The Ford Puma may be named after the round-faced species of the big-cat family, but it’s very much the cub of the Blue Oval’s SUV family.
Adopting the badge used for a fun little sports coupe sold outside of Australia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ford’s new crossover replaces the little-loved EcoSport.
Ford Australia will be looking to the Puma to make a greater market impact than the Indian-built EcoSport, which wasn’t helped by an impractical tailgate and below-average interior quality.
The Puma is based on the Fiesta city car, and in Australia also acts partly as a substitute for that model as Ford imports only the ST hot-hatch variant.
Not that the Puma is priced anything like a regular Fiesta. The 4.2m-long Puma starts from a $29,990 price tag that begins higher than direct rivals such as the Mazda CX-3 (from $24,710), Nissan Juke and Volkswagen T-Cross (both from $27,990).
In a Ford showroom, the Puma also overlaps with the Focus hatchback that is larger in size and features a bigger and more powerful engine.
The entry-level Ford Puma isn’t uncompetitive for equipment in its segment, though, and navigation, wireless smartphone charging, auto high beam, rain-sensing wipers, and LED ambient interior lighting are features not found on every rival around its pricepoint.
It also comes with the FordPass embedded modem, which allows owners – via a smartphone app – to pre-heat or pre-cool the Puma’s cabin (with the last known climate setting), lock or unlock the car remotely, and check the fuel level and odometer.
However, front parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror are standard on cheaper rivals, while for just $1000 more than the base Puma you can have a VW T-Cross Style that brings adaptive cruise control, dual-zone climate, semi-automatic parking, keyless access, sports seats, and a sliding rear bench.
Adaptive cruise, keyless entry, blind-spot monitoring, front parking sensors, lane centring and evasive steer technology form part of a $1500 Park Pack for all three trim grades.
A panoramic roof costs $2000, an auto tailgate is $750 (or standard on the ST-Line V flagship), and a two-tone paintwork featuring a black contrast roof is $1150. Most single colours are $650.
The value factor improves with Ford Australia’s introductory drive-away pricing, which saves between $2000 to $2500 depending on the model.
Until the end of October 2020, Ford Australia is also offering a $500 cashback offer for buyers who test-drive a Puma and decide they want one. (It doubles to $1000 for existing Ford owners.)
Our test car for the launch review is the mid-spec 2020 Ford Puma ST-Line, which carries a $32,340 RRP and a $33,990 drive-away special (down from the standard $36,170 on-the-road price in NSW).
ST-Line brings several changes to the cabin – adding sports seats, metallic pedals, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and a sportier steering wheel with paddle-shift levers.
Analogue instrument dials are also swapped for a 12.3-inch digital driver display that looks cool and is rare for the class – if lacking much in the way of customisation as you get with Volkswagen’s version that’s part of an option pack on the T-Cross.
An 8.0-inch touchscreen is the focal point for Ford’s excellent SYNC 3 infotainment system, which brings plenty of functions, sharp presentation, and voice control (which, going against past experience, struggled with navigation requests).
For a fancy audio, though, you have to step up to the $35,540 ($36,990 drive-away special) ST-Line V, which comes with a 575-watt, 10-speaker B&O Play audio system among other extras. (VW makes a 300W Bose audio available as an option for its two T-Cross models.)
The Puma’s interior design doesn’t look as special as the exterior. It’s all Fiesta up front – not that buyers in Australia will notice, unless they’re familiar with the ST hot-hatch variant.
Yet while it won’t set any segment presentation standards, the Puma’s cabin quality is in another dimension when compared with the EcoSport’s interior.
Rear-seat space isn’t generous, with knee room for a 5ft 8in occupant sitting behind their own driving position sufficient but no more. Leg room is slightly better than in a CX-3, but behind the Juke and T-Cross.
Head room isn’t overly generous, though our test car featured the optional panoramic roof that is tempting for the extra illumination it brings to the cabin (with manual blinds front and rear for when the glaring sun is too much).
The bench is comfortable, with good under-thigh support, and for some storage there are netted seatback pouches and door sections for holding small- to medium-sized drink bottles.
The Puma lacks vents, a centre armrest and cupholders, though this is not unusual for the class.
There’s no sliding bench as you get in the T-Cross, either, though the Puma brings a few practicality party tricks with its boot.
Ford quotes 410L for the Puma’s deep luggage compartment, which is already more than you’ll find in a CX-3 or T-Cross (though the VW goes up to 455L if you slide its bench all the way forward) and not far behind the Juke’s 422L.
