The Puma name has returned from the dead to be plastered on the back of an SUV rather than a sports coupé, but don't turn your nose up at it too quickly as this little thing manages to be surprisingly impressive to drive.

Reviving the name of what was once a sports coupé on the back of an SUV is certainly a controversial move as cars such as the Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross are proof of, but in the instance of the revival of the Ford Puma name, I can’t exactly say I’m too bothered this time.

Perhaps it’s because the original Puma – a small, sweet-looking car based on the Fiesta of the time – was only ever sold in Europe, with Australia and New Zealand the only other countries to be in line for it this time around. Maybe it’s the fact this new model shares enough of its cutesy details with it, and is similarly just a Fiesta underneath. It could even simply be that the reapplication of such a name isn’t so surprising at this point.

Regardless, if you’re going into the new Puma with as open a frame of mind as I have – that is, with zero attachment to the original – you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by it. And even if you do hold some sentimentality for the Puma of 1997, I think you’ll still be impressed here as well.

Three variants are on offer to the Australian market – the base Puma, the ST-Line, and the ST-Line V – and it’s the entry-level model that’s on test here, which has a list price of $29,990, although Ford is offering it at a drive-away deal of $31,990.

While that might sound like a lot of money to spend on a tall, base model Fiesta, hopping inside quickly reveals that there’s nothing terribly basic about this thing at all when you take a seat inside.

Although the first thing you’ll notice is that it does lack keyless entry, you are greeted with push-button start, a comprehensive 8.0-inch SYNC 3 infotainment system with satellite navigation and digital radio, automatic climate control, automatic headlights with auto high-beam, and – surprise of all surprises – massage seats. Certainly not your everyday find in an entry-level small SUV.

It features a comprehensive suite of active safety equipment as well including even Level 2 semi-autonomous driving capability, so you’re certainly not missing out on anything you truly need in this thing.

With that being said, there are a few omissions you may notice – to get a fully-digital instrument cluster, or heated and electrically-adjustable seats, you’ll have to step up in the range beyond this base model – and some specification oddities as well such as a standard-fit heated windscreen, which while useful in frosty Europe isn’t exactly necessary here in stinking hot Australia, and will likely be more expensive to replace should it become damaged which isn’t unlikely on country roads.

Speaking of country buyers, the standard inclusion of a spare wheel to appeal to those driving through rural areas means that one of the Puma’s coolest features is off-limits for out market, that being the ‘megabox’ – effectively an Esky integrated into the boot floor complete with a drain plug for when all the ice in it has melted. Personally, I’d rather roll on a set of run-flats and keep the cooler, but each to their own.

The other thing off limits to Australia is any mild-hybrid engine options for the Puma (because they are only available with a manual gearbox) and the high-performance ST model (which features the Fiesta ST’s 1.5-litre engine in a torquier state of tune), although at least the sole drivetrain we do get is a rather good one.

All Aussie models feature Ford’s likeable 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder ‘EcoBoost’ petrol engine which makes 92kW and 170Nm, which is paired to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and front-wheel drive.

As such, the new Nissan Juke shapes up as a close rival for it, although the Puma is easily the more impressive of the two for as surprisingly good as the new Juke may be.

While the Puma is certainly no rocket ship, the turbo triple under its bonnet never feels strained and remains muted and in the background. The dual-clutch is a smooth-shifting unit as well, although it would be nice to have a manual shifting mode for it – ST-Line models do feature paddle shifters, but this base variant only offers Drive or Low.

Easily the most impressive piece of the puzzle here, though, is its chassis as it feels far more fun to drive than it has any real right to be – something those lamenting the demise of the non-performance Fiesta in Australia will be glad to hear, as this is effectively what you’ll be guided towards at the dealership instead.

It’s a surprisingly playful and responsive little thing, with it easy to get it to rotate slightly with a touch of trail braking, while the steering feels well-weighted and particularly informative as well.

The ride is impressive, too – there’s a slight touch of firmness around the edges, but it’s never in any way uncomfortable, and it only goes to help it remain far more balanced and controllable through the bends.

Its power output remaining so modest as well means that there’s no histrionics to contend with despite it being front-wheel drive, either, with nothing in the way of torque steer and very little in the way of understeer as well – only when pushed right to the limit did it start to step wide, but I’d put that down to the base model’s fat tyre sidewalls, and it’s still incredibly easy to reign it in with either the throttle or the brakes.

I know I’m far from the first journalist to say this, but it’s honestly one of the most pleasantly surprising SUVs to drive that I’ve come across lately. You might not think it at first glance, but it really is well-polished dynamically.

With that said, it’s not a car without downsides – the rear pew is rather tight and may present a struggle fitting a big rear-facing child seat, many of the interior plastics are on the hard-and-scratchy side, and a few extraneous features do drive the price up higher than it could be.

At least it ought to be cheap to run – fuel use sat at just 6.8L/100km after my time behind the wheel, its five-year unlimited kilometre warranty ought to give owners decent peace of mind, and the Ford Service Benefits program is thrown in for free as part of the drive-away deal. There’s also a $500 bonus on offer to new Ford buyers, which doubles to $1000 for existing Ford owners, which ought to entice more than a few back to trade their old models in.

While I wasn’t too sure what to expect with the Puma – simply expecting it to be yet another small SUV – this one really did surprise me. It’s about as sweet a handler as you’ll find out there at this size, it looks good, is well-equipped, and offers good bang for your buck. Take one for a test drive, and I reckon you’ll be impressed as well.

2021 Ford Puma FWD List Price: $29,990
  • 7.5/10
    Performance - 7.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Tech & Features - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Practicality - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Value for Money - 8/10

Pros: Thoroughly impressive amount of standard equipment for a base model, keen handling and compliant chassis, likeable 1.0-litre engine, attractive looks
Cons: No manual mode for its transmission, cramped rear seat, Australia misses out on mild hybrid and ST variants, no ‘megabox’ for Australian models either

In a nutshell: The new Puma ran the risk of being yet another SUV to resurrect a sports car name and disappoint enthusiasts, but unlike others, it really has managed to not only pull it off, but smash it out of the park. One of the most dynamically competent cars in its class, it’s an impressive little thing that has left more than its fair share of journalists – myself very much included – pleasantly surprised.

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Ford Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.

Patrick Jackson
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