2014 FORD ECOSPORT REVIEW
What's hot: Terrific engine, SYNC communication as standard, surprising balance and comfort
What's not: No pricing info for Australia yet; also no auto in prospect for the 1.0 litre EcoBoost models
X-Factor: The edgy 'gremlin' lines, airy interior (in such a compact package), and brilliant engine will win lots of hearts.
Model style: Light SUV
Engine/transmission: 92kW/170Nm 1.0 litre three-cylinder EcoBoost/five-speed manual
Price: Not available (low $20,000s expected)
Fuel consumption listed: 5.3 l/100km | tested: 8.7 l/100km
Park those preconceived notions. There might be just three tiny turbo-charged cylinders under the bonnet of Ford's new Ecosport SUV, and at work in a block that can sit on an A4 piece of paper, but this is a small engine like no other I've driven.
It spins like a top, feels for all the world like a well-balanced 'four', and has the zest to match.
It's no 'hot-hatch', but learn to drive to its free-spinning characteristics and it's easily up to the task of keeping the Ecosport at the head of the traffic, and of getting 'out and around' when overtaking.
You'll perhaps forget it's anything other than a 'normal' four until you notice how infrequently you find yourself looking for a petrol station.
It wasn't the most typical of media launches, but Ford Australia took us to Goa in India to put us behind the wheel of its newest little urban/lifestyle warrior.
After just a day on India's amazing shambolic but charming roads - "there are road laws, but everyone ignores them" quoth a local - we came away with two inescapable conclusions.
One, there can surely be no more-exciting place to drive, and, two, that Ford's new EcoSport is a very important car for Ford.
It's hoping it's a "game-changer" for its prospects in the Indian and Asian markets. The EcoSport - just four metres tip to tail - has certainly got the compact external dimensions, fuel consumption and load capacity to appeal to these markets.
But it's also fun, spunky in a mini-bull kind of way, and a very capable little car. Given half a chance, you'd have to think it will win lots of hearts among younger urban buyers when it hits Australia in December.
We drove the Titanium model. With no pricing information it's hard to apply any comparative measure to it for value, but this is a well thought-out and generously kitted interior.
The leather-faced seats with prominent stitching look and feel good, provide good underthigh and lower-back support, and, at least the front seats, reasonably bolstered.
The wheel is reach and rake adjustable and the Fiesta-style dash with clear 3.5-inch display screen and nicely-placed controls is both appealing and ergonomically pretty right.
It takes just seconds to work out the logic of the controls and functions.
And while it might be compact externally, the EcoSport's upright SUV seating position, and higher-set dash, opens up a surprising amount of room inside.
From the driver's seat, visibility all round is very good. And a six-foot five colleague, with the legs of a giraffe, had no trouble behind the wheel, nor struggled for head and legroom in the rear.
What's more, that wheel on the side-hinged rear-door results in a low boot floor and a generous cargo capacity that would otherwise be lost to the spare wheel.
While the rear-door is hinged on the left (a fact of a genesis in left-hand drive markets) and can hinder access when in a tight parking space, the left-sloping camber of our roads means that it is more easily opened - and the weight of the wheel cancelled - in right hand drive configuration.
The rear seats tumble forward to open up 705 litres of load space - enough, as demonstrated to us, to load in a washing machine - and 362 litres with them in place (they also split fold and recline).
Inside, the EcoSport is very well-featured with Ford's Microsoft-developed Sync connectivity platform as its centrepiece.
It provides voice-activated Bluetooth handsfree calling and audio streaming, along with SMS text messaging and an emergency service alert system that is triggered automatically in an accident.
There is also, as standard, a digital audio system with CD/MP3 player, USB and aux-in slots, iPod connectivity, automatic audio volume (that adjusts to road-speed).
Comfort features include high-efficiency air-con (developed for hot markets), rain-sensing wipers, electric power steering with pull-drift compensation, and smart-key with push-button start.
Safety features across the range include seven airbags, ABS and electronic stability control (among a host of dynamic features) and high tensile boron steel safety-cell construction.
ON THE ROAD
With a high-set 'command' driving position, the light gearshift sitting perfectly to hand, and with a reach and rake adjustable wheel, there is no problem getting set for the daily blood-sport otherwise known as 'the urban commute'.
The notion of commuting of course takes on a whole new meaning on Indian roads.
Here, peripheral vision, decisiveness, and, yes, considerateness, are forced to run constantly in overdrive. (Bellicose Aussie drivers could lean a lot from their even-tempered Indian counterparts.)
Press the start button and the three-cylinders under the bonnet spin into life without any of the expected three-pot off-beat thrum.
By counter-balancing the cam-belt pulley and flywheel, Ford engineers have managed to 'cancel out' the inherent off-balance nature of a three-pot engine (instead of the normal practice of using a balance shaft, and thus adding weight).
And it spins with liquid ease. You are barely aware it is working at 4000rpm, and will sing happily to 6500rpm.
Keep it above 4000rpm, and it pulls with real zest.
With 92kW and 170Nm to call on, it's certainly not overly muscled. But for pulling out of a hole quickly, it's just a matter of dropping a cog further than you otherwise might in a larger four.
There is no noticeable lag to the small turbo-charger, but when looking for a quick burst of speed on the highway, you'll be hunting for third where you might otherwise drop to fourth.
The light clutch and light shift snicks neatly between gears through a soft-feel but precise gate. With such an easy action, the lack of an auto pairing with this engine might not be such an omission.
(Of course, the 1.5 litre comes with the Powershift auto as an option for those who won't consider a stick-shift.)
The steering too is 'just right'. There is just the right amount of feel from down below at highway speeds, and is light and responsive when poking around narrow corners or into parking spaces.
At just four metres long, a 10.65m turning circle and that high-set driving position, it's a doddle to spin this car through the tightest of streets and carparks.
The big surprise though is the nimble handling and comfortable on-road balance of the EcoSport. It's a bit counter-intuitive to find a high-riding small SUV with such an appealing on-road feel.
On test, even over sections with some really ratty surfacing, we were surprised not only by the EcoSport's balance but its overall refinement.
Perhaps some more familiar Aussie roads will provide a better benchmark, but we came away impressed with its ability to suppress road-noise and soak up shocks.
Braking performance and pedal feel is also pretty right. It's a disc/drum set-up, but works exactly as it should on the small, light EcoSport.
Lastly, for those who want to occasionally get this car a little closer to the surf or a little further off road, the EcoSPort has a class-leading 200mm ground clearance and a similarly class leading 550mm water-wading capability.
But it's front-wheel-drive only (Brazil get's the AWD), so don't go thinking about getting too far off-road.
FIRST DRIVE VERDICT
Was it India and its charms? Who knows, but we came away very impressed with this little terrier from Ford.
It's a real charmer, looks better in the metal than its photos attest, and, in the 1.0 litre three cylinder EcoBoost configuration we had under test, has an astonishing engine under the bonnet.
Drive it and it will rewrite most things you think you might know about a super-small capacity engine and its on-road capability.
The fact that it is a liquid smooth three-cylinder makes it even more remarkable.
Add again that the EcoSport is roomy, versatile and comfortable, and what else is there to say?
Fingers-crossed that Ford can get the pricing right. If it does, it's got a winner here.