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Introducing a new segment to a car market as yet small but as competitive as ours is a brave endeavour. See, in big markets with more vast buying populations, needs are generally more varied, so you can push in something new, comfortable in the assumption that there should be enough people who go, “At last! Where’ve you been all this while?”

But as if being small wasn’t enough, the Malaysian car market is also traditional, cautious and very cost-conscious on the whole. We’re not too eager to try new things, and are quite sceptical of new tech – unless of course, it’s affordable, easily accessible, or free. All of which are traits that are hindrances to, say, the introduction of a new kind of car.

If reports are to be believed, the B-segment crossover market is positively thriving in Europe, with a new breed comprising the likes of the Nissan Juke, Renault Captur and Opel/Vauxhall Mokka vying for sales. With urbanisation and congestion on the rise globally, it’s not difficult to see why such vehicles make sense.

After all, they take up little road space, are roomier inside, offer more flexible storage capabilities and give you a better view of the road ahead. They even look funky – couldn’t have come at a better time, with all this hipster hashtaggery about.

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The Peugeot 2008 was the first of this current breed to enter Malaysia, and remains presently the only one in its class on sale. But its RM120k price tag means it’s a bit of a stretch for most of the sort of people such a car would appeal to, i.e. youth. Hard to go for when the same money gets you into C-segment territory.

But when it arrives here from the Ford Thailand Manufacturing plant in Rayong, Thailand later this year, the Ford EcoSport is expected to give the 2008 a run for less money – the top 1.5 Titanium-trim car, which will be introduced first, is estimated to cost a bit above RM100k, while a lower-trim car with the same engine, planned for a later juncture, might just stoop the starting price under six figures. 1.0 litre EcoBoost? A little longer to wait, I’m afraid.

For now, before the Honda HR-V/Vezel hits the market with its CKD price tag, let’s look at the Ford EcoSport 1.5 Titanium, which we hopped over the northern fence to test drive recently.

The seemingly-oxymoronic nameplate first appeared in 2003 on a Mk5 Fiesta-based SUV in Brazil. Didn’t look like much, but the vehicle was hugely successful in South America, with over 700,000 finding homes. So this is in fact the second-gen EcoSport, and although it is a global car this time (will be sold in about 100 markets around the world), it still has its developmental roots in Brazil.

And at the risk of sounding stereotypical, it shows – the EcoSport’s rugged and utilitarian appearance stands out amongst its more urbane rivals, most of which were conceived in Europe. More SUV than crossover, if you catch my drift. And nothing conveys this more than one glaring element. Now, black body cladding and roof rails are well within expectation for the class, but an outside-mounted spare tyre with a sideways-opening tailgate is not!

Ford says this arrangement frees up boot space and makes it easier for the driver to access and change a tyre. Of course, because of this, if the tailgate were to open upwards, the full-size spare might hit a low car park ceiling – go figure. Just means you’ve got to get used to loading the boot from one side of the car – the wrong side, for those of us who drive on the left of the road.

At least the Thai car has a spare wheel cover and aeroblade windscreen wipers – the Indian-market 1.5 Titanium we saw at KLIMS13 had the former fitted as an option, while the 1.0 EcoBoost Titanium tested by our Indian correspondent didn’t, displaying its spare wheel for all the world to see. Both Indian-spec cars had conventional windscreen wipers.

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I’m not very sure about its looks. You can’t say they hadn’t a good base to build upon where styling is concerned; the Mk6 Fiesta hatch – even the facelift – is a car of pleasing proportions. There’s some Fiesta in the side creases, shoulder line and the way the bonnet meets the A-pillar; also some pretty complex surfaces and details in places, but somehow it doesn’t work so well when they all come together.

The slim reflector headlamps look pretty cool (especially with those light tubes), but there’s an upper intake, a middle intake and a lower intake, and if that wasn’t enough, the huge trapezoidal mouth has to be ‘split’ into three – the last time I saw so many grilles, I was at a beach barbecue. The 205/60 R16 alloys are pushed about as far to the ends as possible, but they just don’t do enough to visually offset the height.

