Engine, chassis, room, clever ideas. A well-rounded effort
Ford needs it, but do we? We'll just take a Focus
What is it?
This could go either way. On the one hand the Puma is a small crossover based on the Fiesta, so it ought to be fun to drive in a way very few small crossovers actually are.
But on the other hand, there's another small crossover based on the Fiesta. It's the Ecosport, and it's a bit rubbish.
In fact, Ford's crossovers are pretty spotty. While the Kuga's just fine, does anyone remember seeing an Edge on British roads? Or a Ka+ Active? Deserved flops, the pair of them, moribund long before they actually pegged it last year.
So did it go the right way?
Spoiler alert: yes. The Puma is at heart a taller, longer Fiesta. And that's pretty much how it steers and rides, with the Puma ST being a genuine surprise. But there's more to it than that, because as runaway sales of the existing small crossovers prove, dynamics have barely registered in buyers' priorities. Otherwise how can you explain the fact that 2019 was the Ecosport's best-ever selling year in the UK, and it will live on for some years after the Puma is launched?
To stand out among rivals, the Puma needs more than just driving smarts. And it has. Number one, it has some really rather clever ideas around its rear end. Yeah, Top Gear doesn't normally home in on the boot this far up a road-test. Because boots are boring. But having to leave your stuff behind is boring too. And so is cleaning out the wet carpet of a boot that's been soiled by muddy gear.
So the Puma has a big deep rubber-lined box (called, inventively, the ‘MegaBox’) below its boot floor where you can carry your mess. And when the box itself gets too wet, well you can simply open a plug-hole and sluice it out. Even when dry, it's the biggest and most convenient boot in the small crossover class.
Surely there's more to it than that?
Number two, they added a lot of tech. There's a digital instrument pack. The auto transmission version has the option of level-two assisted driving, similar to the Juke's ProPilot.
Another standard piece of tech is its always-on internet connection, used for more than just satnav traffic info. If any compatible connected car (and soon there'll be lots) in the neighbourhood crashes, or skids, or breaks down, it'll send a warning to the cloud. That's picked up by the Puma as it approaches so it'll warn its driver what's just round the corner.
Ford's engines are normally pretty handy, aren't they?
Third Puma USP is the engine. All versions of the three-cylinder petrol have 48-volt mild-hybrid assistance. Works like this. They gave it a bigger turbo for more power – 155bhp is a lot from just a litre. Which would normally have made it horribly laggy. But the electric motor kicks in at low revs and fills the hole. Then there’s that 197bhp ST version with a 1.5-litre turbo three-pot (Fiesta ST-alike), but with torque up from 214lb ft to 236. That one is front wheel drive and - shock - a manual.
The styling is softer than the previous era of Fords, with gently curved sides sitting below a waistline that's visually lengthened by a black strip at the base of the screen pillar. This draws your eye back horizontally from the bonnet, rather than up to the roof.
Our choice from the range
What's the verdict?
If it had been launched a year earlier the Puma would have been the no-brainer choice in the class. But it's got some handy new rivals: second-generation Juke, Captur and 2008, plus the VW T-Cross.
Even so, it's an impressively rounded thing. Its combination of an interesting engine, strong cornering and dignified ride are hard to match in the class, and the interior is cleverly versatile as well as nicely furnished. The ST is a fun car to drive, with surprising ability - and generally, you can see why the Puma has been warmly received by the buying public.