Can Ford transfer its ST recipe for fun, usable, affordable performance to an SUV?

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The subject of this week’s road test will be a vastly more common sight than its namesake ever was.

Although the original Ford Racing Puma of the late 1990s was an interesting and much-loved hot hatch, only 500 examples were ever built. And with a price of £23,000 at the time (nearly £41,000 in today’s money), they didn’t exactly fly off the production line into the hands of owners. In fact, that price proved so prohibitive that many Racing Pumas had to be sold off internally.

A blacked-out front grille, black mirror caps and a black roof all play a part in helping to boost this jacked-up Puma’s athletic image

With prices starting at £28,495, the new Puma ST is a considerably more accessible, usable and versatile kind of compact performance car than Ford’s last fast Puma ever was. It’s the latest addition to a portfolio of Ford Performance vehicles that has kept hot hatchbacks such as the Ford Focus ST and Ford Fiesta ST at its core, but that also needs to branch out and move with the times.

This, then, is the first of the Blue Oval’s European-market SUVs to be given the significant performance overhaul typically denoted by ST badges.

And if the standard modern-day Ford Puma is anything to go by, this ST version should have plenty of driver appeal. The base car has already proved itself to be the keen driver’s choice in a segment populated by dynamically bland compact crossover hatchbacks and, as we’ll explain in a moment, the modifications Ford Performance has made aren’t exactly small fry.

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The Puma line-up at a glance

The Puma range has four trim levels, not including the new ST performance version, starting with Titanium and extending upwards through ST Line, ST Line X and ST Line Vignale.

The bottom-rung version is the only one without stiffened sports suspension. All have Ford’s Megabox extended boot storage and Sync3 infotainment with factory navigation, but only the upper trims get wireless device charging.

A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox can be had only in tandem with a non-hybridised 1.0-litre engine.\



2 Ford Puma ST 2021 road test review hero side

The idea of the performance crossover is no longer as novel as it was a few years ago, but the Ford Puma ST still manages to represent something of a departure from those we’ve seen before.

Where so many of its rivals rely on heavily boosted four- cylinder engines, slick dual-clutch transmissions and four-wheel drive, the Puma features none of the above.

Twin-exit exhaust peeks out from beneath the rear bumper. The exhaust note has been tuned to be slightly quieter than it is on the Fiesta ST. Ford claims a 1dB difference

The 1.0-litre Ecoboost engine of the regular Ford Puma has been replaced by a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol unit that is almost exactly the same all-aluminium powerplant that you’ll find in the excellent Ford Fiesta ST, albeit with a bespoke air intake and new roll-restricting engine mounts.

It develops the same 197bhp at 6000rpm as in the cheaper Fiesta ST, which might raise one or two eyebrows. However, peak torque has been increased to 236lb ft at 2500-3500rpm, all of which is deployed to the front wheels via a six- speed manual transmission. Specify the ST Performance Pack (a £950 option that our test car had) and you’ll get not only an electronic launch control and interior shift lights but also a Quaife helical limited-slip differential. This works in tandem with brake-based torque vectoring.

So the Puma ST is already shaping up to be a fairly hardcore contender. And that’s before you get to the tweaks made to its chassis and suspension. To help counteract the Puma ST’s taller centre of gravity, the torsional stiffness of its twist beam rear axle – which has a 28mm anti-roll bar cleverly integrated into its U-section – has been increased by 50% compared with the standard Fiesta ST’s equivalent.

Meanwhile, Ford’s patented ‘force-vectoring’ directionally wound rear springs have also been fitted, enhancing the Puma’s stability and fleet-footedness by better locating the rear axle.

Similar to those found on the Fiesta ST, these work by applying lateral forces directly to the axle during cornering to help stabilise the wheels and contain the car’s mass. Elsewhere, new Hitachi twin-tube frequency-reactive dampers (different from the Tenneco shocks on the Fiesta ST) have been fitted at all four corners.