The face also seems to be positioned a bit too high; exacerbated by the fact that the fog lamps are level with the top of the wheel arches! An interesting design feature, however, is the tailgate handle, which is built into the right-hand side tail lamp – viewed from afar, you’d be hard pressed to notice it’s there at all, as it looks just like the other side.

Press the black button on the handle and the tailgate unlatches electrically. You then pull it out a few inches and let the gas struts take care of the rest. You have 362 litres of boot space with the reclinable 60:40-split back seats up; fold and tumble them forward and you get an impressive 705 litres. Closing the tailgate requires a bit of effort, though.

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Now it’s millimetre time. The Ford EcoSport is 4,241 mm long, 1,765 mm wide and 1,658 mm tall, making it 259 mm longer, 43 mm wider and 169 mm taller than the Mk6 Fiesta facelift hatch. The wheelbase is also slightly longer at 2,521 mm compared to the hatch’s 2,489. So it’s bigger all-round, giving you more room inside, while remaining compact enough for the urban jungle.

Yet it’s not a complete sheltered city boy – a 200 mm ground clearance contributes to an ability to wade through 550 mm of water. This is complemented by a 25 degree breakover and approach angle, and a 35 degree departure angle.

As you’d expect, the cockpit is very Fiesta-like; maybe a bit more of the hard-wearing look instead of the supermini’s classy gloss black and chrome trim. There are quite a few differences – the EcoSport’s dashboard is slightly more angular in design, influencing and changing the shapes of all air vents (Fiesta has circular side vents) and the central display cowl. Different door cards, but the window switches, wing mirror adjuster and door handles are carry-overs.

The glovebox handle is wider, and curiously, the handbrake is on the far side, so the front 12V socket and twin cupholders are closer to the driver, instead of the other way round on the Fiesta. The ‘elephant head’ radio control cluster has a new look, and substitutes the Fiesta’s ‘OK’ knob with a flat button that’s surrounded by four raised arrow buttons.

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The ‘scuba goggles’ instrument binnacle gets new fonts and scales, and the trip computer that bridges the gauges is akin to the pre-facelift Fiesta’s; not the facelift’s more sophisticated-looking unit. However, as per the facelift Fiesta, all illumination is Ice Blue. Lastly, the driver gets a fold-away armrest.

Of course, to Fiesta owners, it’ll be like coming home, but for the rest of us, ergonomics remain an issue – the fussy radio controls and the legendary rocker-switch manual override come to mind. Despite it being located so deep in its recess, I sometimes found it difficult to see the central display in broad daylight; and try as I did, I couldn’t find a brightness setting.

The 3.5-inch central display interface, although confusing to navigate at first, is fast. You press very tactile buttons to move through the spartan monochrome menus, which may seem pretty Nokia 3310, but it’s better than having a touch-screen with fancy-schmancy graphics and page transitions that’s laggy and unresponsive. Remember how fast we could move through the Nokia 3310’s menus? Clickclickclick, done.

The 1.5 Titanium variant we drove had Torino leather seats with Cabernet Red stitching, auto single-zone air-con, keyless entry and start, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, follow-me-home lights, reverse sensors, auto headlamps and wipers, six-way driver seat adjustment, SYNC and a sunroof (so no overhead grab handles).

This Thai-spec car had a rear centre lap belt and only two airbags, but we’re told Malaysia’s 1.5 Titanium will get seven airbags and three-point seat belts all round. ESP, ABS, Emergency Brake Light, Hill Launch Assist and Pull-Drift Compensation are standard fare. Pull-Drift Compensation, by the way, does not turn you into Ken Block, but adjusts the steering to compensate for crosswinds and crowned road surfaces.

Cabin amenities abound – you’ll find a front passenger seat undertray, overhead sunglass compartment, USB and AUX. There’re two 12V sockets – one on the centre console and the other by the right-rear passenger’s side, complete with a little tray into which you can place your phone while it’s being charged. The other side has a tray too, but no 12V socket.

There are lots of cupholders, and the front doors have deep caves that can swallow a 1.5 litre bottle each. The back seat is quite a comfortable place to be in, too. Where rear occupant space is concerned, I place in ascending order shoulder, leg and head room, the last thanks to a raised roof at the back.

