In the last two years I’ve mainly driven a Ford Kuga plug-in hybrid (PHEV) on loan from the company. Mine was the last test vehicle out of Ford’s press garage before the doors rattled shut in the lockdown of March 2020 and throughout that and the many other lockdowns I travelled around the country in it, reporting on car factories opening and closing, driving to car importers to evaluate new models, picnicking and catnapping in it in laybys and putting in almost 40,000 miles in the £37,705 vehicle at an average of 49mpg.
There were some hiccups at the start, when Ford had to recall all Kuga PHEVs after incidents of overheating when recharging the battery. I also managed to blow out the front grille indicator bulbs after jump-starting the vehicle. There are a few mentions of misbehaving indicator bulbs on the Kuga Owners’ Club site but none about this happening after jump-starting.
That Kuga saw me through lockdown so handing it back was pretty hard, were it not for the replacement.
It’s a Puma ST, but not just any ST. It’s the Gold Edition, with ornamentation thanks to the suggestions of 275,000 Ford Performance fans who came up with a series of upgrades for the Fiesta supermini-based crossover. This is number 10 of 999 to be built. And while I’m not a huge fan of social media, this car is fans-to-the-max, from its matt black panels with gold pinstriping to its 19-inch gold-hued wheels echoing those of performance Alfa Romeos of yore.
The suspension is stiffer, the exhaust is rortier and there’s a limited-slip differential in the front axle. Inside there’s gold stitching, a set of superb figure-hugging sports seats and a B&O stereo.
Under the bonnet lies the same 197bhp, 1.5-litre turbo three-cylinder engine as the Fiesta ST, but with torque boosted from 214lb ft to 236lb ft. Despite its extra weight, that added torque means this hotted-up Puma will match the Fiesta ST’s 0-62mph time of 6.7sec and there’s plenty of overtaking power.
Whatever the gear, you push the accelerator pedal and the nose slurps up the Tarmac; change down and it’s a little firecracker. And all with an on-test consumption of 38mpg, against a WLTP Combined consumption of 41.5mpg and CO2 emissions of 155g/km.
We now know that the Fiesta’s days are numbered (at least in three-door form) and probably forever as Ford switches to an all-electric range based largely on Volkswagen’s MEB battery electric platform to be built at a repurposed facility in Cologne. Under what Ford of Europe president Steven Armstrong last month called “decisive action”, Ford will drop its low-selling models and move inexorably towards an electric line-up, with the Puma continuing to be produced in Romania, but moving to a battery electric drivetrain as well.
Which means there’s an almost unbearable poignancy about driving this unelectrified five-door hatch, which is probably one of the last ever internal combustion-engined performance Fords. It’s a bit early yet, but we might have to get ready to mourn the great go-faster acronyms of the past that (almost) unfailingly served to set the heart beating a bit more firmly: ST; RS; AVO. I understand that Ford’s talented set-up engineers have had a VW ID.3 at their Lommel testing circuit in Belgium and it didn’t move them much. So much so that a wider version of the electric chassis is planned for Ford, which might help the handling a bit, but it’ll be much heavier than this sub-1.3-tonne car.
So, a move to electric power might mean we have to wave goodbye to the Puma ST’s electrifying turn-in to corners, its pin-sharp, progressive steering and the sheer fun from the chassis, which more than makes up for any lack of power.
There are a couple of drawbacks, however. The first is the price, which with the £600 optional Driver Assistance Pack, which combines emergency assistance braking, side monitoring and active park assistance along with a rear-view camera, comes to £33,195. Remember here that the giant-killing Focus ST hatchback can be had for as little as £21,655.
The second is the jolting ride quality on anything other than perfect road surfaces, especially over sharp-edged bumps, which crash through the bodyshell. This combines with a tyre roar off high-grip Tarmac and particularly concrete motorway surfaces, which so effectively drowns out the B&O stereo that I turned it off.
The combination has had a curious effect, which is to make passengers feel nauseous. It might be a great drive, but the Puma Gold is an expensive way to feel sick. I’ll report back on whether this tendency wanes as the miles pile on…
Looking back, I’ve got mixed feelings about the car which was my daily driver for six months. I’m certainly missing the Puma’s Tarmac-tearing vivacity, which is a trait of all souped-up Fords of the past.
