2021 Ford Puma ST First Drive

2021 Ford Puma ST 63 photos
Photo: Andrei Tutu
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The news that the Puma nameplate would be revived as a crossover brought mixed emotions to old-school European Ford enthusiasts. After all, the late-90s small coupe was left behind, with this being replaced by “another” crossover. Well, as the all-out ST version aim to prove, this is a standout model, one that stretches the limits of the segment.

A simple look at how the automotive landscape has changed in the last 20 years would swiftly offer an explanation as to why the said body style change was necessary. In its lesser versions, the new Puma came about to try and woo away some of the traditional Renault Captur customers or the ones interested in buying a Peugeot 2008. ‘Useless crossovers’ purists are probably thinking right now, but the truth of the matter is, they are selling like hot cakes.

Therefore, here we are, testing a Ford Puma but this time, with a twist. This is a rather unique offering in the class, one that’s trying to bring practicality and fun together in a compact package that won’t break the piggy bank. This is the Ford Puma ST!

From the moment the Puma was launched, people have been talking about a potential high-performance version, but up until 2020 those were just rumors. As hypothetical as they may be, those rumors did make some sort of sense if you took everything into consideration. The Puma shares its platform with the Fiesta and that car is, without a doubt, the dynamic benchmark of the supermini segment.

Furthermore, the Puma name in itself used to be associated with great driving dynamics back in the late 1990s, as the original was described as ‘a driver’s dream’ when it initially came out. Chip in the fact that the Fiesta already has an ST version that felt impressive during our review and you could easily see this new development coming a long time ago.

Even so, people were understandably reticent toward such a possibility, as enthralling as it may sound at first. After all, we’ve seen such promises from a number of car makers and in the end many crossovers disappoint in one way or another when compared to their lower-riding brothers. Will this be any different?

2021 Ford Puma ST in Mean Green color
Photo: Andrei Tutu
Well, to make sure that doesn’t happen, Ford decided to give the Puma to its Performance division, creating a world-premiere in the process. The Puma ST would therefore become the first ever SUV to be massaged by Ford Performance. And they did a great job, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

As you may expect, the Puma ST stands out in the crowd when compared to its more conventional siblings. Subtle changes on the outside tell the tale of the high-performance engine under the hood to the discerning eye.

Up front, you’ll notice that the grille has a slightly different shape, a bigger overall size to allow it to feed more air into the engine bay. You’ll also see a new spoiler attached to the bumper with ‘FORD PERFORMANCE’ written all over it, an add-on that provides up to 80 percent more downforce according to the Blue Oval. Move over to the sides and you’ll also notice the 19” wheels hiding red brake calipers behind them, a clear sign that this is no ordinary Puma - the stopping hardware been enlarged by 17 percent to cope with the extra power.

Round the back, the tailgate has a new spoiler at the top, which is larger than on the regular Puma for better downforce, while the bumper features a diffuser-like element and a proper set of exhaust pipes in brushed metal finish with a rather nice note for a small 3-cylinder engine. Oh, and you should know there were plenty of pops and bangs at the ready. The biggest giveaway though, even bigger than the ST badges here and there, is the exterior color. The Puma ST is available in Mean Green, a color reserved solely for the most hardcore version in the line-up.

2021 Ford Puma ST dashboard
Photo: Andrei Tutu
Step inside and the same type of motifs welcome you. The treadplates have Ford Performance logos on them and they light up, while the cabin is dominated by the big and imposing Recaro seats that remind you of a proper racer the moment you look at them. They offer plenty of side support but they might be a bit narrow if you’re on the bigger side of things. No matter how crammed you may feel inside them, they definitely are the coolest seats in the segment. The steering wheel might also attract your attention, as it is squared off at the bottom and also features an ST logo.

But all that fades into the distance the moment you start the engine. Under the hood hides the same 1.5-liter 3-cylinder EcoBoost mill used on the Ford Fiesta ST, making 200 HP and up to 320 Nm of torque. At first you might be tempted to say that’s way too much power for such a small engine. One might think “the lag is massive”, but Ford Performance has implemented a number of solutions to prevent that.