With a ratio of 11.4:1, the Puma ST’s steering is close to 25% quicker than the base car’s, an improvement that’s facilitated by a modified front steering knuckle with a shorter steering arm and faster gearing. We measured 2.1 turns from lock to lock, versus 2.8 in the standard car.

The Puma’s slightly cartoonish looks have taken well to the ST treatment, too. Larger 19in wheels (an inch larger than you can get on a Fiesta ST) and a more prominent bodykit bring a welcome level of additional visual aggression, while the fact that it sits 21mm lower to the ground than a regular Puma lends the compact crossover a slightly squatter, more assertive stance.


12 Ford Puma ST 2021 road test review front seats

With both a jacked-up crossover profile and lowered performance tuning in the mix, you may not be sure what kind of driving position will meet your backside when you get in the Ford Puma ST.

Most drivers will, in fact, lower themselves a little into the car’s quite deeply bolstered but welcomingly soft Recaro seats; and then find themselves in a car that feels fairly compact, but has pretty useful quantities of both cabin and boot space. We critics can’t have it both ways, after all.

The 12.3in digital instrument screen displays a Puma graphic when you board the car: a big cat less in the classic Jaguar ‘leaper’ mode than in a pouncing pose

While we bemoan any new model that’s longer or wider than the one it replaces, many of us are also sceptical when car makers look to crossover bodystyles, and grow their models upwards rather than outwards, in search of extra interior space. Short of conjuring tricks, that doesn’t leave the industry many places to go in a world in which buyers are only getting bigger.

Being barely 50mm longer than Ford’s legendary Mk1 Focus and only 100mm wider and 100mm taller, the Puma feels like it has hit a sweet spot for overall size somewhere between today’s B- and C-segment class norms. It feels usefully narrow even on country lanes and, measuring less than two metres across the mirrors, is the kind of car that would fit into a single-berth garage pretty easily; but it also has the kind of boot space and carrying versatility you won’t find in many other compact cars and will seat all but the tallest adults in its back seats reasonably comfortably.

Ford’s Megabox boot layout – which is effectively an extra-deep loading space where you might expect to find a spare wheel – comes in equally handy both when carrying taller items (it makes for more than 1.1m of maximum loading height) and when simply wishing to prevent bags or bulky objects from rolling around. It has a drainage hole, too, should you want to keep muddy or wet equipment separate from other items and then clean up easily later.

Ford gives you digital instruments as standard that display a decidedly Jaguar-like animated Puma with every engine start, but their graphics are clear and crisp looking. Attempts at an inviting ambience, or a bit of a sense of occasion about the cabin, are otherwise absent.

This is Ford Fiesta dashboard architecture, inoffensive but pretty plain in look and feel. Evidently, even in its more special compact cars, Ford isn’t about to risk trying – and failing – to create much in the way of premium feel.

Puma ST infotainment and sat-nav

The Puma gets as standard Ford’s Sync3 touchscreen infotainment system, which is operated mainly through an 8.0in touchscreen, although it can work via voice control. It’s rendered pretty simply but is responsive enough, with sensibly sized shortcut buttons and physical knobs for volume and radio tuning making usability good.

Smartphone mirroring for both Apple and Android handsets is included, with a wireless device charging pad (via the Qi standard) for ST-Line X, Vignale and ST models. The snag here is that smartphone mirroring is possible only via a wired USB connection, so many drivers will want to plug their phone in anyway.

All trim levels get factory navigation. The system is simple to programme and adjust, is easy to follow and has clear mapping. A seven-speaker hi-fi set-up is standard on lower-grade cars, but ST models get Ford’s 10-speaker B&O premium system, the power and clarity of which is good without being stellar.


It will have been tempting for Ford to look to a bigger and more powerful engine for this car, given how bold some of its rivals have been in lavishing upwards of 300 horsepower on cars of this class. What the Puma ST’s engine proves, however, is how overpowered and overcooked many of those premium- positioned competitors are.

In a slightly heavier, higher-riding car that squats more under hard acceleration and wants to move around that bit more on its springs in just about any situation than a regular hot hatchback might, the 1.5-litre turbocharged triple we first encountered in the Ford Fiesta ST has plenty to do to make the Ford Puma ST feel quick. But it just about manages to.

