In my last report on the Ford Puma ST I started by talking about its place in the enthusiast market. About how the performance crossover is the new hot hatch.
With this in mind there has to be a twin character to cars like the Puma ST. It has to be great fun to drive when you find yourself on a winding country road, but also easy to drive and practical to live with the rest of the time.
The mark of a great hot hatch has always been that focused, fantastically engineered performance car feel, with eager turn in and a punchy engine. But then, during the 99 per cent of times you’re driving in a more leisurely manner, it can settle down to be almost as comfortable as the regular version.
If you’re looking back at the best in this sector, all of them achieve it. The latest Honda Civic Type R might look like its styling was inspired by the Max Power magazine era of car tuning – honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if under-car neons were a factory option – but it pairs a sweet gearbox and fantastic handling with a suspension that’ll soften the edges off a pothole when put into its comfort mode.
From memory, the Ford Fiesta ST, the best small hot hatch in recent memory by some margin, was pretty good in this regard, too. A little stiff when trundling along on the morning commute, but nothing too unbearable.
With the Ford Puma ST based on the same platform, you’d expect similar results. However, I’m finding myself not looking forward to driving the white one I’ve got on a long-term test right now unless I know I might be headed towards a fun stretch of Tarmac.
The main problem is the ride quality. The suspension is just too stiff, so you’re jiggling about like one of those nodding head toys on the dashboard. After a long day, when you slip into the driver’s seat and just want a relaxing cruise home, it really begins to grate.
Which brings me to the driver’s seat. I don’t want to sound like a stuck record since I mentioned it in my first report, but it’s just too narrow. I’ll try to make this the last time I mention it, but we’ll see…
I recently had the chance to drive the Hyundai Kona N, which is a direct rival to the Puma ST. It, too, is a performance crossover, and it suffers from the same issue – a teeth-rattling ride.
To be fair, Hyundai’s N division has a reputation for a stiff suspension set-up, particularly on the i30 N hot hatch. For me, that car was just about comfortable enough for everyday driving, but I’m not sure I could say the same for the Kona.
With all this being said, though, the Puma ST and the Kona N have something else in common. They are ridiculously good when you want to get your heart racing.
To massively oversimplify the situation, the reason these fast crossovers tend to be stiff is because their high-riding design raises the centre of gravity. They also tend to be quite heavy.
Both these things are negatives when it comes to building enthusiast cars, and one way engineers can make such vehicles handle better is to stiffen the suspension.
While this can make it irritating to drive slowly, when you find yourself out in the countryside the Puma ST, much like the Kona N, comes alive. Put your foot down and the engine punches its way around the tachometer, surging towards the red line with its boosty turbocharged nature.
The clutch pedal is slightly on the heavy side but it works well when you’re pressing on, and grabbing gears through the manual shifter is a slick process. It’s not up there with the best from Mazda and Honda, but it’s not too far behind.
Then there’s the turn-in. The steering wheel is fairly small but has a chunky rim, and the front end responds instantly to your inputs. It’s quite remarkable given the price point and body shape – it feels like a much more focused machine than the blurb suggests.
My only complaint in this regard is the brake pedal, which is a bit too responsive and difficult to modulate, making it tough to get a proper rhythm. And even after a few thousand miles of driving I often find myself grabbing to a halt at slower speeds instead of smoothly decelerating.
So to return to my earlier point, there are two sides to the Ford Puma ST, as you’ll find in any car of this type. My initial impression is that this particular model is either utterly brilliant or seriously frustrating depending what you look for.
If your focus is on having fun in the twisties, with just a little space needed for everyday life, the Puma ST could be the car for you. The lack of comfort is a fair trade for its impressive cornering abilities.
But for me, as someone who very rarely heads off into the countryside to let off some steam behind the wheel, it’s a bit too compromised for daily duties. I find myself wishing I had something a little less exciting. Maybe I’m just getting old.
It’ll be interesting to see if I warm to the Puma over the next few months as I’ve always been a fan of the classic hot hatch formula. But right now I’m thinking a comfy cruiser for weekdays and a stripped back fun car for weekends would be a better bet…