The Ford Puma ST is one of those cars I want to hate and simply can’t.
For a start it’s a B-segment SUV, one of the most unnecessary of car segments. And it’s a performance SUV, another answer to a question that didn’t need to be asked.
But, damn it, a couple of hours at the wheel on a good road is enough to forgive this weird looking wee thing almost anything.
The Puma is, of course, based on the best-selling Fiesta and like all its supermini-based rivals takes the base car and makes it longer, wider and taller without veering into proper big family car territory.
That means compared with the compact Fiesta, the Puma offers more space for people and luggage. By class standards there’s decent room for four adults and a huge boot thanks in part to the versatile Megabox, which offers 80 litres of rugged waterproof storage hidden beneath the boot floor.
The interior is largely a cookie-cutter copy of the Fiesta’s, meaning it’s practical and user-friendly but not blessed with the most inspiring design. The ST gets contrast stitching and fancy sports seats (which are too narrow) but otherwise is mostly the same as regular Pumas and Fiestas, with an eight-inch touchscreen housing Ford’s Sync3 OS, and proper physical controls for all the major functions.
Since the regular Puma leans heavily on the regular Fiesta, it’s no surprise that the Puma ST takes most of its cues directly from the excellent Fiesta ST. The suspension, brakes and steering have been upgraded to cope with the extra size and weight of the Puma but the 197bhp engine is the same, as is the ambition to offer proper hot hatch-style thrills in a small package.
On the road, the keenness and sharpness that the Puma ST demonstrates is every bit as apparent as in its Fiesta ST sibling. The turbocharged 1.5-litre whips it up to speed enthusiastically via a crisp six-speed manual gearbox, and thanks to a combination of generous torque and sharp throttle response there’s plenty of grunt on tap whenever you need it.
The Puma can carry its pace, too, thanks to its remarkably well sorted chassis. There’s heaps of mechanical grip and the ultra direct steering offers immediate response and plenty of feedback. In Performance Pack models like ours there’s also a mechanical limited-slip differential to further elevate the Puma’s ability to launch itself from one corner to the next like an eager puppy (or kitten). Despite the silly conceit of a performance SUV, the Puma manages to be engaging and charming in a way some “proper” hot hatches aren’t.
Only the Puma’s ride lets it down. Most of the Puma range struggles with overly firm damping but the ST’s bespoke setup may prove too much of a hurdle for some. On good roads and at higher speeds the firmness of the suspension is key to the car’s impressive control but at low speeds there’s a jarring harshness that will leave you wincing at the mere sight of a pothole.
That bespoke suspension is, of course, an integral part of the whole ST package, which also brings ST branding to everything from the black mesh grille and flat-bottomed steering wheel to the door mirror puddle lights. There’s also a Ford Performance-embossed front splitter, 19-inch machined alloys, unique “dual slash cut” exhaust and bright red brake calipers. The Performance Pack adds shift lights and launch control as well as the LSD, while there’s a generous standard kit including heated sports seats, fully digital instruments, wireless phone charging, auto-dipping headlights and a 10-speaker B&O stereo.
The Puma doesn’t have many natural rivals. The Hyundai Kona N is a similar size but has 75bhp more and is at least £4,000 more expensive. Likewise, the VW T-Roc R has almost 300bhp and costs north of £40,000. So really, the Puma is competing against low-riding hot hatches like the Hyundai i20 N, VW Polo GTI and Ford’s own Fiesta ST.
The Fiesta and Hyundai are both better hot hatches thanks to their lower, lighter body styles and in some ways they highlight the ridiculousness of a performance compact SUV. But if you need just a bit more space then the Puma is still a brilliantly capable and slightly more practical machine.
Ford Puma ST Performance Pack
Price: £31,075 (£31,850 as tested); Engine: 1.5-litre, three-cylinder, turbo, petrol; Power: 197bhp; Torque: 236lb ft; Transmission: Six-speed manual; Top speed: 137mph; 0-62mph: 6.7 seconds; Economy: 41.5mpg CO2 emissions: 155g/km