Brake pedal is sensitive, which can make heel-and-toe shifts trickier than you’d like, but it's impressive how much of the Fiesta's agility Ford has managed to preserve

The optional electronic launch control governed the front tyres very effectively on a chilly test day. With the system switched on (it simply regulates engine revs and turbo boost to just the right levels while you’re feeding out the clutch in first gear), we recorded 7.3sec to 60mph – and with it off, we cut that down to a fastest one-way 7.1sec. Both clockings are a little short of Ford’s claim for outright acceleration (0-62mph in 6.7sec) but, with a warm, dry surface and plenty of practice, you might just about see a 0-60mph run beginning with a six for this car.

The Puma ST certainly seems to move plenty of its mass away from its front wheels when you give it full power, although even with the electronic aids off, traction remains reasonably strong. The three- cylinder engine sounds pleasingly vocal. Quite fruity and tuneful, and surprisingly bassy at times, it gives the car plenty of likeable performance presence. Plenty of torque, and real-world pace too: a Fiesta ST is only 0.3sec quicker from 30mph to 70mph in fourth gear (although fairly short gearing plays its part there).

The engine is the kind of hard- working, downsized, turbocharged motor we simply wouldn’t have imagined could exist 25 years ago. It pulls cleanly and without a hint of protest from just 1250rpm, revs all the way beyond 6000rpm with smoothness and linearity, and has great mid-range muscle and crisp part-throttle response.

And all of those things, plus operating so clearly at about the limit of traction of its front wheels, feed convincingly into the notion that the Puma ST has all the grunt it could really use.


22 Ford Puma ST 2021 road test review cornering front

Judging how much jostling, agile hot hatchback purpose any particular ‘performance crossover’ may need continues to be a tricky business, and plenty get it wrong. And, because it famously doesn’t do driver’s cars in half measures, Ford Performance was always likely to go large on the dose of sporting flavour that it elected to stir into the Puma ST’s dynamic recipe.

In doing so, it ran the risk of giving us another Nissan Juke Nismo RS (remember that?): a car so dedicated to the possibility of handling dynamism at (relative) altitude that it felt utterly dumb to its own particular reality of it. But where that Nissan so plainly failed, the Ford gives plenty of cause for encouragement.

Puma ST flexes about as much muscle as its front wheels can reasonably handle and entertains a keen driver in corners with its agility and willingness to rotate.

In the weight of its controls, and the feedback coming back through them, the Ford Puma ST does performance feel in quite an understated way – making it easy to drive around town for the most part, although some of the car’s steering behaviour takes a little getting used to.

As for the pace of that steering, and the rate of response of the car’s chassis in particular, the Puma ST thrusts itself forward a little more forcibly. It has quite a lot of the rapid-fire cornering agility, and the propensity to turn in and then rotate underneath you, of a Ford Focus ST or Ford Fiesta ST. If you’re trading in either of those hot hatchbacks for this car, the Puma ST has an incisive appetite for direction change that you will recognise instantly and that, on everyday trips, shouldn’t disappoint.

Then, in terms of outright vertical damping at greater speed, the car can occasionally assert its performance credentials just a little more sternly. The Hitachi dampers have plenty to do in order to keep the chassis level and composed on an uneven road – but they have the reserves to do it.

They don’t produce the tautness that a lower, leaner ST might have, although there’s more than an echo of it. The Puma’s fast back-road ride is vertically animated and occasionally grabby, the car’s mass generally controlled but in slightly Machiavellian fashion at times, with a slight lack of progressiveness.

You certainly wouldn’t claim that this car isn’t serious about its mission to entertain, then; nor in so many ways, especially in day-to-day A-to-B motoring, does it fall short of its target.

Track notes

The Puma ST has the outright grip, torque and body control to go very well around Millbrook’s Hill Route, but its Fiesta ST party mask slips just a little as you probe the last couple of tenths of its handling potential.

