The Puma impressed at launch; how does it fare under a bigger microscope?
By Sam Sheehan / Sunday, March 7, 2021 / Loading comments
+ Nailed it…
- Character and efficiency of three-cylinder
- Keen handling and quick front axle
- Big boot with a hoseable floor
– Failed it…
- Inescapably firm ride, especially at the back
- Narrow front seats
- Manual only (or is that a positive?)
While perhaps not as offensive to the fast Ford brigade as an all-electric SUV named after the world’s most famous muscle car, the use of the Puma name in Ford’s answer to the Hyundai Kona didn’t exactly go down a storm when the crossover was revealed back in 2019. In its defence, the new Puma does follow some established tradition; firstly by being based on the present Fiesta platform, and secondly with a front end that is clearly influenced by the oft forgotten original.
The ST has no equivalent in the coupe’s range (the Ford Racing Puma was a far more focused offering), so is freed from any unnecessary comparisons there – but it does have to live up to the benchmark set by its closest stablemate, the Fiesta ST, with which it shares more than just a turbocharged three-cylinder engine. Like the class-leading hatch, the Puma is a six-speed manual only car, front-driven and available with a Quaife limited-slip differential-supplying Performance Pack. Despite its inflated height and bigger body, the hot Puma weighs only 75kg more than the hatch.
It doesn’t face any direct rivals, either. While Hyundai’s upcoming Kona N looks similar at a glance, it’s set to be a step above with a more potent 2.0-litre engine borrowed from the i30 N. Obviously that car is a rival to the Fiesta’s bigger brother, the Focus, which means the parts shared with the Kona N will almost certainly see it rank above the sub-£28k Puma ST. Beyond that you’ll find the Volkswagen T-Roc R, a 300hp all-wheel drive Golf R on stilts that’s dramatically more expensive. Ford’s entrant provides the cheapest option on the performance ladder, which is never a bad place to be.
The spec sheet highlights the potential, with its 200hp motor producing 236lb ft of torque, 22lb ft more than the Fiesta thanks to some software tweaks in the Puma’s favour. Mind you, physics are physics so in the heavier, taller Puma, 62mph comes in 6.7 seconds, two tenths off the supermini. Elsewhere, Ford has given the crossover a 40 per cent stiffer rear beam and its own tune of springs and dampers, so as to claw back some of the dynamic sacrifice. The Puma’s advantages obviously lay in rear cabin space and boot capacity, with it offering 456 litres of room with the seats up. That’s all well and good, but is it still worthy of the Puma name and the ST badge next to it? Let’s find out…
SPECIFICATION – FORD PUMA ST PERFORMANCE PACK
Engine: 1,497cc, turbocharged 3-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],000rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],500-3,500rpm
Top speed: 137mph
MPG: 41.5 (WLTP combined)
CO2: from 155g/km (WLTP)
Price: £28,825 (non-PP is £27,875)
As you’d expect for a car that shares so much of its DNA with the hatchback, the interior of the Puma ST is recognisable from the Fiesta. But that means it’s well equipped, functional and comfortable, with only a slightly elevated driving position – determined more so by the platform rather than the angle of the seat – to separate the two from each other. The Puma’s cabin isn’t particularly interesting from a styling point of view, but in terms of ergonomics, it’s hard to fault. The mix of digitalisation and analogue controls feels pretty much spot on; essentials like the climate control, volume and heated seats are controlled via proper dials and buttons, while the 8-inch Sync 3 infotainment is super easy to navigate.
The Puma ST adds to the Fiesta’s technical pile with a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, which is standard on the variant (ST-Line models get it as well) and leaves the part-digital layout of the Fiesta looking a generation behind. No doubt the adjustable display will find its way onto the smaller car in due course, but for now, it gives the Puma a noticeable lift that ensures the interior doesn’t feel like its lacking when compared with pricier alternatives – at least when it comes to kit.
