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Ford Puma 2021 review: ST-Line V

As far as makeovers go, Hollywood has nothing on the transformation of Ford’s small SUV. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Daily driver score

4.5/5

Urban score

4.5/5

S FAR as makeovers go, Hollywood has nothing on the transformation of Ford's small SUV.

Based on the Fiesta supermini only sold here in sizzling ST form, but using a stretched and widened version of its platform with heavily reworked underpinnings, the strikingly styled Puma is as charming – beguiling even – as its EcoSport predecessor was awkward. And we're talking about capabilities that are more than merely skin deep here.

We're not alone in our admiration – one respected UK publication awarded the Ford a 'car of the year' gong – and after nearly a month with our range-topping ST-Line V (for Vignale), we can understand why.

But the German-engineered, Romanian-made Puma is also a complicated proposition in Australia that requires some context, because it is certainly not for everyone.

Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?

In Australia, the Puma plays in the burgeoning 'Light SUV' segment, so goes up against the ageing yet athletic Mazda CX-3 as well as Honda's HR-V, along with more recent challengers like the Hyundai Venue, Kia Stonic, Nissan Juke II, Toyota Yaris Cross and Volkswagen T-Cross. All are ready to pounce on the bestselling Hiroshima crossover.

What every one of these baby SUVs have in common is that they're based on B-segment – or supermini – platforms. However, prices and sizes do blur in this corner of the class, with larger small-car-derived rivals from the 'Small SUV' segment above, led by the Mitsubishi ASX, Kia Seltos, Mazda CX-30 and Hyundai Kona, also in the Ford's crosshairs.

The ST-Line V comes with 18-inch alloys. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) The ST-Line V comes with 18-inch alloys. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Formidable opponents indeed, and just like that, the first big hurdle appears for the Blue Oval hopeful. Puma is Light SUV-sized but Small SUV-priced, with the entry-level grade kicking off from a tenner under $30,000, and before on-road costs. That's even more expensive than the VW.

This instantly eliminates it from many buyers' radars.

In contrast, a CX-3 Neo Sport starts from just $22,890. But that's with a manual gearbox, plain interior and steel wheels, whereas the Puma includes a ripper turbo engine/auto combo, climate control, a smartphone app that allows for remote vehicle location/ locking/unlocking/starting, voice-activated sat nav, wireless smartphone charging, lane-departure warning and assist, traffic-sign recognition, driver impairment monitor, 17-inch alloys and a leather steering wheel.

It has an easy and intuitive multimedia interface and a wireless phone charger. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) It has an easy and intuitive multimedia interface and a wireless phone charger. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Along with other goodies like AEB with pedestrian alert, reverse camera, Bluetooth audio and telephony, Apple CarPlay/Android auto, digital radio, live traffic updates, fuel-saving engine stop/start, auto headlights, rain-sensing wipers, adaptive cornering fog lights, powered folding mirrors, push-button start and puddle lamps, the Puma looks and feels up-spec inside. To match most of that stuff in the CX-3 you'll need a Maxx Sport auto from $26,890.

Rising to the $32,340 ST-Line drops the Puma's ride height by just 2mm (to 164mm), but adds firmer suspension, a body kit, glitzier alloys, sports seats, a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, flat-bottomed steering wheel, paddle shifters and racier trim for a racier experience, though it loses the climate control for a manual air-con set-up. Strange. This grade might just be the sweet spot in the Ford's range, though it does sit about $1300 higher than the CX-3 sTouring equivalent.

Finally, the subject of this test, the ST-Line V, scores privacy glass, lashings of chrome, keyless entry/start, leather upholstery, climate control, premium audio, a powered tailgate and 18-inch alloys. All for $35,540, it's about on a par with CX-3 Akari, but lacks the latter's powered driver's seat and heated front cushions, among other items. The Mazda also goes one better with a $2000 AWD option from all mid-level grades up, as well as manual availability.

It comes with auto headlights. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) It comes with auto headlights. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

We recommend the $1500 Park Package, which ushers in adaptive cruise control with full stop/go and lane-centring tech, as well as blind-spot detection and auto parking. Premium paint adds $650, a panoramic roof $2000, roof rails $250 and a black roof $500.

Against compelling alternatives costing less, like the high-flying Seltos Sport+, CX-30 G20 Touring and Toyota C-HR Koba, the ST-Line V struggles to make sense on paper. Can the Puma's cabin and driving experience claw back its obvious price disadvantage?

Is there anything interesting about its design?

If you search for the 1998 Puma coupe, you'll see some vague similarities with its modern SUV namesake, especially in their anthropomorphic face. It's in the eyes. There are also hints of Aston Martin (DBX), Porsche (Macan) and – let's face it – Mazda (CX-3).

