Ford Puma ST: green machine
THE hot hatch – particularly those based on smaller sedans – has been going through the doldrums for some time, with established brands abandoning the specialist sector, writes William Scholes.
Market trends have shifted from rorty fun machines to calmer fare with a greater emphasis on eco-friendly credentials than 0-60mph times.
That’s just as it should be, especially before battery power became as common as gasoline engines in this part of the market.
But don’t be afraid. The hot hatch flame may flicker, but there’s at least one place where it still burns brightly – in your local Ford showroom.
Ford has remained true to the faith that has seen it serve up shiny, fast, fun and affordable cars for generations. Since the 1960s it has delivered nearly as many ‘hot’ cars as 10 Downing Street has held parties during the pandemic, from the Lotus Cortina and Escort Mexico to the Sierra Cosworth and Fiesta XR2, with many more on the way of road.
Today, the Fiesta ST is one of the best enthusiast cars that any amount of money can buy. It’s a wonderful little thing, with sparkling handling, a hyperactive engine and a feel-good factor that cars with six-figure price tags struggle to match.
However, buyers are generally moving away from traditional hatchbacks, which in some cases are hemorrhaging sales to their crossover and SUV counterparts.
This is clearly demonstrated by Ford himself; Year after year, the Fiesta is almost perpetually the best-selling car in the UK. But last year, in a stunning reversal of fortune, it dropped out of the top 10 altogether. Instead, Ford’s most popular model of 2021 was the Fiesta’s top sibling, the Puma.
From the moment it was announced, a hot version of the Puma was inevitable. And here it is – very lean, mean and – in the case of the test car – painted Kermit the Frog green (yours for £525).
The Puma ST is, as you might expect – and, dare I say, hope – a Fiesta ST with a bigger body. You get the same mechanics, although the Puma’s suspension has been specifically tuned for its higher ride height.
That means a 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine with 197 hp and a hefty 236 lb-ft of torque. The engine is arguably the star of the Puma ST’s entertaining spectacle – it’s an urgent, smooth and seemingly unburstable device capable of throwing the Puma with a vigor that belies its cylinder count and displacement.
Ford quotes a 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds, which is pretty quick for a small SUV, but in fact feels even quicker once in motion. Top speed is an obviously irrelevant 137 mph.
For such a powerful little car, it’s also remarkably frugal – drive (reasonably) sensibly and you’ll get 40 mpg. CO2 emissions are estimated at 155g/km.
A six-speed manual transmission is your only choice. A large metal button tops the lever, adding a touch of occasion to the experience. The gearbox isn’t Mazda-slick, but has a pleasingly mechanical weight to its action. It suits the car and its character to be taken by the scruff of the neck.
Like the Fiesta, the Puma is decidedly front-wheel drive. And, like the Fiesta ST, you can spec your Puma ST with a mechanical limited-slip differential as part of a £950 ‘performance pack’ which also brings launch control and a ‘performance shift indicator and light’. “. You’ll want the fancy differential for the extra agility and traction it gives the Puma; the rest of the “pack”, less.
The wheels are 19-inch alloy, and the front axle grips tenaciously. This is a smooth and fun car to cruise down your favorite back road.
Like all the best fast cars, it involves you deeply in the driving experience, with faithful and predictable handling, but also a game that allows the driver to further modify the attitude of the car in the corners by the way he apply the brakes and the accelerator. It’s the 3D ride, giving the Puma ST a depth and texture that really sets it apart.
The suspension is rather stiff, an impression reinforced by some particularly unforgiving Recaro bucket seats. These have been deeply bolstered and will, I can only imagine, be a deciding factor for more potential customers who are more, er, generously padded than the seats.
Still, it suits the Puma ST’s personality and sense of drama and purpose. There are some slick digital instruments on the dash, Ford’s infotainment is idiot-proof, and the car is generally well-equipped. The steering wheel is a chunky, flat-bottomed affair – “hold on tight,” it shouts.
Like the windscreen and the seats, the steering wheel is heated, a refinement that I appreciate more and more as I get older…
The Puma is, obviously, a bigger and more practical car than the Fiesta. This is felt on the back seat but especially in the trunk, the volume of which is generous at 456 litres, or 1,216 liters if the seats are lowered. For reference, the figures for a Fiesta are 292/1,093 liters with the larger-sized Focus holding 375/1,320 litres.
One standout feature, carried over from other Puma models, is a fixture that Ford calls the ‘MegaBox’, a name that instead conjures up visions of something you might get from a takeout when the ‘bargain bucket’ is not big enough for you.
The MegaBox is a deep storage well under the floor of the boot, which is not only waterproof but also incorporates a drain, meaning it’s ideal for carrying things like muddy boots without messing up the rest of the boot, or for carrying larger items that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to accommodate. All this versatility, however, comes at the expense of a spare wheel.
The Puma ST retails for just under £30,000. Add the performance pack, metallic paint and other options – such as the ‘driver assistance pack’ for its enhanced safety kit – and your junior SUV hot-rod will soon cost £32,000.
That, whichever way you look at it, sounds like a lot of money – and in the same territory as the Toyota GR Yaris, which is a one-of-a-kind small performance car dripping with motorsport tech from the stage of the rally.
But the Yaris is a three-door hatch of uncompromising virtue. It’s a bit complete, where the Puma is a five-door family car to be used all the time.
Puma’s closest rival in the small SUV category is the Hyundai Kona N, with Hyundai being the other automaker that seems determined to persevere with small family cars for the avid driver. But it’s even more expensive, costing just under £36,000, and is considerably more powerful (276bhp) and comes with a dual-clutch automatic gearbox.
So the Puma ST may seem expensive, but it’s still cheaper or more convenient than the alternatives. Which, seen another way, means you can even call it good value for money…