This ST Gold limited-edition version of Ford’s B-segment family crossover has genuine teeth and joy in its make-up. A couple of days before it departed, I had the opportunity of a fast cross-country drive where its steering finesse, superb brakes and damping control gave it an accuracy and spirit of fun which are the prerequisites of any decent hot hatchback.
Add in the wonderful 197bhp three-cylinder turbo engine with its torque boosted to 236lb ft, and the ST Gold is a genuinely fun and fast car, with a persuasive chassis balance and communicative steering.
It’s partly that feeling of being able to tell exactly how the car will respond when you first move the steering wheel which makes this car so adjustable and entertaining. You almost will it around corners and if the bend tightens, then a slight lift of the accelerator pedal will have the nose tugging back into line.
We’d also been on holiday in the Yorkshire Wolds and while there were only two of us and our Labrador, the space and luggage-swallowing of the basic Puma shell was something to behold. Wellies? No trouble as they fit into the massive wet box in the boot floor. And on a slightly droning motorway-speed slog up to God’s own county, the average fuel consumption was more than 41mpg, which is pretty close to the official WLTP economy figure of 41.5mpg and really good for something capable of 137mph and 0-62mph in only 6.7sec.
As well as the pin-sharp control response, it’s the surging mid-range response of the engine which puts such a smile on your face. The change quality of the six-speed manual gearbox is slick, however many is the time you simply don’t need to change gear, just squeeze the accelerator and the engine answers the call.
Unfortunately, tyre roar was also something to behold, which makes the B&O stereo’s fine interpretation of an audio signal somewhat superfluous.
Those are the good points; most of the reactions of a Fiesta ST, which is one of the all-time great hot hatchbacks, with the luggage carrying of, well, almost a Focus.
I even like the matt-black painwork with gold (more like autumnal yellow, actually) stripes, which match the seat stitching and facia highlights which were chosen, it is said, by 275,000 online Ford fans. Not so sure about the tricky-to-clean gold wheels or the red brake calipers, but the overall effect is tasteful, which isn’t something you can say of all souped-up editions of standard cars.
The bad point is the price which, at £32,595, was a bit of a swallow. All 999 editions of the first Gold Editions have been sold now, although if you can’t live without a Gold Puma, Ford has incorporated the Gold name as a further trim line for the Puma ST-Line edition. Yet even the equivalent to this car, the unadorned Puma ST Performance Pack (which includes a limited-slip differential, launch control and a performance shift indicator) comes in at an equally painful £32,350 on the road.
Cars aren’t cheap any more, though some online sites think they can get up to £2,226 off the new price of a Puma ST. And if you aren’t too bothered about searching the classified adverts, Puma STs with a 22 plate and no more than 10,000 miles are close to £26,000 even from dealers.
Before you rush out and buy what might well be the last ever performance petrol Ford, however, you also need to know about the ride; it’s not good.
The 19-inch wheels jolt and crash through sharp-edged bumps and holes in the road while traversing sleeping policeman feels like being pulled in a sled over a rocky beach. There’s side-to-side head toss on roads where the edges have sunk or worn away and the back of the excellent seats punch you in the spine so that a long, fast journey is quite exhausting; some even felt nauseous in the car.
Is it worth it for what is undoubtedly the best handling small crossover on the market? Only you can decide, but despite finding this car really desirable when on my own, it wasn’t much of a ride for the rest of the family.
If the angel on my right shoulder doubted this ST, the devil on the left would quite like it back again…
Body style: five-door, five-seat family SUV crossover
On sale: now
How much? from £32,595
How fast? 137mph, 0-62mph in 6.7sec
How economical? 41.5mpg WLTP Combined, on test 38mpg
Engine & gearbox: 1.5-litre, three-cylinder turbo petrol, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive via a limited-slip differential
Maximum power/torque: 197bhp/236lb ft
CO2 emissions: 155g/km
VED: £585 first year, then £165
Warranty: 3 years /60,000 miles