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The compact SUV segment is more competitive and ferocious than it's ever been. Competition is fierce for the buying dollar in a segment where style is just as important as performance.
It's a segment that is growing in popularity and yet seems to confound so many Australian buyers when they discuss it. The 2018 Ford EcoSport sits right in this new battleground, taking the fight to the likes of mainstream entrants the Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3 and Mitsubishi ASX.
Those traditional offerings have since been joined by slightly larger, more stylised vehicles like the Hyundai Kona and Toyota CH-R – whichever way you slice the segment, there’s plenty for buyers to choose from. Price is key, as is standard equipment and finally style – not necessarily in that order either. There’s no doubt buyers look at style in this segment as a strong influencer when it finally comes time to sign the cheque.
The EcoSport Trend then has a tough row to hoe, there’s no doubt about that. Forget AWD, the EcoSport isn’t even available in that guise, it’s 2WD only, and the Trend sits right in the middle of the three-model-grade range. There’s no diesel either.
Pricing for the entry-level Ambiente (with a larger 1.5-litre naturally aspirated three-cylinder engine) starts from $22,790 before on-road costs, the Trend we have here starts from $24,490, and the range is rounded out by the Titanium, which starts from $28,990. Both the Trend and Titanium have the smaller 1.0-litre engine, which makes more power and torque, and on paper at least the Trend looks to be a smart choice within the range.
Standard Trend equipment highlights include: black roof rails and exterior trim, 16-inch alloy wheels, leather steering wheel trim, an 8.0-inch infotainment screen featuring Sync 3, proprietary satellite navigation (free map updates for life) and seven speakers. There’s Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, two USB inputs, DAB+ digital radio and voice command.
Ford’s choice of engine for the EcoSport is diminutive to say the least. At CarAdvice, we universally love quirky three-cylinder engines, and the EcoSport’s is light on the quirk but quite high on the driveability factor. The tiny 1.0-litre petrol three-pot makes 92kW and 170Nm, is FWD-only as mentioned, and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The ADR fuel claim is 6.7L/100km – a little thirstier than you might expect from an engine so tiny.
Styling is obviously subjective, but the one element that generated a lot of chat over our week with the EcoSport was the tailgate-mounted spare, and the weight of the tailgate because of it. A spare mounted high like that is ideal when you’re trying to change a tyre off-road in the dirt, but not quite so sensible for a city-focused SUV. There is a model revision coming, and the spare will go the way of the dodo, but it’s not all good news either – it will be replaced by a repair kit, which for Australia isn’t entirely ideal either.
You could argue that the tailgate might be better served hinging up than swinging out too. It obviously can’t do that with the spare wheel mounted on it, but once the wheel is gone, a top-hinged tailgate might make more sense, be easier to use, and offer some shelter when you’re loading and unloading in the rain.
We spent a weekend away with the EcoSport, running down the coast loaded with enough gear for a couple, and a variety of roads all the way from perfect 110km/h highway to small-town 40km/h limits and everything in between. It’s a solid test of the EcoSport’s dual personalities and a real-world situation for the buyer who can only afford one smaller vehicle, but occasionally needs it to do more than crawl around the CBD.
The cabin is comfortable but understandably compact. The front seats were excellent for a long drive, but there’s next to no room in the second row with fully grown adults up front, while storage space has been improved over previous models. One benefit in the second row, though, is head room – there’s plenty of it. There’s a decent centre console bin between the front seats, there are two cupholders in the front and the rear, and all four door pockets get bottle holders.
There are two ISOFIX child-seat anchor points in the second row and three top-tether hooks. Ahead of the gear shifter, there’s a pocket that is useable for larger smartphones, on the subject of which, both Apple and Android operating systems are catered for. We had no end of trouble with Android Auto, but Apple CarPlay worked well, the touchscreen is snappy enough and everything worked as intended.
The luggage space, however, bucks the tiny-car trend and is right up there with the best of them. The variable shelf system means you can fit deeper items into the area, and there’s a small hidden area under there too. Lift up the rear seat bases and fold the backrests down and there’s a flat area, but it does have a slight slope back to the rear of the EcoSport. With the seats down, there’s 1178 litres of storage, while with the second row in play that drops to 743 litres.
One thing you can say about the EcoSport in a sea of ‘soft’ SUVs is that it looks a little tougher than the competition. There’s a sharp, muscular look to the exterior styling, which toughens it up and ensures it looks a lot more purposeful than the likes of the CX-3 or HR-V. While styling is definitely a driver as mentioned, it isn’t the only reason you’d buy this small SUV, though, so the EcoSport needs some substance to match the style…
The engine doesn’t exhibit any of the harsh, gruff characteristics we used to experience with three-cylinder engines – in fact, it’s quite smooth. Against that ADR fuel claim, we saw an indicated return of 8.8L/100km, again a little thirstier than you’d hope for given we spent a good few hundred kilometres on country roads.
Around town – or out on the open road – the little three-cylinder has just enough power and torque to get up to speed and maintain it without working itself into a frenzy. You do need to get aggressive with the throttle if you want to get off the mark properly quick, for example, or really crank on the acceleration to overtake on the freeway from 80 or 90km/h up to 100km/h, but the engine is otherwise up to the daily drive grind.
The gearbox, on the other hand, is a little sluggish and slow, not as snappy to shift up or down as we’d like, and seemingly taxing the engine a little more than it needs to as well. Once up to speed, the gearbox behaves fine, it’s more at lower speed around town you notice the shift not being as sharp as you’d like.
The cruise control worked well on the highway, with switchgear that is easy to control and understand, making activating and deactivating the system easy too. On the road, we liked the visibility from the two front seats too, there’s plenty of scope forward, as well as no massive blindspots rearward either.
The EcoSport rides nice too, comfortable on the variety of different road surfaces we sent it over. Even coarse-chip country roads didn’t send overt amounts of tyre noise into the cabin. We liked the steering around town especially, where it was light enough to make manoeuvring the little EcoSport a cinch – exactly how it should be for the intended buyer.
The EcoSport is covered by a three-year/100,000km warranty and can’t match the best in the class, which offer longer warranties, but there is an extended warranty available. There is also a capped-price servicing plan for the life of the car, required every 12 months or 15,000km. Over the first five years or 75,000km, the average service will cost less than $300 too, so it’s very reasonable.
While both the Trend and Titanium are well equipped for the money, the EcoSport misses out on autonomous emergency braking, which is a bit of a let-down in a segment that is getting more competitive by the minute. Still, there are many things the EcoSport does well for the money too.
The old advice goes, though, in this segment – shop around before you make your final purchase decision, so you get the exact small SUV you want.