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Future models - Ford - EcoSport

First drive: Behind the wheel of the Ford EcoSport

Shift up: The tiny 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo engine available in the EcoSport is a ripper, but the lack of an auto option will hurt sales, with self-shifters consigned to an older atmo 1.5 petrol.

We trek to India for a spin in Ford’s new EcoSport mini-SUV and return impressed

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Ford logo14 May 2013

By MIKE COSTELLO

AUSTRALIA’S burgeoning sub-compact city SUV market is poised to heat up in a big way over the next 12 months, and Ford’s Fiesta-based EcoSport will be right in the thick of the action.

The high-riding light hatch will arrive in showrooms at the end of this year, kicking off around the low-$20,000 mark – at least $5000 beneath the larger Kuga – and going toe-to-toe with several all-new rivals to be launched in the coming months.

Australians will by year’s end have a choice between such micro-sized SUVs as the Holden Trax, Opel Mokka, Nissan Juke, Peugeot 2008 – as well as the EcoSport – with the chic Renault Captur to follow a few months later.

All of these models are smaller and will be cheaper than more established small and compact SUVs, and are not seen as traditional family car replacements like their larger siblings, but rather as jacked-up versions of the city-sized micro-cars on which most of them are based.

Car-makers have been down this road before – the Daihatsu Terios and original Holden Cruze (based on the Suzuki Ignis) spring to mind – but it seems the world has finally come around to the idea in earnest, with much of this push coming from developing nations: the EcoSport is made in India and was developed in Brazil.

It may still be more than half a year away from our shores, but we’ve been given an opportunity to spend some time behind the wheel in the subcontinent.

Ford’s focus on emerging markets is obvious. The EcoSport has 200mm of ground clearance (more than a Honda CR-V) and more than 550mm of wading depth – which the company says is perfect for monsoonal weather and dodgy roads.

However, the car will eventually go on sale in more than 100 countries, including most of Europe, where Ford will instead leverage its high driving position and chunky wagon styling – replete with an old-school spare wheel on the tailgate – as key selling points to urban dwellers.

The EcoSport looks terrific in the metal. It would be stretch to call its styling macho, but not a stretch to label it a shrunken Territory, especially from the front.

At a tick under 4000mm long, the baby Ford is a little smaller than even its downsized rivals – bar the oddball Juke – but offers good headroom and legroom in the rear for even this correspondent’s circa two-metre frame.

The lack of an underfloor spare naturally adds depth to the loading space. With the 60:40 split-fold rear seats tumbled forward, there is more than 705 litres of capacity – enough, as Ford oddly points out, for a fair-sized washing machine – and a respectable 360L with the back seats up.

However, the side-hinged rear door opens from the right-hand side, which in a right-hand-drive market such ours is the wrong side – if you parallel park on the roadside, you have to walk close to the blacktop to open it up.

The cabin also features no fewer than nine bottle holders, a chilled glovebox and a drawer underneath the front seats designed for storing a laptop.

Moving up to pointy end of the cabin, the instrument fascia is the same as that in the entry-level Focus and Kuga. Everything is situated where it should be, but our test car had a few minor quality niggles (a wobbly bit of plastic above the steering column, for example), and the surfaces themselves were hard and a little cheap.

We are told the cars we drove were pre-production prototypes, meaning they were almost – but not quite – representative of stock that will roll into Australian dealerships. We’ll withhold full judgement until the local launch, but we hope Ford ups the ante on this front.

Commendably, Ford’s promise to trickle its effective Microsoft-developed Sync infotainment system down to even the lower reaches of its range has come to fruition. All EcoSports will have voice control, Bluetooth audio and ‘emergency assistance’, which calls paramedics and reports GPS co-ordinates in a crash.

While Australian specifications will be finalised closer to its local launch, high-grade versions pushing $30,000 will be fitted with alloy wheels, automatic headlights and wipers, foglights, rear parking sensors, climate control, leather seats and push-button start.

Ford will offer two petrol engines – a cracking 92kW/170Nm 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo and a 82kW/140Nm 1.5-litre – but will, like many rivals in Australia, leave serious off-road pretensions at the door by limiting the car to front-wheel-drive configuration (unlike Brazil).

We’ve wanted to drive the tiny triple for a while now – it won last year’s International Engine of the Year award and will be added to the Fiesta range by year’s end – and first impressions are strong, with one notable caveat.

Like virtually all modern three-pots, it brims with character, with an offbeat note and a wide power and torque curve. Times have have changed, downsized engines are in vogue, and this is one of the best. It’s also refined, with Ford having overcome the inherent lack of balance of a three-cylinder unit.

However, Ford has no plans to offer any gearbox other than a five-speed manual, since most large EcoSport markets favour DIY transmissions. The unit lacks a ratio, and is subsequently geared tall, but the shift action is well-weighted and positive.

Yet the lack of an automatic will make it hard for Ford Australia to market the 1.0-litre as its ‘premium’ offering in Australia, where automatics dominate SUV sales, despite the engine’s sophistication.

Those hunting for an auto shifter will need to go with the 82kW/140Nm 1.5 litre petrol four which consumes 6.4 litres per 100km on the combined test cycle. We didn’t get a chance to drive it, and won’t until year’s end.

A 67kW/204Nm 1.5-litre turbo-diesel will be offered elsewhere, but will not make it to Australia in the foreseeable future.

The three-cylinder petrol engine uses only 5.3L/100km, and Ford reckons this is low enough, and sees insufficient demand for a pricier and heavier, but hardly less frugal, diesel.

Indian roads, even in the comparatively empty areas surrounding the seaside region of Goa, are wild in comparison to what we see in Australia. But even with teaming confusion on all sides, it’s clear the little SUV takes after its Fiesta brother when it comes to ride and handling.

The electric steering is light but quick, and firms up at speed, bodyroll and head-toss are negligible, the ride felt composed – remember, it was designed for developing markets with rutted roads – and on the scant twisting tarmac we encountered turn-in was sharp.

The Indian-market tyres on our test cars let go early, and had a subsequent propensity to squeal – let’s hope Ford Australia fits some better hoops to ours.

It won’t be until early next year, when most of the impending mini-SUVs are on the market, that we will be able to get a full idea of where the EcoSport sits in the overall pecking order.

The fact the Ford is sourced in India means it ought to undercut its European rivals, and its chic styling, sharp dynamics and roomy cabin indicate it should give them a shake-up.

But the lack of an auto option with the so-called ‘flagship’ EcoBoost turbo engine is certain to hurt sales.

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