The Puma is, we already know, not the biggest or tallest supermini-based crossover going; and even though the ST version retains the usefully deep ‘megabox’ under-floor boot storage area of the standard car, it’s the kind of crossover much better suited to transporting adults up front and kids in the rear than grown-ups in both rows.
Being a performance crossover hatchback, of course, this is a car whose profile and ride height have gone up to come down again; a bit of a daft notion however you try to rationalize it. The front seats are big-bolstered and supportive, identical to those you’ll find in the related Fiesta ST. They’re particularly comfortable if you’re tall because they retain separate adjustable headrests, which is rare among modern hot hatchbacks which mostly get one-piece backrests with ‘integrated’ head restraints. And the level at which those front seats are set feels neither particularly low nor high, neatly enough. Adjust the cushions as low as they’ll go and you feel like you’re sat at absolutely bog-standard hatchback level, with the Puma’s wider cabin architecture offering decent space for your limbs and extremities but no great expanse of glasshouse or high roofline to give the game away that what you’re driving is a pseudo-SUV at all.
The Puma ST’s on-road temperament isn’t quite as bouncy and tiggerish as some cars of its ilk can seem, but it still feels like a surprisingly vigorous, highly strung thing to drive; moreso, I’ll wager, than most might expect of any kind of crossover vehicle. Using the specification of the Fiesta ST’s suspension as a departure point, Ford Performance has gone for bigger wheels, longer and stiffer springs, but notably much stiffer ant-roll bars (even fitting one inside the section of the car’s torsion beam rear suspension). There are new twin-tube ‘frequency-reactive’ dampers from Hitachi, too.
And so, while a Fiesta ST gets 17in alloy wheels as standard and 18s as an option, the Puma ST gets 19s or nothing. It handles like a hot hatchback that’s wearing footwear just a size too big for it, to be honest. It’s direct and super-responsive to steering inputs even by Ford’s standards; unusually heavy through the steering rim too, as well as very keen to whip back to centre when you’re exiting a corner. It’s sensitive to camber and bump and a little too eager to divert itself over both – even by fast Ford standards. At a guess I’d say Cologne had to accept more wheel offset and scrub radius on the front axle than it normally would in order to accommodate those 19in rims, and couldn’t quite mitigate all of the undesirable consequences with the power steering calibration.
Those 19in rims also make for a slightly abrupt low-speed ride, but at speed the car’s damping begins to smooth out quite nicely – moreso than a Fiesta ST ever manages to, at any rate. If you’re ready to wrestle with it just a little and keep two hands on the wheel, the car has plenty of pointiness and poise about its handling. It’s got great lateral body control and turns in really sharply, gripping a shade more securely at the rear than the Fiesta ST sometimes does but still remaining nicely balanced. With the optional slippy diff adding its own layer of traction and involvement into the driving experience, nobody could claim this car isn’t absorbing to take by the scruff.