousness, with sufficient room for six-foot adults in tandem, thanks to thin seats with space beneath to poke your Jimmy Choos.
What other kit do you get?
This Puma is an ST-Line X, which costs from £23,645 – £3100 more than the entry-level Titanium model (there are no downmarket trims at launch). The base car has good standard safety equipment: the Puma will automatically brake if it anticipates a collision with car, cyclist or pedestrian (or in the aftermath of a crash), and will sound a warning and countersteer if you veer out of lane.
The key inches are 17 for wheels and 8 for the central touchscreen which runs Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; included luxuries number massage seats, wireless smartphone charging and eye-catching DRLs in the headlamp. Also standard is the Megabox!!! Those exclamation marks aren’t standard, but do convey Ford’s delirium at what is essentially a rectangular recess beneath the boot floor.
Ford says it’s ideal for carrying tall items like pot plants or golf bags, or dumping muddy wellies – it has a plughole through which you can hose out sediment. That’s the only advance over Honda’s otherwise identical ‘ultra luggage’ concept from nigh-on 20 years ago. Still, koi carp owners with attachment issues will be delighted to take their favourite fish on runs to the chippy.
New Ford Puma: verdict
The Puma is a distinguished newcomer in an undistinguished class, and ticks the usual boxes with a flourish each time. Ford’s crossover is the most fun to drive, extremely eye-catching and packing a really sweet powertrain if you stump up for a mild-hybrid.
To me, a small-SUV is a contradiction in terms: either enjoy the superior agility and frugality of a supermini, or upgrade to a bigger SUV if you need genuine spaciousness and versatility. Simply put, the Puma is as good as it gets in the world of B-SUVs.
(model reviewed Puma mHEV ST-Line X)