A review of Ford’s last compact coupe and one of their best received sports cars.
The Ford Puma.
Turn back the clock, to the 1980’s and the 1990’s, you will find that the automotive market was very different. There were no crossover SUVs, which saturate today’s automotive market, but while sport sedans and hot-hatchbacks were popular, coupes were also a popular choice for most car buyers. While Ford had a history with coupes and sports cars such as the Mustang and the Thunderbird, they weren’t known for too much else in that department initially. In Europe there was the Capri, which was a success and performed brilliantly, both as a road car and a race car.The Capri had a strong status amongst car enthusiasts, although died off in the mid-80’s. It was replaced by the Sierra XR4i coupe; while it was great car, it was technically a 3-door liftback sedan. It wasn’t until the second-generation Probe was introduced, that Ford Europe had a proper coupe successor to the Capri, yet it wasn’t anywhere near as successful.
Ford wasn’t quite prepared in terms of market research of how popular coupes were becoming in the early 90’s, thus they rounded up what few ideas they had, which included introducing the 1991 Fox-body Mustang. Eventually they selected a car which was derived from the Mercury Concept 90, which would go on to become the second generation Ford Probe, which was intended to replace the Mustang. The Probe (Gen 2). The Probe was essentially a re-skinned Mazda MX-6, which wasn’t a bad car, was received well in Europe. A key reason as to why it wasn’t successful, was that the Probe (II) was designed for the North-American market. The successor Ford would release was based on a smaller (Mk4) Fiesta platform, which was designed for Europeans (being a Ford Europe product), which itself was already a great handling car.
The new coupe would be called the Puma, and would have a design incorporating Ford’s ‘New Edge’ design language, involving the work of Ghia and Ian Callum, it would have engines which were developed and built by Yamaha and the Chassis stiffed and upgraded by Ford SVE, with Jackie Stewart as a consultant. And for those unaware, Ford SVE are responsible for the racing and road cars Ford produced in the 80’s and 90’s, including the Sierra RS500 Cosworth, Fiesta XR2, Capri 2.8i Injection, Mustang SVO and the Escort RS Cosworth. The Puma was produced from 1997 to 2002, with some specials selling on into 2003. For a more detailed, in-depth look at the Puma, check out this article which looks at the Puma:
The Puma is based off the Fiesta Mk4, which was a small, nimble sub-compact hatchback. The Puma isn’t too different in terms of proportions, yet it is bigger and heavier- Ford increased the length, the longer overhangs and a wider track. The Puma is small, by todays standards especially, but it is more similar to a compact car such as an Escort Mk6 or a Golf Mk4 in terms of dimensions.
The Puma only weighs 1008kg (222lbs), just 8kg over a tonne. With only 125BHP (92kW) @6300RPM and 157Nm (115lb-ft) @ 4500RPM of torque, the Puma has a good power-to-weight ratio, making use of its power and torque output. The Puma claims 0-60 mph in 8.8 seconds, which isn’t bad and is quite respectable for this cars stock output, considering the era it is from and size of the car; and especially considering this car’s forte is its ultra-sharp handling.
The original Puma was known for its great driving dynamics, especially in terms of handling. It has been regarded as one of the best driving Ford cars, one of the best handling FWD cars ever produced according to Motoring Press figures such as Car & Driver and Autocar. With regards to the Puma’s driving dynamics, it is quite similar some of the best retro hot-hatchbacks; such as the VW Golf GTI (Mk1) and the Peugeot 205 GTI, only more modern and slightly heavier. Overall the Puma is quite similar to the Honda CRX (II) and the lesser known Mazda MX-3.
When it comes to driving, the Puma doesn’t disappoint. While the brief of this car and the basic output figures will indicate it hasn’t got tire-shredding performance, there is more than what initially comes to mind. The cars performance, while not the biggest for the time of release, and especially now, still delivers an impressive output. The torque and power are timed for a direct, responsive feedback, resulting in quick performance. The manual 5-speed ‘IB5’ lifted from the Fiesta 16v has been calibrated for shorter gear ratios, which makes shifting gears a pleasure, and not a chore or challenge. The Sigma 1.7 VCT ‘Zetec-S’ powerplant is a great engine, well suited to a car of this philosophy and of the Puma’s compact proportions; being developed and manufactured (mostly) but Yamaha in Iwata, Shizuoka, Japan, it is no surprise as they are notable for impressive low displacement – high redline engines.
The Puma with the 1.7, will instantly put a smile on your face, dropping a gear, the variable cam timing on the inlet runner kicks in an there is subtle growl that resonates from the inlet manifold, Ford SVE had engineered to resonate the sound of notable past rally cars, such as the Escort (Mk2) RS1800. The inlet sound is particularly notable and awesome under acceleration in first gear, with a nice intake whine noise, with a subtle growl from the engine, with a burble from the exhaust; the sounds are entertaining in their own right, adding to the exhilarating driving experience.