Nor does the crossover feel like its sacrificed anything in the usability department, because the six-speed gear lever and knob, admittedly large diameter steering wheel and bolstered, Recaro seats are all carried over from the hatch. (As a side note, the seats are a little narrow – a Ford trait – so any interested rugby props are best to try before they buy.) Unlike the three-variant Fiesta ST, the Puma only comes in one, well-equipped grade, featuring a standard-fit heated windscreen, heated seats and wheel, as well as cruise control, wireless phone charging and wireless Apple Carplay. They make the Puma ST an easy machine to get along with.
That’s true for the hatchback, too, but from the inside the crossover works hard to justify its £3.3k premium over the equivalent-spec Fiesta, the ST-3, with more space for passengers in the back, alongside the taller boot. Lifting the carpet-covered floor reveals a water-resistant, 80-litre MegaBox bay that’s perfect for holding muddy wellies, wetsuits or other items that otherwise might sodden a trimmed boot. It even has a plug hole so you can hose the space clean. Ford quotes 456 litres of room with the 60/40-split rear bench up and 1,216 litres with it down, which is competitive to say the least. Thanks largely to that deep floor space, it beats both the Kona and even the slightly larger T-Roc.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
The Puma ST’s 200hp 1.5-turbocharged three-cylinder engine is obviously given more to do in the Puma, although its additional torque means the crossover’s slightly higher weight and less slippery shape is largely offset in real-world driving. The EcoBoost unit possesses all of the positive traits that we know from the Fiesta; the throttle is sharp, the mid-range thrust pleasingly strong and the engine pulls with enthusiasm to a 6,000rpm peak. The Puma never feels breakneck fast, true, but it’s punchy and keen enough, allowing you to either lean into that torque band and be lazy with the gears, or, on the right road, rev it out and enjoy the three-pot’s linear delivery.
Somewhat inevitably, it’s happiest in the mid range, where a gruff, rorty tone gives the car a peppy, youthful character. The six-speed gearbox is tight, slick and fairly short in the throw, so it’s a joy to use and very easy to keep the 1.5-litre unit on the boil. The throttle map allows for heel-and-toe downshifts, although there’s no shame in passing the work over to the Puma’s auto-blip function, which works perfectly in the Sport and Race modes. Thanks to the superior insulation provided by the deeper boot floor, the twin-tailpipe exhaust’s pops and gargles aren’t anywhere near as audible as they are in the hatch – although there’s a fair chance Ford may have toned that down intentionally in the crossover.
Our test car came equipped with the optional Performance Pack, which ups the list price by £950 but adds a few key items. Most significant is the Quaife mechanical limited slip diff, which has a dramatic effect on the Puma’s ability to lay down the power, especially mid-corner. It was certainly a prominent feature of a chilly test in February, helping to pull the nose into corners and quash practically any signs of on-throttle understeer. It feels like a must-have option for anyone keen to push on in the ST, although it’s obviously less essential if you’re content with just more straight-line poke. Same goes for launch control that’s also part of the Performance Pack.
Happily, Ford’s 1.5 EcoBoost motor is just as impressive in the economy department as it is with the fun stuff. Thanks to cylinder deactivation tech, the motor will happily sip fuel on a motorway for beyond 40mpg, and even with mixed driving the engine easily offers mid-thirties economy. Buyers wanting maximum efficiency might be disappointed to see no automatic option on the table; but those happy to work with three pedals will appreciate just how parsimonious the ST actually is.
You likely won’t be surprised to hear that the Puma ST goes around corners much like the Fiesta, albeit from a higher vantage point. With its taller body, there’s naturally a little more body roll under load and the damping definitely reacts with a longer stroke to big compressions and bumps. But the character and outcome is familiar; a quick-reacting front end commands a chassis which is satisfyingly positive and naturally neutral in balance. The Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubber (with a compound specific to this model) has no trouble in keeping the car pinned to your chosen route, and the car’s quick steering rack means a driver can embrace the agility with small inputs. Like the Fiesta, the drawback is a slight oversensitivity at times, but mostly it makes the Puma feel super keen.
