A product designed for developing markets with mere adequacy as its guiding principle, the EcoSport was foisted upon Ford of Europe with wholly predictable results.
In a former era, when cars were regarded by the vast majority as primarily a means of transport rather than a status symbol, Ford was highly successful in mobilising the masses reliably and (relatively) cheaply. That earned the company a reputation as something of a working-class hero.
This perception subsequently became a liability as increasing affluence made buyers ever more receptive to the allure of the premium marques. It must be deeply frustrating for the company that it is widely regarded as a purveyor of automotive vin ordinaire when it consistently produces cars that are of decent quality and often dynamically superior to their more prestigious competitors. This has been the case since the launch of the first Mondeo in 1993 and Focus in 1998, both of which were regarded as class leading.
There is, however, one vehicle in its current and otherwise entirely competent line-up that is quite simply an embarrassment to Ford of Europe. That vehicle is the execrable EcoSport.
The current model is not the first to carry that moniker. The original EcoSport was a pleasingly chunky looking FWD crossover designed by Ford’s Brazilian offshoot and launched in 2003. It was heavily based on the Fiesta Mk5 platform and had strong overtones of the contemporary (European) Fusion model(1). It sold strongly in its home market as well as in Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela, racking up over 700,000 sales in eight years.
Alan Mulally, the former Boeing chief who was appointed President and CEO of Ford in 2006, had devised an ambitious new strategy for the company under the title One Ford. The idea was to pull together Ford’s independent design and development fiefdoms in the US, Europe, Brazil and other centres, to eliminate duplicated effort and cost and accelerate model development. The company estimated that this could save up to $7Bn. in costs and reduce development time by around 20%.
The second-generation EcoSport was one of the first models to be developed under this new global programme. It was based on an evolutionary version of the Fiesta platform which underpinned the Mk6 and was launched in Brazil in 2012. Unlike its predecessor, the EcoSport Mk2 would be a global product sold in 149 countries and would be built in Brazil, China, India, Romania, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The EcoSport Mk2 arrived in Europe in 2014. It was built, not in Brazil, but in Ford’s plant in Chennai, India. It is a moot point as to how much input other Ford centres had in the development of the new model, but reviewers of the EcoSport were perplexed by just how much it fell below the standard of contemporary European Ford vehicles.
Car Magazine tested the EcoSport in 1.6 litre turbodiesel form and Titanium trim in January 2014. The reviewer was unimpressed by its appearance, citing its “…collection of [front] grilles in a teetering stack…piggy headlights…undersized alloys…slabby sides [and] enormous spare wheel cover tacked onto the tailgate” all conspiring to make it “no looker”. Inside it was “dingy and grey, and too button-heavy” with an “…old mobile phone inspired interface we’ve been coming to terms with since 2008”.
Dynamically, ride and refinement were good, but the EcoSport was softly sprung, so handling and steering were off the pace, even for an SUV style vehicle. The 1,596cc turbodiesel engine produced 98bhp (73kW) and 151 lb ft (204Nm) of torque, giving the car a claimed 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 14 seconds and a top speed of 99mph (160km/h). Overall, it was rated at two stars (out of five) by the magazine.
Despite the EcoSport being a significantly sub-par offering from Ford, a total of 160,528(2) still found European buyers between 2015 and 2017 inclusive, its first three full years on sale. Of its direct competitors, the best-selling Renault Captur achieved sales of 621,661 over the same three years. Even the polarising Nissan Juke comfortably outsold the EcoSport, achieving sales of 292,456 over the same period.
Ford persisted with its underachieving small crossover and shifted production of European market models to its plant in Craiova, Romania in 2017, which led to some improvement in build quality. It also revised the suspension settings and improved the range of standard equipment. The front end styling was revised and the spare wheel was no longer mounted on the tailgate. Inside, an 8” touch-screen was fitted in place of the button-heavy original dashboard. Four-wheel-drive(3) and ST-Line versions were made available and the engine range was updated and widened.
These revisions, together with a heavy marketing campaign, caused a lift in annual European sales to 110,574 in 2018 and 120,376 in 2019, although they fell back to 47,548 in a Covid-affected 2020.
The EcoSport was revised again for 2021 and a new Active version added, which featured black plastic wheel arch extensions and other off-road styling addenda. Despite an increased ride height, this helped to give the car a more planted stance and reduce its unfortunate top-heavy and under-wheeled appearance.
Autocar magazine tested the Active version with a 998cc turbocharged petrol engine in early 2021. This engine produced 123bhp (92kW) and 125 lb ft (169Nm) of torque, good for a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 9.9 seconds and a top speed of 111mph (179km/h). It was a substantial improvement in performance and refinement over the now discontinued turbodiesel unit.
Fuel economy, at around 45mpg overall, was fine if not exceptional, thanks to the bluff and tall shape of the vehicle. Firmer suspension settings had improved the handling to “just about adequate” and levels of grip were noticeably better, although ride quality had suffered as a consequence.
The interior was certainly improved over the original, which was ”…a disgrace and an embarrassment to Ford of Europe back in 2014.” but there was still plenty of scratchy, brittle plastics to be found and the seats, in faux-leather, were hard and flat. The reviewer noted that the (left) side-hinged rear door was inconvenient for street-side loading and unloading in RHD markets.
The EcoSport’s “shoddy cabin quality” was likely to remain the greatest obstacle to sales. At over £20k as tested, the EcoSport “…simply doesn’t justify a pricing position alongside plainly better-built, better-finished and more desirable European-designed crossovers.” The magazine gave it an overall two-star rating.
European Sales for the six months to end July 2021 were just 14,759 units, indicating that the latest revisions have not done enough to arrest what is likely to be the EcoSport’s terminal decline, in Europe at least.
So, how did Ford manage to get the EcoSport so wrong, for the European market at least? The explanation is pretty simple, I think: in its zeal to develop global products as part of its One Ford strategy, it simply ignored the radically varied expectations of different regions and customers, and tried to pitch a product that was clearly designed for developing markets directly against much more sophisticated opposition, with the inevitable consequences.
No amount of tinkering could ever improve the EcoSport significantly enough to make it class-competitive, and it was priced too ambitiously given its shortcomings. Even the name, admittedly inherited from the original, smacked of cynicism, since it was not particularly economical or ecologically friendly, and certainly not remotely sporting.
Ford has since rowed back considerably on Mulally’s One Ford big idea, Mulally himself having left the company in July 2014. Ford can certainly design and build a much better small crossover than the EcoSport and has already done so with the 2019 Puma. It is amazing that, at the time of writing, the EcoSport is still hanging around in Ford’s European range like a bad smell. In the UK, it lists from £20,850, compared with the Puma’s starting price of £22,045. It is safe to say that £1,195(4) would never be better spent or more foolishly saved than in this case.
(1) And a surprising resemblance to the 2006 Land-Rover Freelander 2, which is intriguing, given the authorship of the latter design.
(2) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(3) Not in all markets.
(4) Ignoring any discounts offered, of course.