For example, a radial-axial turbocharger and an integrated exhaust manifold have been added to the engine in order to minimize the distance exhaust gasses travel between cylinders and turbocharger. This way boost pressure is built faster and lag is minimized, at least on paper.
In addition to a bespoke air-intake and a free-flowing exhaust system for maximum performance, the Puma ST also features new roll-restricting engine mounts that minimize unwanted movements particularly during hard cornering, while supporting everyday refinement.

Does it work? Well, I think most of the credit goes to the manual gearbox. We’ve all grown pretty used to automatics these days and letting them sort things out for us, but with a manual gearbox, you feel a lot more connected to the car and you can basically ensure the lag is minimized using your right foot. Sure, if you press on the gas pedal too early the engine will take a few seconds to build up boost, but if you know how to keep the revs in the optimum range, that won’t be an issue.

2021 Ford Puma ST
Photo: Andrei Tutu
The gearbox itself is pretty nifty, with short throws and tight gates, providing a mechanical feel when shifting. It was also slightly revised to have a shorter final drive ratio allowing the ST to reach 100 km/h (62 mph) in just 6.7 seconds and a top speed of 220 km/h (137 mph). However, the ergonomics leave certain things to be desired. The lever is quite low and the center armrest (that isn’t adjustable) sits rather high, meaning you end up switching gears using your fingers rather than the whole palm of your hand.

There are other mechanical changes done to the car to improve its handling. After all, we’re talking about a crossover here and, no matter how good the Fiesta platform is, the Puma does right a bit higher. To compensate, the rear suspension twist-beam is uprated to 2,000 Nm/deg torsional stiffness, an increase of more than 40 per cent compared to the Fiesta ST and 50 percent compared to the standard Puma, with a 28 mm anti-roll bar integrated into the U section. A front 24 mm anti-roll bar also contributes to cornering stability.

And that’s not all, the steering is quicker by 25 percent, while the dampers have been changed with a new set of Hitachi twin-tube frequency-reactive units for both axles. They have a sensor that reads the frequency at which the dampers are working, adjusting the stiffness accordingly to offer either a more comfortable or a stiffer ride. Chip in the force vectoring springs (call them “banana springs”, if you must) as well and you get quite a compelling case that this car can actually be fun.

And it really is. This truly feels like a Ford Fiesta ST on stilts, offering an engaging, confidence-inspiring driving experience that’s unmatched in this segment today.

2021 Ford Puma ST
Photo: Andrei Tutu
The sharper steering makes itself noticed as soon as you approach a corner. The car turns it fast and is eager to follow your instructions, acting with immediacy as soon as you swerve, accelerate or brake. I was expecting the taller riding Puma ST to be leaning quite a bit in corners but all that extra bracing does its job brilliantly, making this crossover feel like nothing less than a warm hatch.

Even the pedals are positioned perfectly to allow you to heel-and-toe for days on end and the fact that the car doesn’t come with an automatic rev-matching feature is yet another plus in this regard: you can do everything yourself and hear the pops and bangs out of the exhaust while you’re at it.

The biggest star of the show though was the optional mechanical limited-slip differential at the front, which simply pulls you out of the corner under hard acceleration. The car will understeer if you carry too much speed into a twist, but if you’re careful and brake at the right time, the extra grip on the front wheels (kudos to the specifically-designed Michelin tires) will get the stiff rear axle to step out, bringing an instant grin on your surprised face. Yes, this machine will brake brilliantly, take you out of a corner in a hurry if you want, all the while keeping adrenaline levels high.

As for the financial side, the 2021 Puma ST kicks off at €30,121 ($35,649 at the current exchange rate) on the German market, with this price including 19% VAT. And, at least for the time being, the model isn't offered in the US.

What’s the downside, then? Well, in order to get this much level of control infused into the Puma ST, the Ford Performance people had to make it extra stiff and it shows. Nevertheless, while this is no cozy cruiser, those with a heavy right foot will certainly wish to choose it over the rest of the range.
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About the author: Andrei Tutu
Andrei Tutu profile photo

In his quest to bring you the most impressive automotive creations, Andrei relies on learning as a superpower. There's quite a bit of room in the garage that is this aficionado's heart, so factory-condition classics and widebody contraptions with turbos poking through the hood can peacefully coexist.
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