FORD has entered the small SUV market with a bang, its trendy city-centred EcoSport positioning itself for a large slice of the fastest-growing sector of the sports utility market.
Based on the popular Fiesta, this latest addition with its high-riding position, competitive entry price and striking looks presents a further choice for those who want a small car and a crossover experience without any intention or desire to leave the bitumen.
But it is Ford's 1.0-litre Ecoboost three-cylinder engine, one of two options in the EcoSport, that is generating the most interest. The compact, feisty unit was best in its class at the International Engine of the Year awards over the past two years and certainly lives up to its billing.
The style department was quite obviously allowed some freedom with the EcoSport and the trendy interior is funky enough to appeal to its target market.
The console is unquestionably Ford, slightly angled towards the driver and with the rhomboid air vents and button controls that are found in other vehicles in this stable.
It is easy to see where money has been spared, the embossed patterns failing to disguise the cheap, sometimes ill-fitting plastics that tend to be the norm in cheaper small cars.
The raised ride affords excellent visibility, allowing you to feel like you are in a much bigger vehicle.
The leather seats with their modern contrast stitching are fairly comfortable, made more so by the extra lumbar support, although they are best suited to drives less than a couple hours' long. It felt quite tight upfront when the other half was driving, his wide shoulders encroaching on my personal space without any effort.
The EcoSport is tall but narrow - great for headroom, not so much for the legs.
While there is adequate room for the driver, those in the rear will struggle to stretch out if they are on the tall side.
The steering wheel is nice to the touch, with your fingers finding a good resting spot along the horizontal bar, as is the gear stick, which fits comfortably in the palm of the hand and is easy to shift.
Boot space, helped by the fact the spare tyre is mounted on the outside, is still small for this class but we found the 346 litres adequate enough for a short family getaway.
On the road
The EcoSport is available with a 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine in both auto and manual, and the surprising 1.0-litre Ecoboost three-cylinder with a manual transmission only.
We had the latter for a couple of weeks and the sweet little engine proved to be a real fun drive, especially around town, for which it is designed.
With 170Nm of torque from 1400rpm, grunt comes quickly to this eye-opening machine. It manages to negotiate most challenges easily, even under load.
The manual gearbox is quite slick and smooth, while the electrically power-assisted steering is as you would expect - pretty light with limited feedback.
The EcoSport is poised and confident, a little drifty around tight
bends but only if pushed, and a good turning circle makes for excellent manoeuvrability. It may be based on the Fiesta but the EcoSport has that chunky, assured feeling about it, allowing for much more confidence in the concrete jungle. It is quiet too, with little road noise penetrating the cabin.
It can get up when needed, finding the speed to hold its own on the open road.
The soft-roader is driven by the front wheels only, which certainly scratches any bush bashing off the list. Ford says the EcoSport is good for a wading depth of half a metre but our bet is that you are unlikely to chance it, while the only climbing of any kind will be limited to pesky kerbs.
What do you get?
Our top-of-the-range Titanium came with most of the necessities including roof rails, 16-inch alloy wheels, auto headlights, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry with push-button start, Sync entertainment system with Bluetooth capability, cruise control, climate control and reverse sensors.
Safety comes courtesy of seven airbags, anti-lock brakes, along with stability and traction control. There is no reverse camera or sat nav.
The wide door openings make it easy to enter and exit, and of course the good seating position is also an advantage. But there are a few inconvenient omissions too, like the lack of rear air vents and grab handles, and doors that have to be really slammed shut.
While the side-hinged tailgate sets it apart from the competition, it can make access difficult, especially if there is a limited space close behind you in a car park.
To compound matters, the tailgate opens to the left, meaning that kerbside loading is impossible, which is fine in the safety of your driveway but a little more perilous when you have to step into busy traffic to deposit your shopping.
There are a few city SUVs that could rain on the EcoSport's parade including the Holden Trax (from $23,490), Nissan Juke (from $21,990) and Peugeot 2008 (from $21,990).
The Renault Captur is also expected to launch later this year and is likely to be priced less than $20,000.
Official combined figures stand at 5.7 litres/100km and although the best we achieved was 6.3L/100km, it is a more than satisfactory output. Ford offers capped-price servicing.
Despite its Fiesta underpinnings, the EcoSport has been fashioned to look more like the Territory, a fact noticeable not only in its stance but also in the rounded nose and pronounced grille.
These features combine nicely with a creased high beltline, snazzy lighting and chrome highlights for a small SUV that looks fun and funky.
What matters most
What we liked: Easy fun drive, trendy looks, fantastic award-winning 1.0-litre engine.
What we'd like to see: Reverse camera and sat nav, automatic transmission Ecoboost option.
Warranty and servicing: Three-year/100,00km warranty. Service intervals are 12 months or 15,000km. Servicing is capped for up to seven years or 130,000km, average price is $261.
Model: Ford EcoSport Titanium.
Details: Five-door front-wheel-drive small SUV.
Engine: 1.0-litre Ecoboost three-cylinder petrol generating maximum power of 92kW @ 6000rpm and peak torque of 170Nm between 1400-4500rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed manual.
Consumption: 5.7 litres/100km (combined average).
Bottom line plus on-roads: $22,290; Titanium $25,790 (as tested).
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