Ford Puma ST: Green machine
THE hot hatch - especially those based on smaller hatchbacks - has been going through the doldrums for a while, with established marques abandoning the specialist sector, writes William Scholes.
Market trends have shifted away from rorty fun machines to more sedate fare with a greater focus on eco-credentials than 0-60mph times.
That's entirely as it should be, particularly before battery power becomes as commonplace as petrol engines in this part of the market.
But fear not. The hot hatch flame may be flickering, but there is at least one place where it still burns strongly - in your local Ford showroom.
Ford has kept loyal to the faith that has seen it serve up brilliant fast, fun and affordable cars for generations. Since the 1960s, it has delivered almost as many 'hot' cars as 10 Downing Street has hosted parties during the pandemic, from the Lotus Cortina and Escort Mexico to the Sierra Cosworth and Fiesta XR2, and many, many others along the way.
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 fizzy handling, a hyperactive engine and a feel-good factor that cars with six-figure price tags struggle to match.
However, buyers are generally drifting away from traditional hatchbacks, which are in some cases haemorrhaging sales to their crossover and SUV counterparts.
This is vividly demonstrated by Ford itself; year in, year out, the Fiesta is almost perpetually the UK's best-selling car. But last year, in an astonishing reversal of fortunes, it dropped out of the top 10 altogether. Instead, Ford's most popular model in 2021 was the Fiesta's higher-riding sibling, the Puma.
From the moment it was announced, a hot version of the Puma was inevitable. And here it is - looking very lean, mean and - in the case of the test car - painted in Kermit the Frog green (yours for £525).
The Puma ST is, as you might expect - and, I dare say, hope - a Fiesta ST with a bigger body. You get the same mechanicals, though the Puma's suspension has been specifically fettled for its higher ride height.
That means a three-cylinder 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine with 197bhp and a chunky 236lb ft of torque. The engine is arguably the star of the Puma ST's entertaining show - it's an urgent, sweet-revving and seemingly unburstable device, capable of flinging the Puma with a vigour that belies its cylinder count and cubic capacity.
Ford quotes a 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds, which is brisk enough for a small SUV, but if anything it feels even quicker once on the move. Top speed is an obviously irrelevant 137mph.
For such a potent little car, it's also remarkably frugal - drive (reasonably) sensibly and you'll get 40mpg. CO2 emissions are rated at 155g/km.
A six-speed manual gearbox is your only choice. A chunky metal knob tops the lever, adding a sense of occasion to the experience. The gearbox isn't Mazda-slick, but does have a pleasingly mechanical heft to its action. It suits the car and its take-it-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck character.
Like the Fiesta, the Puma is resolutely front-wheel-drive. And, like the Fiesta ST, you can specify 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 light and indicator'. You will want the fancy diff for the extra agility and traction it lends the Puma; the rest of the 'pack', less so.
Wheels are 19-inch alloys, and the front axle grips tenaciously. This is a fluid, entertaining car to punt along your favourite back road.
Like all the best quick cars, it involves you deeply in the driving experience, with faithful, predictable handling but also a playfulness that allows the driver to further alter the car's attitude in corners by how they operate the brakes and throttle. This is driving in 3D, giving the Puma ST a depth and texture that truly sets it apart.
Suspension is on the stiff side, an impression enhanced by some particularly unforgiving Recaro bucket seats. These have deep bolstered and will, I can only imagine, be a deal-breaker for more potential customers who are more, erm, generously upholstered than the seats.
Still, it suits the personality of the Puma ST and its sense of drama and purpose. There are some snazzy digital instruments on the dashboard, 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 screams.
Like the windscreen and seats, the wheel is heated - a refinement I'm increasingly appreciative of as I get older...
The Puma is, obviously, a larger and more practical car than the Fiesta. You feel it in the back seat but mostly in the boot, which has a generous volume of 456 litres, or 1,216 litres if you drop the seats. For reference, a Fiesta's figures are 292/1,093 litres with the next-size-up Focus holding 375/1,320 litres.
One noteworthy feature, carried over from other Puma models, is a fixture Ford calls the 'MegaBox', a name which rather evokes visions of something you might get from a takeaway when the 'bargain bucket' isn't big enough for you.
The MegaBox is a deep storage well under the boot floor, which is not only waterproof but also incorporates a drain, meaning it's ideal for lugging around things like muddy wellies without messing up the rest of the boot, or carrying taller objects you wouldn't otherwise be able to accommodate. All this versatility comes at the expense of a spare wheel, though.
The Puma ST retails at just under £30k. 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 be nudging £32k.
That, whatever way you look at it, feels like a lot of money - and in the same territory as the Toyota GR Yaris, which is a once-in-a-generation small performance car dripping in motorsport tech from the rally stage.
But the Yaris is a three-door hatch of uncompromising virtue. It's a little full-on, where the Puma is a five-door use-it-all-the-time family car.
The Puma's closest rival in the small SUV class is the Hyundai Kona N, Hyundai being the other car-maker that seems to be determined to persevere with small family cars for the enthusiast driver. But it is more expensive again, costing just shy of £36k, and is considerably more powerful (276bhp) and comes with a double-clutch automatic gearbox.
So the Puma ST might seem expensive, but it's still cheaper or more practical than the alternatives. Which, looked at another way, means you can even call it value for money...