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Ford's boxy supermini SUV is finally finding a receptive audience after some significant mid-life revisions.

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The pugnacious Ford Ecosport crossover hatchback has had a bumpy and tortuous road to success since its introduction to Europe in 2014. But then cars like this are often designed to thrive in tough circumstances, and while this one isn’t exactly setting the world alight in sales terms, the Ford has certainly proved a hardy survivor.

In its first generation, the Ecosport was a slightly awkward-looking compact SUV built in Brazil, predominantly for Brazil, and was popular there. But when globalist Alan Mulally turned up as Ford boss in 2006, it became one of his missions to prove that The Blue Oval could make its products work better all over the world. The second-generation version, which was launched in Brazil in 2012, went on to be produced in as many as five factories on four different continents, then, and was sold in as many as 149 countries.

It's based on the same B-car platform as the last-generation Fiesta and B-Max

It’s a twice-massaged and -updated version of that second-generation model that Ford of Britain sells in the UK today. It first came to our shores in 2014, imported not from Brazil but instead from Ford’s new manufacturing facility in Chennai, India; and, though instantly popular out there, it met with stiff criticism in Europe for poor build quality, rudimentary driving dynamics and coarse mechanical refinement.

Ford’s response, in 2017, was to begin manufacturing European-market cars more locally - in Craiova, Romania - to higher quality standards, with better equipment levels and a widely revised suspension setup. At that point the car’s engine range was expanded also, four-wheel drive was added, and an ‘ST Line’ version came along; although not all versions available elsewhere in Europe were on offer to UK buyers.

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Now and for 2021, with sales of the car slowly taking off and its global manufacturing base having been consolidated from five sites back down to just two, Ford has added a second new derivative of the Ecosport: the even-more-jacked-up Active version. That’s the trim we elected to test. Like other trims, it can be had in the UK with a choice of 123- or 138bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engines, but only with a six-speed manual gearbox and a driven front axle.

Ford Ecosport design & styling

This was Ford’s first global model to be developed entirely in South America. Its suspension configuration was supposedly retuned for European tastes, as were its electro-mechanical power steering and stability systems, back in 2014; and they have been again at least once since, as part of the migration of the car from India to Romania.

Like the last-gen Ford Fiesta and the now-discontinued Ford B-Max with which it shares a platform, the Ecosport wears its dinky engines transversely in the nose, where they exclusively drive the front wheels. Those wheels meet the ground courtesy of MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear, and they are stopped by front brake discs and rear drums backed up by the usual stability and anti-locking software aids.

The car’s engine line-up has previously consisted of a number of normally aspirated petrol and turbodiesel options, but now Ford’s UK-designed 1.0-litre, three-pot EcoBoost turbocharged engine is the sole offering for UK buyers. It can be had in 123bhp and 138bhp tunes; but, as far as UK sales go, only driving those front wheels and only through a six-speed manual gearbox.

The Ecosport’s design is perhaps less likely to be a selling point for it than its engine. There’s nowhere to go with a small crossover other than up, but the Ecosport has sprouted further up than most of its rivals, and its tall, boxy proportions go somewhat against the grain when so many rivals now favour the high-rise coupe look.

The car’s bluff front end – shaped so perfectly for our current times rather like a carpenter’s dust mask – is a feature that might take a lifetime to grow on you. Likewise, the looming, side-opening ‘tailgate’ boot door isn’t exactly easy on the eye when it’s either closed or open. There is bad news here for UK buyers on convenience also, that tailgate being hinged on the nearside of the car and therefore swinging open the wrong way for easy kerbside loading and unloading (a problem it shares with the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, funnily enough).

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For 2018, Ford gave its crossover the same SUV family face that was being worn by the Ford Kuga and the Ford Edge, while two tone paint jobs (body colour and contrasting roof), new wheels and sports styling was used to try to jazz up the car’s visual appeal.

The Active version now represents a move back towards the Ecosport’s original rugged look. As well as having a raised ride height and some underbody grounding protection, the car gets tough-looking black wheel arches and bumpers. Ford has resisted the urge to replace the boot-mounted spare wheel onto the car’s tailgate with which it was originally sold in 2014, however; the appearance of which certain commentators likened to an outside toilet on an outback saloon bar.


Ford Ecosport dash

The Ecosport’s interior really was a bit of a disgrace and an embarrassment to Ford of Europe back in 2014. The car’s primary mouldings were variously hard, shiny, flimsy and unpleasant, its seats unyielding and its equipment sophistication pretty poor.

