Ford's coolest cat

ROAD TEST Ford Puma
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When details of Ford's Puma first escaped some 18 months ago, the new car was widely touted as a Fiesta coupe. A working description has rarely been more misleading. This is not a fast-back variant of the ubiquitous hatch; it is an entirely new car that happens to draw on some Fiesta underpinnings purely from expediency: it is built on a Fiesta floorpan, shares much of its suspension, and uses a revised version of its Zetec engine.

Yet it feels completely different. First, the engine has been enlarged to 1.7 litres from the top Fiesta's 1.4 and fitted with variable-intake valve timing. Usually when a small engine is taken to its capacity limits it loses some of its original sweetness; this, however, is by far the best variant on the Zetec theme, and not just because of the power hike to 125bhp. It's possibly the smoothest, certainly the most flexible, and makes the most encouraging noises. Ford's boffins also did much work on making the engine sound good from inside the car - and rightly so, because in a sporting car, sound is an essential but often overlooked element of the way the machine communicates with the driver. And if the engine is a touch Italian in temperament, the gearstick feels positively Germanic in its precision.

The engine and transmission are the heart of an enjoyable car and, though this isn't a blindly fast sportster, the concept has been admirably addressed. After that, it has to handle. Suspension is, of course, essentially Fiesta, but the spring rates are increased and the anti-roll stiffened - which, as any racing car mechanic would tell you, means it feels completely different.

Even so, the Fiesta virtues of crisp turn-in and neutral cornering survive. Wilful hooliganism on streaming wet bends reveals a hint of a twitch when lifting off the throttle in panic mode; otherwise the Puma seems to have far more grip than you'd expect in any situation.

My only real gripe was with the car's interior. The dash layout is fine and the aluminium-effect facia plastics are a welcome relief from the threat of Ford's wood-u-like treatment. But I couldn't make myself truly comfortable. The seats themselves are supportive enough; the problem is with adjustment. The height of the driver's seat can be altered electrically, but I kept reaching for an absent tilt lever to lower the front of the squab and banish the sensation of falling backwards off a chair. This may be a result of my disproportionately long legs, which also had me fumbling in vain for a steering wheel reach adjustment.

But I noticed this only on arrival. En route, the Puma was immensely entertaining: quick enough without being uncouth, sharp of steering and generally pleasing to operate. A few years ago, no one would have expected that of a small Ford. These days, no one should expect anything else.

FORD PUMA

Specifications

Price: pounds 14,550 on the road. Engine: 1,679cc transverse in-line four-cylinder, with four valves per cylinder. 125bhp, 116lb ft. Five-speed manual transmission. Performance: top speed 126mph, 0-60 8.8secs; overall fuel consumption 38.2mpg.

Rivals

Vauxhall Tigra 1.6, pounds 14,615. Another hatch-based coupe, this time springing from the Vauxhall Corsa. Sadly, its stunning styling and hatchback practicality are way ahead of its dynamics. It's more fun to drive than its donor car, but still nothing like as fluid as the Ford.

Honda Civic 1.6 VTEC SR Coupe, pounds 15,495 A screaming jewel of an engine and entertaining, yet totally safe, handling. But Civics are looking a bit dowdy in their latest incarnation and Honda still hasn't learned how to build an appealing interior. A lot more enjoyable than it looks, inside and out.

Renault Megane 2.0 Coupe, pounds 14,965 Cramped for the tall and a bit harsh and noisy from inside, but well equipped for the price, great fun to drive and very stylish. Better still if you can stretch to the pounds 16,640 16v version.

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