The odd-looking 2018 Ford EcoSport is definitely an improved package, but it's too much of a mixed bag to really compete with the leaders of the small SUV class.
The Ford EcoSport has barely made a ripple – let alone waves – in the Australian market, despite being one of the earlier entrants in one of the fastest-growing segments in the industry.
Nearly five years since it first went on sale locally, the Blue Oval's smallest crossover has been given a significant refresh in an effort to capitalise on a class that accounted for nearly 10 per cent of the overall new car market in 2017 – with some 117,573 small SUVs finding homes last year.
Meet the 2018 Ford EcoSport Titanium, the pinnacle of the range in Australia, starting from $28,990 before on-road costs. Our tester's ticket price climbs to $29,540 plus ORCs thanks to the lovely 'Lightning Blue' prestige paint you see here.
What do you get for the spend? The top-spec EcoSport features 17-inch alloy wheels, chrome grille inserts, high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights, power-folding door mirrors with puddle lamps, silver roof rails, front parking sensors and a power sunroof.
There are also leather-accented seats, climate control, an electrochromic rear-view mirror, centre console with sliding armrest, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, and Ford's 8.0-inch Sync 3 touchscreen infotainment system with in-built navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Unfortunately, the EcoSport range is still not available with the latest driver-assistance technologies like autonomous emergency braking (AEB) or any form of lane assistance systems – features that are not only becoming increasingly standard in rival models, but also are required to get a full five-star ANCAP safety rating from 1 January 2018.
Despite this, the EcoSport retains its 2013-stamped five-star ANCAP as it is largely the same as the pre-facelift model, and because the new model went on sale in December 2017 before the parity with Euro NCAP came into effect – good timing indeed.
One of the key changes for the MY18 EcoSport is exterior design, which has seen the little crossover adopt a frontal treatment more in line with Ford's current SUV range – think Escape, Everest and the upcoming Edge/Endura.
While some will say it's an improvement over the mini-me Territory look of the old version, the EcoSport's tall and skinny body still looks a little awkward when compared to rivals like the Mazda CX-3 and Nissan Qashqai.
Add to that the rear-mounted spare wheel, and the little Ford looks somewhat of a caricature when compared to the more contemporary styling of vehicles in the class.
Funnily enough, Ford has already confirmed another update is coming sometime this year, which will see the spare wheel removed from the tailgate and relocated to under the boot floor like the European version. Interesting...
Speaking of the tailgate, Ford still hasn't fixed the issue that sees the swinging rear door open towards the right-hand-drive road side, rather than the kerb, which is a little disappointing and lazy.
In saying that, looks (and door openings) aren't everything – it's what's on the inside that counts, right?
Hopping inside the EcoSport reveals an overhauled dashboard design, headlined by the introduction of Ford's excellent Sync 3 infotainment system. The mid-spec Trend ($24,490) and top-tier Titanium feature the larger 8.0-inch unit seen in our tester, while the entry-level Ambiente ($22,790) gets a smaller 6.5-inch system that also forgoes in-built navigation.
Like the system used in other Ford models, the EcoSport's infotainment system is up there with the best in the segment. It's quick, easy to navigate, and offers the full suite of features including DAB+ digital radio.
However, there are fewer positives to list once you move away from the centre screen. Interior quality was never one of the EcoSport's strengths, and the updated version hasn't made many inroads in that respect.
There’s little in the way of soft-touch plastics, lending a cheap air to the EcoSport’s interior, though there are padded elbow rests in the doors and the centre armrest between the front seats is squishy, but that's about it.
Everything else is finished in hard, scratchy plastics that do little to trouble the more tactile cabins of the Toyota C-HR or Nissan Qashqai.
Our tester also developed a rattle in one of the air vents, and the indicator stalk creaked like old floorboards when used. The furry headliner looks a little low-rent too, while the flimsy sunroof shade is quite happy to move up and down if you push it a bit, almost as if there are no tracks for it to sit in at the front.
The steering wheel does feel nice in the hand, though, and is identical to the one used in the Escape and Focus.
While the EcoSport's cabin doesn't lead the way in terms of fit and finish, there's a fair bit of space despite its compact dimensions.
Up front, the high roofline means the driver and shotgun-riding passenger area feels spacious and airy, and that largely continues through to the back. There's easily enough space for two adults in the second row, with decent leg room – even behind a taller driver like myself – and adequate head room thanks to the sculpted headliner in the back.
However, there are no amenities like power sockets or air vents in the rear, with passengers having to make do with the small bottle holders in the doors and the fold-down centre armrest with cupholders.
Behind the rear seats is a massive 743L boot (though we're assuming Ford has measured to the roof, not the base of the windowline), which expands to 1178L with the second row folded. It's almost like a jacked-up minivan.
So, the EcoSport has redeemed itself a little with its interior practicality, but what's it like to drive?
In typical Ford fashion, the EcoSport does its best work on the road. Whereas several competitors can feel numb and floaty on the move, the EcoSport is surprisingly sure-footed and comfortable on just about any surface.
Power in the Trend and Titanium grades comes from a 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, which develops 92kW of power at 6000rpm and 170Nm of torque between 1500 and 4500rpm.
While those outputs seem a little meek, the low-down torque makes the 1368kg EcoSport an enthusiastic performer, helped by the smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission – no PowerShift niggles here.
Adding to the experience is the gravelly engine note that is a signature amongst three-cylinder mills, giving the EcoSport an endearing and somewhat sporty character.
The steering is well weighted and direct, though the EcoSport can feel a little top-heavy when cornering at higher speeds. It's definitely no sports car, despite the inclusion of steering-mounted paddle shifters, but the 1.0-litre EcoBoost does a good job at reaching and maintaining all speeds – even when loaded with four adults.
Regardless of the load, the Ford's ride is also a highlight. Around town, the EcoSport irons out potholes and tram tracks beautifully, while remaining planted and comfortable on the freeway.
Noise insulation is yet another plus, with limited wind and road noise even on rougher surfaces.
In terms of fuel economy, the Euro 5-certified 1.0-litre petrol might struggle to match its 6.7L/100km combined manufacturer's claim. We managed an indicated 8.4L/100km in a mix of urban and highway driving – though favouring the latter.
The Australian-market version misses the idle stop-start system seen in European models with the same engine, which would translate to a slight improvement around town. With its 52L fuel tank, you can expect a real-world driving range of 500–600km per fill in mixed conditions.
From an ownership perspective, the EcoSport range is covered by Ford's three-year/100,000km warranty with lifetime capped-price servicing. Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km, with the first three services asking for $230, $255 and $230 respectively.
The only additional service items listed on Ford's online price calculator are brake fluid ($80, every two years), coolant replacement ($95, every 10 years) along with the timing and/or drive belt ($1765, every 10 years/240,000km).
With that in mind, the EcoSport should be relatively cheap to maintain, though the warranty period can't match that of the Hyundai Kona (five years/unlimited kilometres).
All told, the 2018 Ford EcoSport is definitely an improvement over its predecessor, but still can't match the best in the segment as an overall package.
If you really like the look of the EcoSport, the mid-spec Trend can be had for nearly $5000 less, and while it misses out on some of the Titanium's convenience items, it's a far more recommendable proposition – as it has the same 1.0-litre turbo and excellent Sync 3 system.
However, in Titanium trim it struggles to stack up in terms of value against similarly priced rivals, while also lacking the interior quality and ambience that is to be expected from a top-spec vehicle with a $30,000 price tag.