  • The real achievement lies in the way Ford has managed to make a 4.2-metre-long by 1.8m wide by 1.6m high crossover look so svelte. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) The real achievement lies in the way Ford has managed to make a 4.2-metre-long by 1.8m wide by 1.6m high crossover look so svelte. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)
  • The extra girth gained by widening the Fiesta’s platform allowed Ford’s designers to create a muscular body that could also accommodate a metre-wide tailgate opening. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) The extra girth gained by widening the Fiesta’s platform allowed Ford’s designers to create a muscular body that could also accommodate a metre-wide tailgate opening. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)
  • With the resulting balanced proportions, flowing lines and taut surfacing giving the Puma quite an athletic visual presence. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) With the resulting balanced proportions, flowing lines and taut surfacing giving the Puma quite an athletic visual presence. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Yet the real achievement lies in the way Ford has managed to make a 4.2-metre-long by 1.8m wide by 1.6m high crossover look so svelte, with the resulting balanced proportions, flowing lines and taut surfacing giving the Puma quite an athletic visual presence. After the EcoSport failure, head-turning looks were deemed paramount.

The extra girth gained by widening the Fiesta's platform allowed Ford's designers to create a muscular body that could also accommodate a metre-wide tailgate opening, while beneath the cargo floor is an exceptionally deep storage box, bringing better-than-expected practicality to boot.

How practical is the space inside?

Compact yet spacious, the ST-Line V's interior has strong as well as weak points.

Let's start with the latter. The most obvious connection with the Fiesta is in the Puma's dashboard, which is largely shared between the two. After all the effort expended on the design and chassis, this is somewhat disappointing. There's nothing wrong essentially with the fascia's aesthetics or functionality – it's just that the look is humdrum and dated. What's needed is something with the visual wow factor as found in the latest Peugeot 2008, especially at this price point.

Yet Ford has at least tried to put some tinsel inside this most expensive version of its smallest SUV.

Stitched perforated leather seat facings, carbon-fibre-look trim and soft vinyl coverings in key touchpoint areas bring an upmarket look and feel, backed up by a now-familiar digital instrumentation layout, a lovely flat-bottomed three-spoke steering wheel, easy and intuitive multimedia interface and a wireless phone charger. That electronic cluster, by the way, changes colour and markings but doesn't have the scope of multimedia displays of, say, Audi's Virtual Cockpit. It's comparatively rudimentary.

Conversely, there's a solidity and quietness as well, offering a level of refinement that's usually found in more-premium Euro alternatives. We weren't expecting that, though of course this is a German Ford product.

  • The Puma's front seats are sumptuously enveloping, offering plenty of support. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) The Puma's front seats are sumptuously enveloping, offering plenty of support. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)
  • The back seat area isn’t really suitable for people over 175cm. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) The back seat area isn’t really suitable for people over 175cm. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)
  • There are ample configuration options – especially for people with longer legs. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) There are ample configuration options – especially for people with longer legs. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Our test car also boasted a vast glass opening sunroof, adding to the opulence. With all this gear, the ST-Line V's cabin is properly appealing.

On the practicality front, entry and egress is pretty good, the driving position is excellent (thanks in no small part to a big amount of adjustability for both the steering column and seats), the front cushions themselves are sumptuously enveloping, while wide door pockets and a big glovebox obviously come in useful. And there's a USB-C outlet in the centre cubby between the seats. How modern.

However, rear vision out is poor, there are no seat warmers and some of the lower-lying plastics are a bit drab.

The back seat isn't really suitable for people over 175cm, as kneeroom is limited and taller scalps may scrape the ceiling with the twin-pane sunroof in situ. The latter also means no overhead grab handles.

But the backrest angle and cushions themselves are fine, even for longer journeys. Just don't expect to squeeze a third adult in the back unless rubbing shoulders won't bug you. Note, too, that the rear cushion does not slide or tilt forward to allow for a lower load area when the backrest is folded down. Pity.

There is a receptacle in both doors for small bottles but no cupholders whatsoever (how can Ford call itself an American company?), or face-level air vents – though the large dash vent outputs do reach the rear. Amenities such as USBs and cupholders are AWOL; and vision out from back there is limited by the high shoulder line. Tough if you're trying to peer out. Sorry, Fido.