Some of that has now changed for the better; but not all. The 2018-model-year version got many of the mouldings and materials adopted by the new Fiesta in the same year; and so the Ecosport now has a pretty complete and usable ‘Sync 3’ 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system with navigation, smartphone mirroring and FordPass app-based connectivity as standard. It also has a soft-touch moulded dashtop and more up-to-date looking Ford parts bin secondary controls.

Be careful not to parallel park the car close to the car behind. That boot door needs a lot of space to swing open, and you'll need to leave extra room behind it if you're loading to and from the kerb.

You needn’t look very far elsewhere to find the old Ecosport’s cheapness weaseling its way back in, however. The car’s seats (‘sensico’ non-leather on our top-of-the-range test car) remain hard and flat, and while they’re manually adjustable for cushion height and angle as well as backrest angle, they don’t offer adjustable lumbar support. The driving position they put you in is reasonable, although it’ll be a little tight for front-row legroom for the very tall. Ford has refined the car’s steering column adjustment mechanism so it no longer crashes onto your lap when you unlatch it.

On the transmission tunnel, storage cubbies made out of shiny, cheap-looking mouldings let you know you’re in something that hasn’t been specified to Ford’s usual European standards for perceived quality (which, relative to some other brands, isn’t that high anyway). Those in the doors do likewise, and they’re not lined with either rubber or felt so anything hard you drop into them will slide, rattle and clank around a bit.

Elsewhere, cabin storage is in disappointingly short supply; the car’s armest cubby (a bit wobbly and nastily covered with a shiny rubber pad) is deep but narrow, the glovebox small, and oddment space at the base of the centre stack pretty mean. Passenger space is a little more generous. There’s enough legroom for adults of average height to sit line astern in the car, just about. For that, rival crossovers certainly do better - but the Ecosport’s high roofline does make for a usefully tall boot (handy for those garden centre pot plants) and for good headroom in both rows.

Overall, it’ll be the Ecosport’s shoddy cabin quality that will remain its biggest barrier to convincing customers who know what else their money may buy. Want some more examples? How about a clunky boot parcel shelf that’s so cheap that you have to lift it by hand to get to your boot cargo (and will then inevitably forget to lower it, blocking your rearview mirror visibility almost entirely). Or an OBD port cover (the bit next to the steering wheel where the service engineer plugs in his laptop) so poorly secured that you feel like simply ripping it off and throwing it away? Or sharp, wobbly, unfinished mouldings in the driver’s footwell that you can snag with your feet when changing gear? These are not the stuff of any convincing new car in 2021, and Ford should do much better.


Ford Ecosport pan

Equipped with its lesser-powered 1.0-litre EcoBoost triple, the Ecosport hits a broadly competitive standard for outright performance, taking 9.9sec to complete the 0-62mph benchmark and 9.1sec to pull from 30- to 70mph through the gears. The engine's now-familiar three-pot note is prominent, but not intrusive, during acceleration and it revs fairly keenly and smoothly. At a motorway cruise it remains just about audible. As in the Fiesta, it's a likeable powerplant.

The deletion of the car’s old TDCI diesel engine is a mercy, considering how coarse and disinclined to hard work it was. We’ve yet to test a car with the range-topping 138bhp Ecoboost engine, but would expect only a very marginal gain on performance from it; so the smart choice is undoubtedly the cheaper motor.

Some of this car's engines used to be really poor, but simply by removing the bad ones from the UK price list, Ford has done much for the appeal of this car.

There is a sense of notably long gearing that comes over during the car’s driving experience. If not for its industrious character and its linear swell of turbocharged mid-range torque, that three-pot motor would certainly begin to labour as it pulled through 4th and 5th gears. It’s as if Ford tried several final drive ratios in a bid to get the best lab-test fuel economy from the Ecosport, and went for the longest it thought it could get away with.

The fuel economy the car delivers isn’t much to write home about, though (to an extent, we can blame the aerodynamic shape of the car for that). Our test car averaged 45.6mpg on our touring test (which is representative of a typical 70mph motorway return). The car is a little more efficient at lower speeds, so as a day-to-day average, you might expect something close to 45mpg in mixed town and out-of-town use.

The Ecosport’s original-fit Goodyear Assurance tyres have been junked, and it now comes on Pirelli Cinturato P7s which offer better grip and traction all round; not that our test results, recorded on a damp day in March, reflected as much. The car pitches quite hard during an emergency stop, and needed just over 80 metres to stop from 70mph on a damp, slippery surface - which is probably 25 per cent longer than some lower-rise rivals might have required.