The Puma has been calibrated as sharp handling car, with great balance and a firm, stiff chassis, with a relatively low-mass., It is kind-of overwhelming with how the Puma handles, considering it is a front-wheel-drive, transverse engine layout, which uses drum brakes on the rear, even when considering the impressive engineering that went into the Pumas development. The brakes aren’t brilliant, while they do, the job, definitely exceeding being sufficient, you do get the feel the car would be better with a rear disc setup, especially after repetitive braking. The later, updated examples, after 2000, ditched the Escort Mk6 brake setup for a slightly bigger, more effective Fiesta Mk5/ Mazda 2 (Demio) setup, which was an improvement, yet was never a weak point of the Puma.
In terms of handling Puma delivers a high level of driver engagement, as there is a great level of driving feel. The steering is very direct and responsive, which is in part to how this car shares its steering rack with the Ka, which being a city car, had a quick-ratio steering system to be more manoeuvrable. The chassis feels compliant, stiff and body roll is quite low. The car fells light yet incredibly well-balanced, especially under sharp corners and bends. The Puma is probably one of the best front-drive cars for any back-road, of driving in general.
With regards to build quality and practicality, the Puma is good, especially considering the size and age of the car. The build quality isn’t the fanciest- it isn’t cheap, yet more vacant. It isn’t a bad thing particularly, opposed to saving cost by making the interior crowed with cheap materials and features, things like the centre floor console aren’t there, yet instead a moulded formation in the flooring carpet. It gives a feel of simplicity and emphasises how this car is all about driving, with having a low kerb weight, but when sitting in the car, as a place to sit, it isn’t that plush. Then again, it’s not that bad- its liveable and that not why you buy a retro performance compact; especially one with the driving dynamics of the Puma.
The emphasis of the Puma was to be built on a cost-efficient business, borrowing parts from the Fiesta Mk4 whenever possible- which includes the Fiesta dashboard with an Aluminium effect on the bezel inserts and radio & control console. Ford tried claiming in the accounts of the designers and engineers, that it was to ‘make the driver be harmony- one with the machine’, which can partially be a cover for ‘we have to watch our spending on this product’. However, it does save weight and make for a tidier interior space. The car is a 4-seater, or ‘2+2’ to sound more exotic, which it executes okay; there are cars of similar size, such as the Alfa Romeo 916 GTV and Volkswagen Corrado, Audi TT (Mk1), Honda CRX (II) which weren’t as good or any better for rear passenger space, or bigger, more sports oriented coupes such as the Lexus SC, Honda Prelude and Nissan 200SX (S13 & S14), which weren’t also great for rear passenger space.
Overall, the Puma is an over-looked gem. And they are only getting more uncommon. It may not have a blistering level of straight-line performance; while it is quick, it isn’t fast. It has a similar power-to-weight ratio of many alternative performance compacts from the 90s which may boast about 150 to 170 bhp, yet with a larger kerb weight. However, with regards to timing- the power and torque bands, the gear ratios, applied with the stiff chassis, nice balance, quick-ratio steering system and low kerb-weight, it a blast to drive, especially down any back-road. It definitely has the credentials to stand among front-wheel-drive greats with the likes of the 2nd Gen Honda Integra, Honda CRX, Honda Prelude, Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1, Peugeot 205 GTI, Renault Clio Williams and Honda Civic (EG6) Si-R; and even cars possibly such as the Toyota AE86 Sprinter Corolla, Mazda (NA) Miata MX-5 and Ford Escort RS2000 (Mk2). In general it may get sneered at for being a front-wheel-drive coupe, with not too much power; a good way to view it is as a retro, small hot-hatchback, with the aesthetic design of a coupe, with some impressive engineering.
At the end of the day, Ford of Europe’s track record with compact performance (road and racing) cars, the engineers involved in the SE161 Puma program, the engineering that went into the chassis, engine and drive-train applied to the well-acclaimed basis, the Ford Fiesta Mk4, it is no shock to the result how great drives is no exaggeration to consider this a great driving enthusiasts car. It is for these reasons that Ford and other car enthusiasts are left annoyed by Ford’s plan to re-introduce the Puma as a crossover.
Fans view the new car as a cash-cow for making money, tainting the name of the original Puma coupe which was a car for enthusiasts, and that represented Ford’s capability and pedigree in making great handling, engaging compact performance cars. Where as this original Puma is a derivative of the Fiesta, that handled better and had better, sharper driving dynamics, the new car is the opposite; a Fiesta that handles worse and has worse driving dynamics. That being a principle of automotive engineering- when a car is greater in mass and has a higher centre of gravity/ more ground clearance, it will inherently handle and drive worse. That said, the new car according to reviews isn’t a bad handling car, and is apparently quite good in terms of small crossovers, but the point being made here is that it conflicts with the principle of the original car, and show a disregard for Ford’s heritage and enthusiast base.
Hopefully the upcoming ST model brings some redemption in that aspect to the Puma name. Then again, you could always buy the Fiesta ST, which is one of the best received hot-hatchbacks and sport compacts currently on the market, not to mention it is similarly priced to a new Puma Crossover SUV. After-all, the original Puma coupe was conceived to replaced the previously cancelled Fiesta ST (Mk4) in the late 90’s, while also serving as a compact coupe for Ford. And in terms of a modern equivalent in terms of driving, the latest Fiesta ST (Mk7) is the closest you’ll get (in a new car) to the driving experience of the original Puma coupe.