Unless you’ve been living in South America these past few years, the Ford EcoSport will be an unfamiliar name.
With the popularity of SUVs showing no signs of waning, however, the new-generation version of the EcoSport, like most modern Fords, has been developed to become a global player.
The Ford EcoSport is also well timed to join what is currently the most active segment of sport utility vehicles – pint-sized SUVs that are based on city cars, and already include the likes of the Peugeot 2008, Holden Trax, Nissan Juke and (soon) the Renault Captur.
They’re putting SUVs within reach of even first-time car buyers, with prices similar to an entry-level small car – in the low $20,000s.
EcoSport, priced from $20,790 to become Australia’s cheapest non-Chinese SUV, is based on the Fiesta. Not that you’d necessarily think that by looking at the exterior, which was partly designed by Ford’s Melbourne styling studio and was deliberately intended to look like a sibling to the Territory SUV (most obviously in the grille treatment).
It’s certainly a tall vehicle for something that measures just over four metres (or 4.2m including the external spare wheel housings). The 1.7m height stands above the Fiesta with a combination of its higher body and 200mm ground clearance.
We thought rear-mounted spares had gone out of fashion – the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 have both ditched this once-trademark feature – though this does help to liberate more boot space in the Ford EcoSport.
(The cover is a $265 accessory for base Ambiente and mid-spec Trend (from $22,290) models – both due February 2014 – while it’s the same cost to change the Titanium’s (from $25,790) cover from a standard satin finish to the same colour as the body.)
The boot isn’t particularly deep but it is high, creating a decent 346 litres that’s 56L more than the Fiesta’s but behind the benchmark 2008 (410L).
Access is via a hydraulic, side-hinged tailgate (another feature the RAV4 has abandoned). It’s sufficiently light to open – and cleverly with the release lever integrated into the right-side tail-light (pictured below) – though its left-hand-drive focus is betrayed by the way it opens to the left.
For Australia, it means a more awkward process, for example, of moving a pram from the rear passenger door side into the back of the EcoSport. It’s also not ideal if you’ve reversed the Ford into a parking spot with a wall or another car behind.
The rear seats can’t be dropped down from the boot, either, though the two-stage fold and tumble procedure via straps is easy enough. That creates 705 litres of maximum, mountain-bike-swallowing cargo space.
While the Ford EcoSport can’t match the 38-odd storage spaces of the Territory, it does have more than 20. They include a cooled glovebox (Trend and Titanium), multiple cup and bottle holders or pockets.
Other smart practical solutions include a pull-out drawer beneath the front passenger seat, and 12-volt sockets front and rear – with the latter positioned by the rear passenger side.
Exterior colours include bright paints like red and yellow, though the EcoSport’s cabin (virtually identical to the Fiesta’s) doesn’t offer any trim colours – like the rival Renault Captur – to brighten up the inside beyond the relentless greys and blacks.
Plastics and general materials quality – including egg-carton-like rooflining – is also noticeably short of the standard set by another French competitor, the Peugeot 2008, that feels like a premium compact SUV in comparison.
The Indian-made EcoSport follows the Thai-built Fiesta in missing out on the nice, soft-touch materials that featured on the original, current-generation Fiesta sourced from Europe..
All models get safety ticks such as seven airbags and electronic stability, though independent crash safety organisation Euro NCAP awarded only four out of five stars to the EcoSport despite the vehicle generally testing well – particularly for adult occupant protection.
Music and phone connectivity is through Ford’s smart, Microsoft-backed Sync system. The voice-activated set-up can also provide audible text messages and even call emergency services automatically in the event of a crash.
The entry-level EcoSport Ambiente won't feature cruise control initially but we're told it will come within months after the variant's February launch.
Trend adds items such as foglights, cooled glovebox, driver’s seat lumber adjust, and 16-inch alloy wheels over the Ambiente’s steel 15s.
The only model on sale from December, the Ford EcoSport Titanium, adds roof rails; leather seats, steering wheel and gearlever; auto-dimming rear view mirror; auto climate control; keyless engine start; rain-sensing wipers; rear parking sensors; and auto headlights.
Ford says it is working on making a rear-view camera available down the track (it’s standard on all 2008s).
While the EcoSport’s styling doesn’t suggest it’s based on the Fiesta, you would certainly match the two up if you were to drive them back to back.
Just as Ford’s Kuga SUV drives like a high-riding version of the Focus small car on which it’s based, the EcoSport is very much a jacked-up Fiesta experience.
That’s great news for buyers looking for a compact SUV that rides well and steers brilliantly.
The underpinnings are all essentially Fiesta – so there’s no all-wheel drive here – with suspension modifications such as stiffer springs to allow for the elevated EcoSport body.
Naturally, there’s more body roll through corners in the SUV, but it doesn’t stop the EcoSport from delivering the kind of cornering balance and accurate, progressive steering that will be hard for its rivals to beat in a comparison group test.
There’s a firmness to the springs but it’s never uncomfortable because the shock absorbers are expertly calibrated to provide some suppleness over urban bumps as well as composure over country road dips.
Ford says the EcoSport can wade through more than half a metre of water, though the majority of owners will only negotiate puddles of course.
We did try the baby Ford SUV on some winding dirt roads, though, where the EcoSport offered plenty of grip and stability.
That higher seating and body also create terrific all-round vision.
The Ford EcoSport is available with two petrol engines – in 1.0-litre and 1.5-litre sizes – though the base Ambiente gets only the bigger engine.
It’s the smaller engine, however, that makes this vehicle the most enjoyable to drive. While tiny in capacity, the 1.0-litre three-cylinder features direct fuel injection and a turbocharger to deliver 92kW of power and 170Nm of torque compared with the 82kW/140Nm of the 1.5-litre already found in the Fiesta.
The 1.5L isn’t a bad engine by any means, but the 1.0L ‘EcoBoost’ engine, while not making the EcoSport especially quick, serves up a more muscular mid-range that makes for greater driveability.
There’s a characterful thrum to accompany acceleration, too, which remains refined in sound even as you stretch the engine beyond 6000rpm – making it quieter than most other three-cylinders we’ve experienced.
And the tiny motor – which can fit on an A4-sized piece of paper – is also impressively smooth. Its average official consumption of 5.7 litres per 100km compares with 6.5L/100km for the 1.5 with either gearbox (though note while unleaded fuel can be used, Ford recommends 95 premium or higher on which those figures are based).
The major downside for the majority of Australian buyers who prefer not to make gearchanges themselves is that the 1.0L is matched only with a five-speed manual where the 1.5L also has a six-speed auto option.
Ford Australia says a 1.0L auto is on the EcoSport’s agenda (and it is available in the Fiesta Sport coming in December).
That will certainly help make the Ford EcoSport a stronger proposition.
Ford still needs to raise its game when it comes to interiors, and the absence of a rear-view camera or touchscreen on any model is disappointing for a global model.
The side-hinged tailgate is distinctive but not always practical.
But the Ford EcoSport is another Ford that impresses with the way it drives, while there’s some genuine practicality in a compact package, and the pricing will certainly prove tempting for many.