Ford has stiffened up the suspension to ensure that the Puma can mimic its smaller sibling’s handling character, and the results are clear enough in the way the taller machine is happy to rotate with a lifted throttle or trailed brake. It is very hot hatch-like in its intentions, which was no doubt the objective, albeit with a slightly less connected feel that comes from a raised platform. With the Quaife diff fitted, that off-throttle agility is matched by great traction. On most roads it honestly seems like a lightly wound back Fiesta ST.
The drawback of all that simmering intent is the ride quality. The Puma ST never manages to flow like the supermini at speed because the damping is wound tighter to counteract the car’s height and weight. It doesn’t needle you at pace, but at low speed, the ride is permanently frigid. It’s at least endowed with the rubberised cushioning that the Fiesta enjoys, which means it’s never crashy, but the higher spring rate and firmed-up rear beam means that you’ll notice whenever the road surfacing is less than smooth.
This effect is most prominent in the back, where passengers will likely find themselves jiggled around a little too much for comfort. Ford’s shock absorbers are passive-adaptive, so by design they firm up with load, but they can’t be adjusted within the drive modes to offer more pliancy. The result is a car that never lets you forget its intentions. This has always been true in the Fiesta, too, but by seeking to mimic that car, the taller, heavier Puma takes the trait arguably too far. That being said, the upcoming Kona N delivered much the same experience during a recent prototype drive, so perhaps it’s an inescapable trait of non-active suspension in this segment.
The ST brings plenty to the table for a car that starts under £28k, in terms of standard-fit kit, practicality and performance. That the EcoBoost motor is so efficient only adds to its supporting argument; a Kona N isn’t only likely to cost a few grand more to purchase, it’s also going to be a fair chunk thirstier by default with its larger 2.0-litre engine.
Our test car came with the £950 Performance Pack, a £600 electric tailgate and £900 worth of driver assistance features, adding radar-enabled ‘intelligent adaptive cruise control’, traffic jam assist and a plethora of parking sensors to go with a rear-view camera. With the already generous standard specification, it means this specced-up ST costs £30,325. Of course, most buyers will be lured to the ST’s PCP rates; Ford charges £373.78 per month (over a 36 month period) after a £3,000 deposit.
As for tax brackets, the Puma ST emits 155g/km of CO2 according to the WLTP, so it falls into the UK’s 151-170g bracket that requires a buyer to pay £540 in first year VED. Not cheap (the Fiesta slots into the bracket below so costs less than half that), but the Kona N isn’t going to fare any better. From thereafter, though, the rate is £150 per year, as per the sub-£40k rule instated by the DVLA last year. So the initial savings versus the pricier options are liable to become more significant over the years.
It’s pleasing to note that there’s more than just ride height which separates the Puma ST from the Fiesta. Roominess was always the supermini’s Achilles heel, and the generous boot space ensures that those wanting to mix outdoor activities or a small family with the car’s enlivening handling would find the step from Fiesta to Puma a worthwhile one. That doesn’t mean that the hatchback doesn’t outshine the crossover in most areas – it does – but Ford has successfully transplanted some of what makes the Fiesta great into the Puma. And that’s a good thing for the determined compact SUV buyer.
Perhaps the lack of all-wheel drive will hurt the car’s chances in some customers eyes, but the Puma counters those objections with its lower sticker price (not to mention the fact that most crossover’s never encounter terrain more challenging than wet grass). Mechanically speaking, the more obvious downside is the tight ride at low speed; although those making a jump from a hot hatch are unlikely to be too bothered, especially when the reward is obvious enough.
The Puma is genuinely entertaining on a B-road, which, when considered alongside its comparative spaciousness and boot capacity, is likely to be enough to convince Ford devotees. It’s a fair reminder to the rest of us too – and the wider industry – that crossovers built on hatchback platforms don’t need to be boring or overly expensive by design. Ford deserves to sell many, and it probably will. Many new owners will likely not appreciate the link to a previous Puma, but it’s commendable that the latest ST goes some way to living up to its predecessor’s reputation regardless.
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