  • For the record, cargo capacity is rated at 410 litres with the 60/40 split-fold rear seats erect. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) For the record, cargo capacity is rated at 410 litres with the 60/40 split-fold rear seats erect. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)
  • For the record, cargo capacity is rated at 410 litres with the 60/40 split-fold rear seats erect. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) For the record, cargo capacity is rated at 410 litres with the 60/40 split-fold rear seats erect. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)
  • For the record, cargo capacity is rated at 410 litres with the 60/40 split-fold rear seats erect. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) For the record, cargo capacity is rated at 410 litres with the 60/40 split-fold rear seats erect. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)
  • Boot space is 1170L with the seats folded down flat. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) Boot space is 1170L with the seats folded down flat. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)
  • Boot space is 1170L with the seats folded down flat. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) Boot space is 1170L with the seats folded down flat. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

The Puma's overall compact footprint and rear packaging clearly suggest that this is aimed at singles, couples, or couples with smaller kids/pets to transport around.

Still, for a small SUV, the cargo area isn't bad at all. The standard floor depth is fairly generous, with a long and flat loading area, but below that is a narrower yet deeper waterproof area, while under that again is a space-saver spare wheel. Clever. Also intelligent is the luggage cover that lifts automatically with the tailgate, as per Mazda's CX-5.

For the record, cargo capacity is rated at 410 litres with the 60/40 split-fold rear seats erect – or 1170L with them folded down flat. These figures far outstrip the CX-3.

To sum the cabin experience… it's far-better than its Fiesta-sourced dashboard may suggest, while the ST-Line V treatment goes a long way in helping justify the premium. That's a win.

Under the cargo area floor is a space-saver spare wheel. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) Under the cargo area floor is a space-saver spare wheel. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?

A multiple international engine-of-the-year winner, the compact and lightweight, 999cc 1.0-litre twin-cam three-cylinder turbo petrol unit is the sole choice for now. Driving the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT), it delivers 92kW of power and 170Nm of torque.

With no all-wheel drive option, there are instead five driving modes – Normal, Sport, Slippery (for snow) and Trail (gravel) applications, working on the traction, stability and transmission algorithms to mimic some of the benefits of AWD. In the ST-Line V, a set of paddle shifters are fitted in lieu of the sadly-absent manual gearbox.

The compact and lightweight, 999cc 1.0-litre twin-cam three-cylinder turbo petrol unit is the sole choice for now. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) The compact and lightweight, 999cc 1.0-litre twin-cam three-cylinder turbo petrol unit is the sole choice for now. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Owners of the previous-shape Fiesta S and EcoSport would be familiar with the 1.0T's smooth and strident performance, though these 2010s models used a completely different type of DCT. This was the highly-publicised Powershift, which consisted of a dry-clutch system, and was prone to a multitude of problems and failures in the petrol-powered auto versions.

In contrast, the Puma adopts a next-generation transmission dubbed 7DCT300; related to the item found in some smaller Mercedes-Benz, Renault and Nissan models, it instead employs a more-robust wet-clutch system with a higher torque threshold, so promises to be far more durable and reliable than the problematic old dry-clutch unit.

How much fuel does it consume?

The Puma's official combined average fuel consumption figure is just 5.3 litres per 100km, which works out to 121 grams per kilometre. Fitted with a 42-litre fuel tank, the potential range averages out to almost 800km between refills.

Out in the real world, we managed an exceptional 6.2L/100km, no doubt helped by an ever-eager stop/start system (which, annoyingly, kills the air-con when it extinguishes the engine; we found ourselves constantly pressing that 'off' button as the days wore on). This figure was achieved in motorway-heavy driving scenarios, albeit loaded with holiday gear and with the air-con blaring.

The Puma’s official combined average fuel consumption figure is just 5.3 litres per 100km. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) The Puma’s official combined average fuel consumption figure is just 5.3 litres per 100km. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

So, we took another, urban-focused test, in lots of slow-moving traffic situations, and averaged a still-solid 8.0L/100km.

Note, that while the Puma requires 95 RON premium unleaded, it's also perfectly happy on – and is even recommended by Ford for – the cheapest petrol currently offered in Australia, 94 RON E10 unleaded. Either way, the ST-Line V is a frugal small SUV.

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?

Tested under the 2019 Euro NCAP crash-test regime, the Puma scores a top five-star ANCAP rating.

However, this means it does not meet the more stringent frontal offset crash, side impact crash and far-side impact crash-test criteria introduced by ANCAP for 2020 model-year vehicles – despite launching in September of that year.

Tested under the 2019 Euro NCAP crash-test regime, the Puma scores a top five-star ANCAP rating. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) Tested under the 2019 Euro NCAP crash-test regime, the Puma scores a top five-star ANCAP rating. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Safety items include dual front, front-seat side and side curtain airbags (six in total), AEB with pedestrian and cyclist detection (working between 7km/h and 80km/h), lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, traffic-sign recognition, driver fatigue alert, rear parking sensors, tyre pressure monitors and emergency assistance. These come on top of anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, stability control and traction control.