Now for the nitty-gritty. Under the bonnet sits the facelifted Fiesta’s 1.5 litre Ti-VCT four-cylinder engine, but it’s been tweaked here to give 2 PS less and 2 Nm more, at the same revs as before. So 110 PS at 6,300 rpm and 142 Nm at 4,400 rpm are fed to the EcoSport’s front wheels through a six-speed dry-dual clutch PowerShift ‘box. For this drivetrain, ECE 101 fuel economy is a claimed 15.4 km per litre.

On the move, the EcoSport is pleasant and fuss-free to drive – very Fiesta-like, actually. Despite the deep dashboard, forward visibility is very good, afforded by a large windscreen and a high seating position (rear three-quarter visibility, less so). In strong sunlight, the shiny side air vents reflected off the side windows, obscuring the view of the wing mirrors – this could be due to the window tints on our cars.

The leather seats are deep and snug, although as the journey progressed I found myself wanting a bit more thigh and lumbar support, probably because I was getting so much support everywhere else! But even seat comfort can be subjective – humans come in all shapes and sizes, after all.

Ford claims the EcoSport is 2.5 dBA quieter on average than its competitors while cruising between 100 and 120 km/h. Exactly who they mean by competitors, we don’t know, but with regards to the vehicle’s rolling refinement, I’d say it’s a plus in one area and a minus in another.

Wind and tyre noise are generally very low, respectively due to double-sealed doors and those high-profile, low-rolling resistance Goodyear Assurance Fuel Maxes, but it’s the motor that lets the side down. Not that it’s loud (not very quiet either), but the note is boomy throughout the rev range, which could get tiresome after a while. At 110 km/h in top gear, the engine spins at about 2,750 rpm.

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Ride comfort is a strong point. The suspension setup is not wallowy, but certainly not hard, and in spite of its long travel, the EcoSport doesn’t bounce or hop on the motorway nor over-oscillate after rebound, although mid-corner ridges can threaten to upset balance. Hydraulic rebound stops use fluid to dissipate energy when the damper extends fully, reducing peak force, Ford says, by two to three times over conventional stops. The company calls these Hydrolock dampers.

Power is more than adequate in most situations, including on gradients and overtaking, although it doesn’t come with a twitch of your right foot (alas, the forced-induction phenomenon has spoilt us all) – you’ll have to work the pedal more, which is fine, but delivery isn’t particularly linear – a discernible shove arrives around 2,500 rpm, so you ease off if you don’t need so much thrust, only to have to ask for more again.

Seek higher revs, however, and you have a rather lively, responsive and eager little machine. At speed, the PowerShift complies with brisk, timely gearchanges, with lots of overrun keeping transitions smooth. If I needed an extra burst, I preferred snicking the gear lever into S rather than working the rocker-switch manual override – keeping one hand on the gear lever just didn’t feel natural (or very safe) to me.

During the course of my 190 km-or-so test drive, the number of occasions in which the twin-clutcher reared its jerky head were in fact few. As you’d expect, they took place largely in the urban areas, where low-speed, stop-go driving is called for. Still, shift shocks, where they were felt, were not excessive. Then again, these were new gearboxes, weren’t they?

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Unsurprisingly, there’s quite a bit more body roll than you’ll get on a Fiesta, although grip levels are decent for such a high-rider. Directional changes are relatively quick too, thanks to a rigid body and frame, half of which are high- or ultra-high strength steel. Just not quite as nimble as the Fiesta, of course.

Also, at higher cruising speeds, the tall vehicle exhibited a tendency to wander and sway a little – perhaps Mr Pull-Drift was on leave that day. Brake pedal feel is something that could be improved as well; you tend to apply less braking force than you actually need. Bit more nose dive under braking than necessary, but no issues with pedal progressiveness or linearity.

I do like the steering. The electric power-assisted system provides good off-centre feel and predictability through a thick rim that affords a reassuring grip. Along with just enough weight, the helm inspires a lot of confidence, being pretty accurate at speed as well as easy enough to turn while parking or making U-turns.

All things considered, while it won’t be the funkiest or most premium B-SUV to go on sale in Malaysia, the Ford EcoSport offers utilitarian, no-frills practicality in a compact package that offers more-than-decent driving dynamics. Just hang about while I go and find a princess to give it a kiss.

 

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