If 2013 is fast establishing itself as the Year of the Sub-Compact SUV, the Ford EcoSport ensures the Blue Oval company isn’t going to miss out on a burgeoning segment.
The Ford EcoSport will land in Australian showrooms in December, launching within months of all-new rivals including the Holden Trax, Peugeot 2008 and Renault Captur, the latter of which we drove at the international launch last week.
Sourcing the Fiesta-based crossover from India puts Ford Australia in a strong position to make the EcoSport a value leader, and pricing is set to start in the low-$20,000s as the brand attempts to attract young families and city dwellers to the new model.
Development of the Ford EcoSport was led by Ford Brazil, although its design and engineering has been a global program, with the vehicle destined for more than 100 markets around the world under the 'One Ford' strategy. For its part, Ford Australia was responsible for much of the car's durability testing and its front-end styling, explaining its 'baby Territory' looks.
The EcoSport has an unashamed urban focus. While its 200mm ground clearance (identical to the Captur, but 30mm more than a Honda CR-V) and 550mm wading depth imply an adventurous off-road spirit, its exclusive front-wheel-drive underpinnings mean it's best contained to storming over speed humps and splashing through puddles.
The logic behind an SUV based on a city car may seem fuzzy at first, but the Ford EcoSport is a terrific example of taking the best from both segments to create a package that combines the versatility, spaciousness and elevated ride height of the former with the compact size and superior dynamics of the latter.
The EcoSport is a well packaged vehicle. Tall adults won't be troubled for headroom in the rear, while legroom is only an issue if both front and rear occupants are long-limbed.
The EcoSport's 362-litre boot is on par with most small hatchbacks, and its rear seats can be folded and cleverly tumbled forwards to open up an even more useful 705-litre load area.
Accessing the boot is less convenient that it could be however, with the wide-swinging rear door hinged on the kerb side and opening out towards the road for right-hand-drive markets like Australia.
The cabin abounds with cupholders, and the door pockets and glovebox are generously proportioned to swallow 1.5L bottles and small umbrellas.
While the interior triumphs ergonomically, it is let down by a lack of polish. Hard, scratchy and at times ill-fitting plastics, a tacky feel to the centre console controls and the headliner, and a lack of damping for the glovebox drawer betray some of the cost-cutting, and place question marks against the quality of its Indian assembly.
Inconsistent panel gaps and shut lines were another undesirable feature of Ford's fleet of pre-production test cars at the EcoSport's international launch in Goa, India, although the company says attention to detail will be more of a focus for the actual production vehicles. We'll save final judgment for when the cars arrive on our shores at the end of the year.
What they lacked in build quality, however, the pre-production EcoSports made up for with confident and refined dynamics.
The relationship between the EcoSport and its Fiesta sibling was made almost immediately obvious on our drive, highlighted by the way the baby SUV keeps a car-like composure along coarse and bumpy roads. Crashing over potholes can elicit loud thumps from the suspension, although the audible impact of such hits is worse than its actual effect on ride comfort.
The electric power steering system skilfully blends a light low-speed weight for easy manoeuvring and parking with a heavier weight at higher speeds. A floaty patch around the straight-ahead position is the chief criticism of a steering set-up that is otherwise consistent and subtly engaging.
Squat dimensions help keep the Ford EcoSport from rolling excessively like many larger and taller SUVs, making it surprisingly rewarding around corners – though not on the same level as the Fiesta.
The only EcoSport variant available to test at the launch was the 92kW/170Nm 1.0-litre three-cylinder direct-injection turbocharged EcoBoost which, despite being impressively versatile and refined, is likely to be a slow seller in Australia due to its exclusive partnership with a five-speed manual transmission.
Those after an automatic (a six-speed dual-clutch in this case) will be forced to settle for the 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol alternative, which offers less power (82kW), less torque (140Nm) and uses more fuel than the smaller EcoBoost (6.4 litres per 100km versus 5.3).
We averaged 8.8L/100km in a chaotic, cattle-lined 130km loop that included plenty of high-density traffic as well as some more spirited bursts when the roads opened up.
Rather than the expected off-beat thrum, the EcoSport's three-cylinder engine produces a more consistent, sportier tone reflective of its enthusiastic nature. Though the EcoBoost-equipped SUV never feels particularly quick, it pulls strongly from 1750rpm and builds in strength on the approach to 5000rpm, all while remaining comfortably quiet inside the cabin.
It pairs well with the manual gearbox, which feels crisp to shift and is supported by a consistently weighted pedal set.
Ford Australia will offer three familiar trim grades in the EcoSport line-up: Ambiente, Trend and Titanium. While full specifications will be revealed closer to the car's launch, all models will come standard with Ford's Sync system, which integrates Bluetooth phone connectivity, audio streaming and voice control, and can also read out incoming text messages and automatically alert emergency services if the vehicle has been involved in an accident. Seven airbags also form part of a strong safety package.
While question marks remain over its build quality and the lack of an auto option for the EcoBoost variant is disappointing, the Ford EcoSport's practicality, dynamic ability, and pricing that should take advantage of cheaper Indian production costs will make it a strong contender among its segment of fresh rivals.