As mentioned earlier, adaptive cruise control, active park assistance, front parking sensors and blind-spot detection are part of the $1500 'Park Package'. Do it.

What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?

Ford offers the industry-average warranty of five-years/unlimited kilometres. Services intervals are every 12 months or 15,000km.

There is also a capped-price servicing scheme under the 'Ford Service Benefits' banner, with the first four years/60,000km of 'A and B' logbook services pegged at $299 per visit, and then between $320 and $560, for up to 12 years.

There is also a Ford loan car program, SYNC 3 map updates and Motoring Club Membership included during that time frame.

Ford offers the industry-average warranty of five-years/unlimited kilometres. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) Ford offers the industry-average warranty of five-years/unlimited kilometres. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

What's it like to drive around town?

If the Puma's pricing is complicated, its cabin surprising accommodating and its real-world efficiency particularly parsimonious, then the upward trajectory of pros over cons continues with performance that's downright spirited.

Around town first. A small-displacement engine plus a turbo plus a DCT usually spell interminable spells of lag when all the driver longs for is an instant and measured response to a right foot flexing down onto the throttle.

But the Ford largely sidesteps such pitfalls. Though momentarily hesitant at take-off, the three-pot turbo does then get down to business in no time, with a sustained and satisfying surge of thrust as the revs grow, accompanied by a lusty and raspy thrum that's entirely in keeping with the Puma's track-pants appearance. And it doesn't let up either, with speed building up strongly through the gears, and much more so than the mere 999ccs suggest. Great for overtaking, or taking over a rapidly diminishing gap in the peak-hour derby.

Selecting Sport (a fiddly action that's located too far from the driver for safe eyes-on-the-road operation) lights an even bigger fire in the Puma's belly, with punchier acceleration and a very attentive transmission tune, slicing seamlessly through the seven ratios, leaving you in awe that a heart so small can possess such deep lungs.

If a minimum price and maximum interior space are your priorities, then the Puma is not for you. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) If a minimum price and maximum interior space are your priorities, then the Puma is not for you. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Where the Ford really leaves an indelible mark is its enthusiasm to corner just as keenly, armed with brilliantly slick steering and a planted chassis that is set up to both encourage and interact with the driver. Minimal body roll and lots of grip from a quality quartet of Continental tyres ensure the Puma can be punted about like a sporty little hatchback, while the electronic safety tech allowing just enough leeway for lots of fun before they gently reel everything back into line.

We cannot think of a more enjoyable small SUV. And, by the way, those same driver-assist systems provide exceptionally nuanced lane-keep and adaptive cruise-control intervention – certainly they're right up there with the premium SUV brigade.

Given that our Puma wore 215/50R18 rubber, on a 'sports' suspension tune, the ride around town is commendable, with ample cushioning from the rough stuff. There is some tautness to the ride, but it isn't hard or rough; the ST-Line V walks a fine line between urban-agility and surface-decay isolation. In other words, it's commendably relaxing to travel in.

At higher speeds, some road and tyre noises do permeate through inside, and those Dumbo door mirrors do create some wind whoosh, but overall, given how dynamic the chassis is, the Puma feels grown up and sophisticated.

If a minimum price and maximum interior space are your priorities, then the Puma is not for you. Especially so in the flagship ST-Line V, which may seem too small and a tad cramped compared to, say, a Seltos, C-HR or ASX.

Where the Ford excels, typically, is in the way it encourages the keen driver while cosseting four occupants (and a surprising amount of their cargo). There's a poise and maturity to the way the Puma moves that puts it on a par with or even beyond some premium compact SUVs. Even the styling is a statement. If the badges (and dashboard) were covered, you might be convinced this cat is actually a Jag.

If all that is more important, then the ST-Line V is for you. The very antithesis, then, of the unassuming and unloved EcoSport the Puma usurps.

$35,540

Based on new car retail price

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

Daily driver score

4.5/5

Urban score

4.5/5
Disclaimer: The pricing information shown in the editorial content (Review Prices) is to be used as a guide only and is based on information provided to Carsguide Autotrader Media Solutions Pty Ltd (Carsguide) both by third party sources and the car manufacturer at the time of publication. The Review Prices were correct at the time of publication.  Carsguide does not warrant or represent that the information is accurate, reliable, complete, current or suitable for any particular purpose. You should not use or rely upon this information without conducting an independent assessment and valuation of the vehicle.