The Puma was clearly intended to be a crossover hatchback that would handle before it left the designer’s sketchbook.

It’s lower-rising and more athletic-looking than most of its class opponents and quite clearly carried certain key advantages forward into its dynamic development phase for its chassis engineers to seize on. Even so, it’s remarkable how well those engineers have done and how clearly this car stands apart from its rivals in a class that has until now struggled to produce anything genuinely appealing to drive.

Titanium cars have smart-looking 10-spoke 17in alloy wheels as standard. ST-Line models also get 17in alloys but in a different style, while ST-Line X cars move up to 18s.

Our test car had no particular advantage to its specification in this respect: it was a Titanium-trim example without the lowered sport suspension that an ST-Line would have had and its 17in rims left plenty of room to further increase the outright grip level. And yet its lateral body control and chassis response were both excellent and its steering gently meaty in its weighting and crisply incisive in its feel.

Just as the driving position seems to place you only medium-high at the wheel, so the keen, level, agile and engaging handling makes you question whether you’re driving a crossover at all. The car arcs neatly towards an apex and maintains its dynamic composure and chassis balance under load and when driven quickly, and in both respects, the car could easily just pass for a well-sorted, athletic-feeling hatchback.

When the electronic traction and stability controls do intervene in the driving experience, they do so progressively and without intruding at first. The car only gives you the option to disable the traction control, leaving the stability aid on in any circumstances; and just occasionally, once you’ve really got to grips with the potential of the chassis and are at risk of actually enjoying yourself, that does seem a shame when it begins to intrude on the car’s ability to entertain.

Assisted driving notes

The entry-level Titanium Puma has autonomous emergency braking, conventional cruise control and lane-keeping assist. An optional £900 Driver Assistance pack (fitted to our test car) brings blindspot warning, cross-traffic alert and traffic jam assist systems, among others, and adds ‘intelligent’ distance-keeping functionality to the cruise control.

The systems are generally tuned so as to be quite discreet but can, in most cases, be adjusted for sensitivity and, in some cases, deactivated completely. Even in its most sensitive setting, the lane-keeping aid keeps the driver engaged. However, it didn’t always detect the bounds of a motorway lane through roadworks or in bad weather.

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Our test car was able to consistently recognise posted speed limits and offered a speeding warning but couldn’t adapt the car’s set cruise control speed automatically. Still, for a £20k car, the Puma’s assisted driving functionality is fairly extensive and impressive.

Comfort and Isolation

For a compact crossover so keen on entertaining with fleet-footed, spry handling responses, it’s pleasingly refreshing to discover that ride refinement hasn’t been sacrificed. The impressively tuned suspension provides an enviable blend of close body control and well-mannered fluency when travelling at pace, enabling it to confidently smooth over successive low-frequency compressions.

Its low-speed ride isn’t as prone to upset and agitation as the Renault Captur we road tested recently, either. Admittedly, a Volkswagen T-Cross will more consistently distance you from the sorts of physical and aural intrusions that accompany runs over cratered stretches of road, but the Ford’s ability to soften all but the largest impacts means it doesn’t trail too far behind.

That said, it’s worth pointing out, albeit briefly, that pricier ST-Line and ST-Line X Pumas aren’t quite as liveable with as their Titanium range-mates. Wider test experience shows their larger wheels and stiffer sports suspension can add a degree of brittleness into the dynamic equation, particularly around town.

At motorway speeds, the Puma’s cabin is sufficiently well isolated from wind and road noise to avoid undue criticism, but it doesn’t quite rewrite the playbook, either. The three-cylinder engine can also boom back into the cabin if load is applied at crank speeds below 2000rpm. Still, at a 70mph cruise, our microphone returned a 67dB reading, which is equal to the Captur’s efforts.

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