Strange times for Ford in Ireland. A year on since the company marked its centenary of operations here with a battery of special events, and visitors from Detroit, to celebrate the ‘unique and lasting bond’ between Dearborn and Cork, they have largely shut up shop.
Aside from the recent emasculation of the Irish operation — it was turned into a sub-branch of the Ford UK business — the automotive giant has not been kind to its European arm, soaking up the massive earnings generated on the continent to prop up its often cataclysmically profitless American outfit.
The suits in Michigan have leaned on Ford Europe almost since it was conceived, in 1967, when the British, German, and — believe it or not — Irish operations were umbrellaed under the direction of Henry Ford II, starting several generations of serious money-making.
Cash generated by the Cortina, Escort, Fiesta, and, more recently, the Focus — not to mention the hallowed Transit van — has allowed Ford the almost Hindu God comfort of having one arm support many others. Indeed, some feel that had Henry II not woken up and smelled the European coffee, the brand might well be extinct by now.
I’m sure others (mainly Ford personnel) would quibble with this view, but the fact remains that were it not for cars such as the Fiesta and the Focus, then the Blue Oval might just have turned square; hell, it might even be Chinese-owned.
The profitability of American-owned car corporations in Europe is never a given — look at what happened the once mighty Opel — but Ford have made a great stab at it by not only making cars that people want — which is always an imperative — but by making them at a worthy profit, which is an even greater one.
Right now, Ford is doing reasonably well in Europe, largely on the back of the popular and profitable Fiesta and Focus models; its other mainstream cars, such as the Ka, have been left to wither on the vine, while the Mondeo is going the way of most family saloon/repmobiles by slipping out of fashion-consciousness.
The original Henry and his successors — Edsel and Henry II — would have been very concerned, however, by the lack of reaction within their company to the modern-day SUV pandemic. Ford has not been as sharp as most competitors to react to the age of the SUV and its current line-up reflects the fact.
Sure, the Kuga was a big and continuing success, but the existing model is in its run-out phase and the next one will have to be a serious winner to keep the boardroom happy; the Edge is a really good motor car, except it costs as much as a small house; and, its baby SUV, the EcoSport, has hardly been a lights-out sales success.
God isn’t the only one who works in mysterious ways and with its SUV strategy, Ford has taken a few leaves from the great deity’s playbook. Who, for example, would turn a nameplate that was once heralded as ‘a driver’s dream’ small coupe into a compact crossover? Well, Ford would.
There are a few of the original Pumas doing the rounds and they still look neat and tidy, as a wheel-at-all-four-corners, low-slung, two-door coupe. Quite why Ford execs felt it was a good idea to supplant an existing — and revered — identity with something completely different is hard to explain.
Then again, these same people also thought the Vignale concept — executive versions of humdrum cars with a concierge service — was a good idea.
Despite its curious gestation, however, the new Puma is a very good little car and one which — on the basis of its abilities rather than its name — will shift quite a lot of metal for Bill Ford and those running the show in Dearborn these days.
Although based on the excellent Fiesta chassis, the Puma looks nothing like its class-leading sibling. It is taller, for a start, and has the chunkiness required of its SUV purpose, what with a rippling shoulder line and exaggerated rear hindquarters. A slightly bug-eyed look personifies the front, while the corporate Aston Martinesque grille is also a visual winner.
It has undoubted presence for such a small car and that will swell its appeal. So, too, will the well-appointed interior, which will be pretty familiar to any Fordies out there, what with the soft-touch dash with faux carbon inlays and digital displays, along with the 8”, generation 3 SYNC touchscreen, which controls all the infotainment and connectivity functions.
Bristling with kit in the ST-Line X specification, which we tested, the car is a model of modern decorum and very easy to drive. Sure, the legroom in the back is not terribly generous, but it is more than adequate for a vehicle this size.
Something of a surprise is the hole in the boot — literally. Labelled by Ford as the ‘megabox,’ this is a rectangular cavity under the boot floor and is intended for carrying things that need to be stood up — pot plants, and such. Ford also reference golf clubs with regard to the megabox, but I don’t know too many folk who would advertise their expensive equipment in this way.
For items like muddy wellies or children’s football boots, the megabox is a very handy addition and it can be hosed down when it is dirty and the residue will run out onto the ground.
Under the bonnet, we have a version of Ford’s much-lauded, three-cylinder, one-litre EcoBoost petrol engine. I am a fan of this unit, which is seen here in 125bhp guise, with a sub-ten-second 0-100kph time and a 190kph top speed, as well as economy of 5.2 l/100 km (53.8 mpg) and an emission rate of 129g/km, for an annual tax bill of €270. (That is slightly high for the class.)
The EcoBoost engine has also moved with the times, in that it is now fitted with a mild-hybrid boost, and while I am not sure that this technology works well on bigger engines, it does the trick here, with much more torque available when you’re in higher gears at lower engine speeds.
It is a sprightly performer and, better again, it is also a demon handler. Ford promised something with this car that was sharper than a Fiesta in terms of on-road manners — which, in itself, is quite a claim — and they have delivered.
In a class with very few obvious standouts, the Puma is a car apart and it handles and rides better than any competitor I’ve encountered. It thus represents something pretty ground-breaking as a small crossover.
At a time then when there are all sorts of seismic changes within Ford — and not only here in Ireland — it is good to see that it has not lost its ability to spring a surprise on us with a car that leaves most of the opposition in the halfpenny place.
The Cost: From €27,886 - €31,665 as tested.
The Engine: A hybridised version of the excellent EcoBoost three pot.
The Specification: Not lacking.
The Overall Verdict: An obvious class-leader, albeit with not much opposition.