Ford Ecosport frontcorner

Some progress has evidently been made in bringing the Ecosport’s chassis, suspension and steering up to snuff here. The car had much improving to do when we last tested one in 2014, of course, having quite a tenuous hold on the road, an intrusive and unsophisticated stability control system and a thumping, coarse ride.

Now, we might characterise it as just about adequate. Even on those raised springs, the car certainly isn’t the soft, unresponsive, high-sided prospect you might it to be, and now grips the road competently enough. 

Reasonable steering and chassis balance, but an only average show overall

Vertical body control is respectable as a result of a Ford-typical medium-firm ride, and so the car doesn’t start to wallow or heave at speed, although it does fidget and sproing its way along certain kinds of surface. It also has a tendency to teeter slightly as it turns. Perhaps it’s the long-travel suspension, but there’s a slight sense of a mismatch between the car’s medium-fast steering response and the angle to which the body initially wants to lean before settling into a cornering stance. That, plus the woolly, elastic and over-assisted feel of the steering, will keep driver enthusiasm levels pretty low.

The car’s stability control system is markedly better than it was, too, aided greatly no doubt by the improvement to mechanical grip level delivered by those Pirelli tyres. Though always active to some extent, it can be dialled back into ‘sport’ mode if you must (although, trust us, you won’t) and generally saves its interventions until boorish mid-corner throttle applications would otherwise set-up serious understeer, or bold speed-carrying ambitions might cause the car to roll to extremes. 

The Ecosport’s hold on loose, muddy or grassy surfaces isn’t something that we had cause to explore, and it’s safe to assume that most European buyers won’t explore it, either. Ironically, even though there’s no 4x4 option, the car feels like one designed with the robustness to survive broken, unsealed roads rather than the subtlety to ease itself over European ones.

The Ecosport’s ground clearance is more generous than that of many full-sized 4x4s. though. It’ll even wade through deeper water than an old-school Land Rover Defender. Some compact crossovers beat it on approach angle, but not by much. In light of which, the decision to exclude a 4x4 version may be considered a shame.


1 Ford Ecosport lead

For all its cheapness, the Ecosport was at least a relatively affordable compact crossover when it first came to the UK. Now prices start north of £20,000, rising to just north of £22,000 for a fully-loaded, 138bhp ST Line version. And when there are plenty of competitors available from less than £19k (and you can get into a 128bhp Dacia Duster for less than £13k), that pricing strategy looks ambitious in the extreme.

This car simply doesn’t justify a pricing position alongside plainly better-built, better-finished and more desirable European-designed crossovers. If it was somehow still a £15,000 car seven years after we first met it - or if, alternatively, you can negotiate a 25 per cent discount on one - some might just be able to make a car for ownership. But it’s very hard at full price.

Some in-demand compact crossovers do quite well for residual value but don't expect the Ecosport to be among them.

That’s in spite of a standard equipment level that gives you 17in alloy wheels, a Ford ‘Quickclear’ windscreen, touchscreen infotainment and navigation with smartphone mirroring, a rearview camera, cruise control and an AEB crash mitigation system as standard. Ford has omitted lane keeping on the car which, to some, might even be a selling point.

If you did buy, there would be very little reason to venture beyond base-grade Titanium spec unless you felt you had to have the 138bhp three-cylinder engine. There is almost nothing between the two engines for lab-test fuel economy or CO2 emissions.


Ford Ecosport static

Half a decade ago, the Ecosport made us wonder how long it had been since a new Ford had come along that was quite so bad. The car was cheaply finished and presented, coarse and unrefined to drive; “just not worthy,” we concluded, “and not cheap enough to be unworthy.” 

Now, while updated styling, engines, suspension and steering, and some cabin revisions, have begun to address some of this car’s failings, the principal ones remain. The Ecosport is no longer so poor in quite so many ways, but it remains disappointing for its interior fit and finish, and for certain elements of its practicality; average at best for its performance and ride and handling; and notably overpriced for what it does represent. 

The Dacia Duster dominates this class with its incredibly low price, spacious cabin and workmanlike nature

Ford’s reply may be that these judgements are irrelevant to Ecosport buyers, whose numbers are swelling throughout Europe and who rate the car’s unpretentious character, its suitability for muddy fields and lanes, and its ability to enable active lifestyles. But even on those grounds, there are better and cheaper cars in the class we might recommend.

Stand back and consider the Ecosport in general terms and there is clearly a small chance that you might see just the car you’ve been looking for, then. The likelihood is, however, that your reaction as a European buyer may well be to wonder instead, as we did, why Ford would continue to risk its hard-won reputation with such a deeply average, rough-hewn small car.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Ford Ecosport First drives