These are the days I live for: Another Top Gear PH shoot out in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but me, a brand-new car, and rolling roads as far as the eye can see. An invitation to indulge in some spirited driving. Or it would be, if not for the camera crew crawling all over the shiny blue Ford EcoSport idling away in the middle of the road. Ah well, the day is young, and we have a few more hours to get acquainted with Ford’s latest baby crossover.
Since its launch in 2014, the EcoSport has dominated the local crossover market. A bargain basement starting price and a high equipment list gave it a nearly 50% market share in a segment that had been decimated by the dominance of diesel SUVs. But the segment is getting pretty crowded, and those headline features, like Ford’s fancy Sync voice control and connectivity suite, aren’t as big a draw in a market where even the cheapest cars feature touchscreen head-units. No matter how terrible some of them are.
On the mechanical side, the previous EcoSport’s 1.5-liter engine, despite boasting variable valve timing, trailed rivals in terms of power and economy. And the sophisticated six-speed dual-clutch PowerShift gearbox no longer has such a big advantage over traditional automatics, which have evolved greatly these past few years. Many now feature five, six and even nine-speed gear sets. Thinner transmission fluids and sophisticated locking clutches make them almost as efficient as dual-clutch boxes, without the low-speed driveability compromises inherent with robotic clutches.
As such, Ford’s revamped EcoSport comes with a bevy of upgrades to stay ahead of the curve. But let’s start with the most obvious one first: That new face.
The old EcoSport’s Stormtrooper mask is still eye-grabbing, but that stacked look--intended to increase perceived ground clearance--does have its drawbacks. Tiny headlights and a high-mounted grille make the EcoSport look smaller than it really is. A problem in a size-obsessed market. Thus, the EcoSport has been given the new Ford corporate look. Bigger headlights and ‘fingers’ below the main grille to fill the front end out properly, emphasizing the heft of the EcoSport. At the same time, high-mounted fog lights help break up the expanse of body-colored plastic up front. The rest of the sheetmetal remains unchanged, down to the side-opening rear hatch, which didn’t need updating, anyway. New 17-inch alloy wheels with a familiar Ford-ish web-spoke pattern complete the look nicely.
Underneath that new front end, the engine bay has been tidied up. A/C lines have been tucked away, the air intake snorkel has been moved higher up, and bulky support posts and latches have disappeared thanks to a radically simpler hood latching system. A change most owners won’t notice, but will certainly appreciate on that one day a month they bother to pop it to check their fluids.
The neater packaging is enabled, in part, by the new line of engines. Under the enhanced power bulge sits an all new all-aluminum three-cylinder 1.5-liter TiVCT engine, whose high 11:1 compression ratio gives it 123hp and 150Nm of torque--more than the old four-cylinder unit. With less moving parts, it is 10% smaller--and substantially lighter--than the old motor. An offset crankshaft and balancer shafts, as well as an oil-lubricated timing chain, supposedly help reduce the inherent three-cylinder vibration, but we didn’t get to find out how true this is.
That’s because Ford sent us the top dog EcoSport Titanium. Equipped with the 125hp EcoBoost engine from the Fiesta. A tiny thing, whose block supposedly fits on top of a single sheet of paper. Not that the paper would survive underneath the extra-strong iron-block mill!
Echo-Sport. Eee-coh-Boost. Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but still music to our ears. Over and around the rolling hills and dips of the Vermosa Estate in Cavite, the ‘Eco Eh-co’ proved its mettle, tackling climbs with an effortlessness the old model lacked. Attached to the engine is a new six-speed automatic transmission. Yes, the old Powershift is gone. Dropped in the interest of simpler maintenance and smoother performance.
The new transmission still slurs at low speed, prioritizing passenger comfort over urgency. And there’s no “Sport” mode here, either. Not that it matters. The EcoBoost’s healthy 170Nm of torque is spread out over a wide band from 1,400 to 4,000rpm. And that shove doesn’t start petering out until 5,000rpm, giving you more flexibility on the road, whatever gear you’re in.
The big 17-inch wheels, wrapped in 205/50R17 tires, ensures you stick to that road better. The big wheels result in a marginally lumpier ride, but firmer shock damping handles this quite nicely. Thus equipped, the EcoSport pitches into corners more eagerly than before, though it does tend to wash wide at the limit, despite the stickier tires. This is a crossover, after all.
Of course, most customers won’t care much about the EcoSport’s handling prowess. What will interest them more is what’s inside. Here, Ford has thrown out the bulky old Nokia-style console for a sleeker center stack, with a large 8-inch touch-screen sitting on top of the lower dash. Unlike earlier attempts by Ford, this new Sync 3 system is one of the fastest we’ve used in a mass market car, with a slick interface and built-in rear camera and navigation software. There’s even Apple CarPlay and Android Auto bundled with it. While CarPlay connection was quick, YMMV with the Android Auto. My new Huawei couldn’t hook up properly, though interconnectivity is often a problem with smaller brands, anyway.
Hooked up via Bluetooth however, the EcoSport’s sound system--unsurprisingly--proved quite powerful. There’s a seventh speaker hidden behind the touchscreen now, providing some extra muscle to a sound system that was already pretty good to begin with.
The rest of the cabin has been refreshed as well, with the only untouched areas being the pillars and the sunroof-equipped ceiling. There’s a steering wheel lifted from the Focus framing a new gauge cluster that loses much of the extra plastic cowling and cladding for a less cluttered look. There’s a new rubber-lined cubby over the glovebox for cellphones and assorted gadgets. A new center armrest for the driver doubles as a console box.
The contrast-stitched leatherette-clad seats have been recontoured for better comfort, especially at the rear, and the driver finally gets adjustable lumbar support. Unfortunately, the rear bench loses its center Isofix top tether (no more center-mounted front-facing baby seats), but still retains two top tethers. Electronic stability control, hill hold and rear parking assist all still come as standard. And airbag count is up to six, which is pretty good for a vehicle in this price range.
As for that price, the new Titanium stickers at a heady P1,168,000. An increase due to the EcoBoost engine. The base Ambiente 1.5 MT goes for P918,000, while Trend variants go for P968,000 and P1,028,000. Despite the bigger price jump, we figure the Titanium will still be the hot seller, as has been the case for a while now.
Because while the EcoSport may sit at the ‘cheap’ end of the market, its customer base is anything but. Many are willing to pay extra for the extra toys Ford packs into its Titanium trims. And for customers patiently holding out for the most-loaded small crossover out there, Ford has an answer that will likely please a whole lot of them.