Payne: Ford Ecosport is sporty — not so eco
From the first 2014 Ford Fiesta I drove, I’ve been hooked. Cute, perky, affordable and loaded with options from the affordable, base 1.6-liter manual to the raucous ST, the Fiesta hatchback is a lip-smacking, salsa-soaked appetizer to the automotive world.
But I’m in a minority.
The wee Fiesta has been trampled by the U.S. rush to SUVs. Still popular in Europe where gas costs an arm and a leg, the Fiesta’s 2018 update hasn’t made it across the pond to U.S. shores.
Instead, Ford is importing its entry-level SUV, the Ecosport, all the way from India.
But the cute red Ecosport in my driveway is hardly a replacement for the Fiesta. Indeed, the five-door Fiesta remains Ford’s $15,000 entry-level vehicle complemented by the ST — the five-alarm, jalapeno pepper entree to Ford performance. Entry-level SUV it may be, but the Ecosport shares more with Ford’s Focus sedan than the Fiesta.
Both the Focus and Ecosport sticker well north of Fiestas (about $19,000 for the Focus, $21,000 for the Ecosport). Both are offered with the surprisingly peppy 1.0-liter “Godzilla-in-a-box” three-cylinder. And both appeal not only to new buyers, but also to downsizing empty-nesters coming out of three-row Explorers.
Suddenly I don’t fear for the Fiesta’s future so much as I fear for the Focus. In ute nation, I give the Focus a snowball’s chance in Vegas.
Ironically, Ford is late to the subcompact ute market despite being a brisk seller abroad since way back to 2003. While other mini-SUVs — the Jeep Renegade, Buick Enclave and Honda HR-V — scored hits by tailoring their subcompacts to the U.S. market, Ford has had to update its Ecosquirt — er, Ecosport — to meet Yankeed preferences.
They did an admirable job. Despite coming to market with one of the shortest wheelbases in the class (99 inches), the Ecosport manages to be competitive in cargo- and leg-room with longer-wheelbase competitors like the Chevy Trax and Jeep Renegade. It even beats the cavernous Honda HR-V in front legroom.
Still, your ex-basketball player’s 6-foot-5 dimensions were cramped in the Ecosport’s back seat, and the accelerator and brake pedals felt close together under my big clown shoes. But its short length is an advantage in cramped city spaces — a trait tried and tested in tight cities abroad.
Other pleasant traits abound — what Ford’s literature calls “fun, capable, and connected.” Begin with fun.
Marrying its small wheelbase to Ford’s natural athleticism (cue the Fiesta), Ecosport is surprisingly good dance-partner. Though limited to front-wheel drive in my 1.0-liter base turbo-3 engine — the 2.0-liter turbo-4 comes with all-wheel drive— the Ecosport followed my lead through Oakland County’s twisty lake country.
The 1.0-liter overachiever — its trophies for engine of the year would probably require a Ford Expedition to carry — continues to impress. The three-holer once-upon-a-time paired nicely with the 2,600-pound Fiesta (alas, it is no longer available with the U.S.-version Fiesta) and proves worthy of the porkier Ecosport SUV.
Like Laurel throwing Hardy on his back, the wee three moves the SUV along out of corners, the effort masked by the Ford’s best-in-segment interior quieting.
That low-end turbo grunt comes at a price, though, as the 1.0-liter’s gas mileage is well off the 34 mpg (40 highway) of the Focus. Blame the SUV’s higher drag co-efficient as well. All told, the 123-horsepower Ecosport’s 28 mpg (29 highway) is no more “eco” than the larger-displacement 141-horsepower Honda HR-V and 138-horse Chevy Trax offerings.
The fun factor is amplified by the Ford’s mighty-mouse design. The hatchback has a raked-forward athletic stance. Its growly three-bar grille gets its DNA from the Mustang/Fiesta side of the family instead of the more conservative Edge/Explorer wing.
Fun and capability intersect in the Ecosport’s rear swing-gate, which is the subcompact’s defining feature. In a segment full of character, it’s almost a must that each bring a unique feature to the potluck party.
Ford Ecosport: Dude, my door swings open.
Jeep Renegade: Yeah, well, I can go topless!
Kia Soul: I look like a toaster.
Chevy Trax: My front seat folds flat so you can put a surfboard inside me.
Buick Encore: Me, too — and I’m also really cute.
Like the Mini Cooper Clubman’s Dutch doors, the Ford defies convention with its swinging cabinet door. Trigger the hidden button under the taillight and the tailgate swings halfway open to a detent — then will continue to full, 90-degree open.
It’s a feature folks with low garage ceilings (me) will appreciate. I recently had a Tesla Model X and was relieved when its falcon-wing doors sensed when to stop opening. Many SUVs are not so — BONK! — sensitive.
The Ecosport’s swinger is a garage-friendly throwback to the good ol’ station wagon days (though the Ford’s gate won’t fold flat like a pickup tailgate). A quick primer on the pros/cons of a swing-gate:
■Con: Only one person can access it at a time from the right.
■Pro: I don’t bang my head on it.
■Con: It doesn’t have a foot-kick-open option like the Ford Escape
■Pro: It offers roof access for wee Mrs. Payne who can stand on the rear cargo lip and help tie down a Christmas tree, luggage, etc.
As for being connected, Ford has put past hiccups behind it. It’s new SYNC 3 system is reliable, provides Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, and allows the driver to control the car remotely via a smartphone app.
Not long ago I was ogling luxury cars that I could start remotely. Now I have a crisp, detailed app on my phone for a common, $20,000 Ford that can do everything from start the car, check its maintenance status and pick up my laundry (just kidding about that last part, though it can’t be far away).
As an entry-level SUV, Ecosport sits in an interesting spot. Its high ride and five-door utility will make it a tempting buy for Ford customers who once defaulted to Focus for the compact car. But the Ecosport’s small back seat will cramp 6-footers expecting more from a ute — a cramp that may send them across the showroom (or to the certified pre-owned desk) to Ecosport’s roomier, techier Escape.
Whatever the case, there is still my favorite little Fiesta hatch which is still the only entry-level Ford five-door for under $17,000. It’s still the Ford that’s the most fun to throw about. And it’s still a moderate fuel-drinker despite its party name.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Ford Ecosport
Front-engine, front- or all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV
$20,990 base ($25,740 1.0-liter Titanium FWD as tested)
1.0-liter turbo-3 cylinder; 2.0-liter inline-4
123 horsepower, 125 pound-feet of torque (1.0-liter); 166 horsepower, 149 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter)
0-60 mph, 10.0-10.5 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing: 1,400-2,000 pounds
3,021 pounds (FWD); 3,300 (AWD)
EPA fuel economy: 27 city/29 highway/28 combined (1.0-liter FWD); 23 city/29 highway/25 combined (2.0-liter AWD)
Highs: Interior space belies its small wheelbase; swinging tailgate
Lows: Still small in rear seat; thirsty 1.0-liter
Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★ Fair ★★ Poor ★