The new Ford Puma ST provides the most fun it’s possible to have in a crossover
4.5 out of 5
One thing is clear: in the Puma ST, Ford has created the best-handling compact SUV on the market – and by some margin. If an SUV is a must-have, it’s also a bit of a bargain. True, it’s more expensive than the Fiesta ST with which the Puma ST shares so much – and not quite as thrilling to drive – but if this is the sort of car you want, it’s the best of its type.
The arrival of a new Fast Ford always fills us with a little bit of joy. Whether the Blue Oval’s ST division turns its attention to the Fiesta, the Focus or – going back a good few years – the Mondeo, it’s seemingly very rare for those engineers to have an off day.
Now they’ve turned their attention to the latest Puma. But giving the hot treatment to a compact SUV might leave you wondering if this is a step too far for the ST division.
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There are a couple of hot compact SUVs already on the market – the Volkswagen T-Roc R and the scorching Audi SQ2 for example. Both have much greater firepower than the Puma, but if the ST division’s recent form is anything to go by, then the Puma won’t be lacking when it comes to the grin-factor.
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It’s certainly got a solid starting point. All Pumas share much of their underpinnings with the Fiesta supermini, and the hottest Puma borrows heavily from the brilliant Fiesta ST hot hatchback. In other words, there’s an identical 1.5-litre three cylinder turbocharged engine sitting under the bonnet, making the same 197bhp and 320Nm of torque as the Fiesta ST.
As with that car, drive is sent to the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox. There is one subtle change to the powertrain, however: the Puma’s exhaust note is tuned to be ever so slightly less lairy than its supermini relative’s. That’s a nod to the fact that this, fundamentally, is designed to work as a more practical family car.
Like the engine and transmission layout, the suspension system is largely similar to the Fiesta’s, too. As such, the Puma is stiffened up all round, the front brake discs, at 325mm, have grown 17 per cent larger, and the steering rack is 25 per cent quicker than the standard car’s. An optional mechanical limited-slip differential works in tandem with a torque-vectoring system to help the car tuck more tightly into corners and haul itself out of them more aggressively.
The crucial difference between the supermini and SUV here is the rear torsion bar. In order to compensate for a higher centre of gravity, the Puma’s arrangement is 40 per cent stiffer than the Fiesta’s.
So does this arrangement translate into the crossover bodystyle? Well, yes. The Puma ST is an absolute hoot. In short, this is easily the most fun it’s possible to have in a crossover. In terms of agility, body control, and adjustability, the hot Puma is miles ahead of anything else in this class, or indeed the previously mentioned alternatives from Volkswagen and Audi.
The low speed ride is bumpy – the extra height seems to give the impression that the Puma ST bobbles around even more than its Fiesta sibling – but on a typical British B-road, this feeling fades into the background and the chassis really comes into its own. Whether you choose to make the most of the impressive grip from the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres, or flow along at six or seven tenths, the Puma remains a genuinely satisfying, exciting thing to thread along a great road.
If there’s one small flaw with the car’s handling, it comes from the steering. It’s wonderfully precise, but it feels very sharp – almost too sharp for a car like this. While that quick rack is perfectly matched to the Fiesta, the Puma’s extra height and mass mean that it borders on the nervous here. It’s something that the driver eventually syncs with, but we think that a slightly slower response would work better here.
Inevitably, with an extra 100kg or so to move around, the Puma ST’s performance falls short of the Fiesta’s. A 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds is 0.2 seconds behind, but in reality, it’s still a great amount of power for the road – plenty to perform overtakes when they’re needed, but modest enough that you can make the most of every last rev without doing anything silly.
The snappy manual gearbox helps to make the most of the power available, and the pedals are well positioned for heel-and-toe downshifts. Those uprated brake discs feel reassuring under foot, and have enough bite to bring things back into check.
Of course, all of the regular Puma’s neat practical touches remain. There’s a huge 456-litre boot, complete with a hose-down ‘Mega Box’ underfloor cubby, while inside there’s a decent amount of passenger room.
The ST adds some lovely Recaro sports seats, a flat-bottomed steering wheel with ST badging, some new pedals and gearknob. Wireless charging for smartphone devices, parking sensors all round, and a 12.3-inch digital driver’s display are all standard, too.
Outside there are similar bumper designs to the existing ST-Line trim, but selective use of black paint and different mesh patterns for the grille give the ST a tougher look. A front splitter adds 80 per cent more downforce than the standard car, too, while Ford says that the big rear wing and diffuser also have a positive effect at the back.
A contrasting black finish is applied to the roof, the rear spoiler, the door mirrors and the window trim, while the standard 19-inch alloy wheels are offered in two different finishes. Of course, it’s hard to miss that ‘Mean Green’ paint finish; such a lurid colour is totally in keeping with Ford ST hits in the past, but more subtle options are also available.
Prices for the Puma ST model start from £28,495. Alongside the top-spec Fiesta ST-3 (£24,575), that sounds like quite a lot for slightly more practicality but, ultimately, a little less fun. However, a VW T-Roc R costs just over £12,000 more. Yes, the Volkswagen also adds two more driven wheels and an extra 99bhp, but don’t think for a second that it offers an extra 10 grand’s worth of excitement.
|Model:||Ford Puma ST|
|Engine:||1.5-litre 3cyl turbocharged petrol|
|Transmission:||Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive|
|On sale:||Early 2021|
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