Yet there’s potentially more. Lift up the boot floor and there’s an integrated plastic tub underneath. Spring supports hold the boot floor in place vertically for easy access.
In the UK and Europe, the Megabox comes complete with a drain plug that allows owners to wash it out easily after storing dirty or wet sports gear in there. Australian versions unfortunately miss out on the hole and plug, while Ford Australia also fills the Megabox with a spare tyre (though some owners may prefer this to the repair kit provided in other markets).
The boot floor can be positioned higher so that you have a fully flat extended cargo area when you fold down the rear seats. The boot includes a 12V socket and light.
As with the rival Juke and T-Cross, the Puma pairs a 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine (carried over from higher-spec versions of the EcoSport) with a seven-speed dual-clutch auto.
Those familiar with the Ford Powershift saga from a few years back may be surprised the company is giving dual-clutch transmissions another crack.
While we can’t talk about reliability at this early stage, we can report the auto works effectively – and, unlike the Powershift, brings the snappy and smooth gear changes we’ve come to expect from this type of auto.
It gels nicely with the 92kW three-cylinder, which offers good flexibility with its 170Nm produced between 1500 and 4500rpm, and helps make the Puma easy to drive with good throttle response at low, medium or high speed.
There’s just a slight delay on kickdowns for full-throttle acceleration for scenarios such as overtaking, but overall it compares well with the T-Cross’s similar drivetrain, and the dual-clutch is significantly better than the Juke’s equivalent.
An inbuilt hill hold also ensures the Puma won’t roll back when parking or starting off on a hill – a particular issue with the Juke.
Ford Australia has ruled out mild-hybrid versions of the Puma, which feature an electric motor for improving fuel efficiency and have between 210–240Nm, but come with a manual gearbox only.
Our testing suggests the regular petrol Puma is decently economical. Official consumption is 5.3 litres per 100km – a bit below the T-Cross (5.4L/100km) and Juke (5.8L/100km) – and we achieved an indicated 6.5L/100km. That’s a good figure considering testing included performance and urban driving alongside country road and freeway runs.
ST-Line variants sit on a tautly controlled Sport suspension that makes for a firmer ride than you would experience with many rivals. Yet, it is also impressively comfortable in the way it brushes off bumps of varying size, with neither any crashiness nor harshness.
The Puma is another compact Ford that places plenty of emphasis on driving enjoyment.
You can savour the way it steers even around town, yet get onto a twisty road and the Puma’s entertaining chassis connects with its driver in a way that is uncommon among the SUV/crossover breed, regardless of price. (It also rekindles memories of the original Puma sports coupe for this former owner!)
There’s meaty and involving steering, playful agility, compliance at speed on bumpier sections, and strong, progressive brakes.
More’s the pity that Ford Australia has ruled out the Puma ST performance version.
The driving position helps. Although you undoubtedly sit higher than you do in a Fiesta, it’s more of a mid seating level – so it feels like you’re driving a big hatchback (similar to a Mazda CX-3). The Puma provides excellent over-the-shoulder vision, and the turning circle is urban-friendly tight at 10.4m.
The side mirrors are quite small, and ideally blind-spot monitoring would be standard.
Adaptive cruise control, also part of an option park, is effective on country roads and freeways, and the lane-departure system gently nudges you back into the lane if you accidentally wander across lane markings, including the shoulder.
Ford Australia supports Puma ownership with a five-year warranty and five years of roadside assistance. It is rated the maximum five stars by independent crash body ANCAP.
Servicing is capped at $299 per visit for up to four years or 60,000km, making dealership maintenance more affordable compared with the Mazda CX-3, Nissan Juke or Volkswagen T-Cross.
Ford Australia’s introductory drive-away pricing, however, is the biggest key to the Puma’s value proposition. With it, the Puma is competitive against key rivals, so the hope is that the deals become permanent beyond 2020.
This would reinforce a package that gives Ford Australia a vastly stronger card to play in the compact-SUV segment than with the flawed EcoSport.
The Puma has the ability to charm the socks off you with the way that it looks, and the way that it drives through an engaging chassis and a refined and responsive drivetrain. And although rear-seat space could be better, the Puma can cater for small families – especially with its cleverly versatile boot.
We’re glad Australia isn’t going to miss out on a Puma a second time around, even if it is yet another SUV.