Ford EcoSport: Compact SUV for Casual Motoring

By Lee Pang Seng
FORD may be onto a good thing here in the Malaysian market when it brings in the new EcoSport soon to cater to those who want a compact SUV (sport utility vehicle). Firstly, it has no direct rivals in the price range it is expected to be in, which is from RM95,000 to RM115,000, depending on models as hinted during the KL International Motor Show 2013 late last year.

UMW Toyota Motor has decided to stop selling the Toyota Rush as demand had fallen gradually over the years. The other rival is the Peugeot 2008 but it is expected to be priced above RM120,000. Less needed to be said of the 3008 that is available from above RM140,000. That gives the Ford EcoSport quite an interesting niche in the B-segment SUV.

The EcoSport story is not exactly a new one. It was first introduced to Brazil in 2004 and subsequently in a few other South American markets. Initially, it was well received but its popularity was later hit by another Ford model, the Escape. Rather than discontinue the model, Ford saw the potential of the EcoSport (pronounced as ‘Ec-co-sport’ and not ‘E-co-sport) in growing markets in the Asia-Pacific region and developed it as world model.

To rationalise development costs, the EcoSport is based on an existing floorpan in the B-segment range and this is that of the Fiesta. As a taller vehicle, its development was focused on its motoring function as an urban SUV, while retaining similar features from existing models by evolving them to arrive at a more distinct identity.

Ford spared no efforts in coming up with an SUV that would meet market demands on a global scale and the proto-models were put through the same gruelling routine that was conducted for other models. This included running them through more than two million kilometres in some 12,000 test centre simulations and on-road trials in South and North America, Europe and Asia. The test vehicles were also subjected to extreme temperatures of -25 degrees to 50 degrees, and driven up to altitudes of 4300 metres.

Production of the EcoSport began initially in India to cater to the domestic market as well as to European countries. To cater for the countries in South-East Asia, China, Australia and New Zealand, Ford is producing the EcoSport at a new facility that was added to its Rayong production base in Thailand.

There are three models; Trend, Ambiante and Titanium to top the range. It has one engine option for now and considerations are being made on the EcoBoost engine, most likely the 1.0-litre unit, to follow. This is the 1.5-litre Ti-VCT engine that is currently powering the Fiesta here, before the more powerful 1.0 EcoBoost engine model is introduced.

Like the engine in the Fiesta, the 1.5-litre unit stays contemporary with double overhead camshafts, 16 valves, variable valve timing, and multipoint injection. In configuration, it is mildly oversquare with a 79.0mm bore and 76.4mm stroke for an exact displacement of 1498cc and output is similar: power is 81kW (110PS) at 6300rpm and the torque of 142Nm peaks at 4400rpm. The transmission stays the same as a six-speed Powershift automatic, with manual selection via a button on the right side of the gearshift knob. A five-speed manual model is available for markets that want it.

Dimensionally, the only similarity between the EcoSport and Fiesta is the wheelbase of 2521mm. It is longer at 4241mm, helped no less by the cover for the spare wheel that is mounted on the rear swing door. Its height of 1658mm is complemented by a higher ground clearance of 200mm, against a figure close to 100mm for the Fiesta hatchback. This has given the EcoSport a wading capability in waters that are 550mm or knee-deep. Yes, you can try and ford some flooded stretches but make sure you know deep the waters are.

Another thing is that the EcoSport is a front-wheel drive SUV, not an all-wheel or four-wheel drive. There is a four-wheel drive model in the South American markets but it has a multi-link rear suspension. The two-wheel drive model comes with a similar system as the Fiesta, this being the MacPherson strut front and twin-beam torsion bar rear.

We had a drive impression of the EcoSport Titanium model in Hua Hin, where Ford had organised a month-long event for media from the region to have a go at the SUV in successive batches. The EcoSport Titanium came with 16-inch alloy wheels fitted with 205/60 R16 tyres.

The drive was arranged to provide an insight into the profile of the EcoSport owner and how the person is likely to use the SUV in daily motoring. The route covered narrow town roads, tight coastal roads, highways, and a bit of winding country roads that led to a low-lying vineyard, where we had a brief spot of off-road driving.

Similarly, the higher ride height was also impressed upon us in the EcoSport’s ability to ride over fairly tall kerbs. We drove down a kerb of easily 150 to 160mm in height without the underside hitting the ground. This is also due to the good approach and departure angles from the short overhangs.