The car has plenty of bite on turn- in, when the suspension checks body roll cleanly, providing a surprisingly good platform for the fast-paced steering to work with initially.

As it passes the apex, the Puma’s chassis has just a little less mid- corner agility and readiness to rotate than, say, a Focus ST, and it is less sensitive to weight transfer. The Puma’s grip tends to run out before you can adjust its cornering attitude with a trailing throttle, and its diff settings also seem gentler than those in a Focus ST or Fiesta ST so you don’t feel it working as much either under load or on the over-run.

The car’s body control can also struggle slightly during fast direction changes.

Comfort and isolation

The Puma ST’s selectable driving modes give you the option to reduce to some degree the amount of engine noise that reaches the cabin. Some testers might have preferred a ‘custom’ set-up through which you could combine, say, comfort-tuned steering and pedal calibration with a sportier exhaust note.

However, the bottom line is that the car needn’t drone on wearingly on a long journey. It rides comfortably on smoother motorway surfaces, and without too much intrusive surface roar from those 19in wheels. The driving position is straight, comfortable and well supported; and the front seats have base height adjustment, adjustable lumbar support and separately adjustable head restraints and can accommodate taller drivers even without extending cushions.

Cabin sealing is pretty good. This isn’t a car to worry the luxury brands for outright isolation, nor was it intended to be. Its cabin is 3dB noisier at 50mph than that of an Audi SQ2 quattro, even though the Ford puts less rubber on the road than the Audi did when we tested it in 2019. But for those who want a compact crossover made to more of a traditional performance recipe, it certainly won’t seem coarse or unrefined.


1 Ford Puma ST 2021 road test review hero front

The Puma ST sits a lot closer on price to a ‘bone-stock’ Ford Focus ST than to the entry-level Ford Fiesta ST with which it shares much of its construction; something that will doubtless prompt critics to look at its value proposition and wonder why you wouldn’t simply save yourself £6000 and drive the better-handling, identically engined conventional supermini instead.

However, to those for whom a Fiesta simply isn’t practical enough, and who want something that feels a bit more 21st century than a Focus, the Ford Puma ST should seem like reasonable value, which isn’t something you’d say about every go-faster crossover. It undercuts its nearest rival from Mini and can be had with the ST Performance Pack option for less than £30,000.

Residuals compare well with the Mini Countryman Cooper S; not a bad result for the Puma ST, though it's beaten by the Mazda CX-30

It should also be a fairly easy car to ‘upsell’ Puma buyers into. Since the next most powerful Puma Vignale is barely £2000 cheaper, you can well imagine people leaving Ford showrooms as Puma ST owners who didn’t enter them necessarily intending to end up that way.

Moreover, you wouldn’t say those ‘accidental’ Puma ST owners will find much to object to about the car, which is pleasingly fun but still fairly tame and good mannered. When running on two of its engine cylinders during relaxed UK motorway touring, our car returned better than 40mpg.


24 Ford Puma ST 2021 road test review static

Thanks no doubt to decades of experience making great hot hatchbacks, and just the right approach to this new one, Ford Performance has come up with an enigmatic, quietly convincing and pleasingly versatile car in the new Ford Puma ST.

It’s no dynamic conjuring trick. The car has plenty of ST-typical attitude, driver engagement and handling agility at normal speeds. When push comes to shove, that last degree of tenacious, swivelling balance of the car’s Ford Focus ST and Ford Fiesta ST hot hatchback range-mates is ultimately missing, though. But, for a car better able than some of its ST siblings to tackle the fetching and carrying of the everyday, plus to cater to the hobbyist lifestyles its owners may aspire to have, that could be just the right compromise.

Well judged, versatile and fun; the jacked-up hot hatch done well

The Puma ST has just enough fast Ford performance and character to amuse, and not so much to compromise. It’s proof that ‘less is more’ can apply just as plainly where go-faster crossovers are concerned as it can anywhere else in the performance car market.

But if you don’t need the space and convenience it affords? As a driver’s car pure and simple, a Fiesta ST is certainly more still.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Ford Puma ST First drives