We believe the EcoSport carries more weight than the Fiesta, probably by as much as 100kg, if not more, as it uses more metal, plastic, fibres and glass. This added weight did not show up in the engine response, which remained capable of motoring along briskly and quietly, even when revved beyond 4000rpm (for overtaking and brief attempts at top speed).

We didn’t like the manual shift option as we found it rather clumsy and inconvenient. We would rather prefer the system with which you push the shift laterally into a dedicated slot and engage the gears through a push-pull operation. Steering wheel paddle shifts are obviously not featured to keep vehicle cost low.

Although the transmission is a six-speed PowerShift system, the gearing appears to be on short side. At 100-110km/h, engine speed was about 2700rpm to 2900rpm. As this was similar to that in the Fiesta, we were not surprised in the similarity but rather in the shorter gearing. We would have expected long gearing so that the engine can run at a more leisurely pace and improve fuel mileage.

As we were cruising on the highways often at 120-140km/h (under convoy driving), the engine was often turning above 3000rpm. There was no shortness of breath though as the 1.5-litre Ti-VCT engine turned over quickly to build up power to gain speed, including sprints up to 160km/h on clear stretches.

Yet, the engine remained frugal enough on fuel consumption. At the end of the 160km plus drive, divided into four legs with driver changes and meal stops, the fuel meter gauge indicated a level slightly above the quarter mark. With the 52-litre tank, the EcoSport should provide good fuel mileage with prudent driving, typical for the sort of the customer that this urban SUV is targeted at. Ford says the EcoSport is capable of 15.4km/l combined.

We liked the quiet ambience while cruising along. Ford says much effort was made to ensure that exterior noise stayed out once the doors with windows wound up are shut. Noise insulation along the doors and suspension mounting points appeared to have done the job for some quiet highway driving.

There was no mention of the body aerodynamics but given its reasonably good wind-cheating profile, air turbulence was large reduced at highway speeds. From the front, we could barely hear the wind rustle at the roof area, where the front windscreen is mounted to the body, around the door mirrors, and on the flanks. Ford probably put the EcoSport through enough wind tunnel tests to smoothen its body profile.

We also liked the way the suspension soaked up the road irregularities: bumps, small potholes, rumble strips, mild off-road terrain. It absorbed most of the harshness of the road impacts, though initially with some clunkiness, to provide a comfortable ride. This was a characteristic we also noted in the Fiesta.

The mildly winding stretch of about 10km or so had too few challenging corners for us to gauge the EcoSport adequately on its dynamic qualities. It took to the few fairly tight ones nicely: the electric power steering gave us sufficient directional input to enter the corner without easing off the pedal. Body roll was nicely checked for the speeds we were doing. We would love to take it through our favourite corners to explore its dynamic strengths.

A flexible interior is standard fare for an SUV and the 60:40 split rear seatrests should accommodate a fair amount of luggage and sizeable items. During the drive event, we were put through a contest in which we were to ‘assemble’ a cardboard washing machine and load it into the EcoSport. Yes, with the rear seats folded away, you can load up the newly bought washing machine. We like the way the door handle for the rear swing door is designed as part of the rear light cluster. It is in chrome and blends in neatly. You won’t notice it unless you are curious about reflections on the chrome surface.

There is also a fair spread of room for passenger accommodation, especially for the rear folks. Legroom and elbow room are sufficient for all on board and the high roof provides good headroom as well. Sufficient seat support added to the appreciable ride comfort and thigh support for the front seats was good, though just barely enough for the rear ones.

The front door pockets are designed to accommodate two bottles, with one of them being the big 1.5-litre bottle. The rear door pockets can only accommodate one 600ml bottle each. There is, generally, not much to pick on the spaces and compartments for little things here and there. Being the top model, the EcoSport Titanium comes with a sunroof and sliding cover, and the pushbutton start/stop item.

There is also the Ford SYNC connectivity system with which you can make calls or choose songs that have been loaded. There are also two 12-volt plug points: one in front at the base of the gearshift console and the other on the side, next to the rear door (driver’s side). The location of the second plug point may be arguable but it could be useful nonetheless.

It would be interesting see the models that would be brought in by Ford distributor Sime Darby Auto ConneXion. The level of equipment may vary for the respective models but the primary ride comfort and decent engine performance should be applicable to all of them.

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