Scalded cat

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Ford’s new racing Puma is the ultimate version of an already brilliant car. The only problem is it comes with a less than brilliant price tag. Matthew Franey tries his hand at the latest in a long line of blue oval specials.

It took a bit of umming and ahhing but I’ve decided to come clean from the beginning. I realise I could flesh out a couple of thousand words on how it goes, what it looks like and how its bolted together before I bring you back down to Earth with a bump, but on reflection that seemed more than a bit unfair. So here goes. The Ford Racing Puma costs £22,750. There, I’ve done it.

Even to the most fiscally unchallenged of our readers, £22,750 represents a healthy investment to make in any sportscar. Particularly one that carries the Blue Oval. Ford’s product range continues to improve and impress but breaking the £20,000 barrier to buy one of Ford’s finest remains for many a leap of faith that is hard to countenance. For that sort of money you should be talking BMW, Alfa Romeo — even Lotus.

On the plus side this is no breathed upon Ford Ka we are talking about here. This is an uprated version of a car that made motoring journalists coo all the right noises when its base model was released nearly three years ago. The Puma — in 1.7-litre guise at least — was everything cars like the earlier Escort Cosworth were not. Its chassis dynamics were outstanding, handling crisp and, most importantly, it was accessible to a market where a low insurance group is as important as a low 0-60mph time. One of the reasons you see so many regular Pumas on the road is the fact that someone on a regular salary can still stomach the running costs.

So what does an extra £7750 buy you? In pure performance terms not a great deal. Ford plans to sell 1000 of their 2+2s in Racing spec and for this they have commissioned veteran Ford tuners Tickford to convert cooking 1.7-litre Pumas. The company that brought you muscle cars like the Tickford Capri and RS500 Sierra has certainly gone to work on the Racing Puma but not to the extent that you will feel like bandying figures around in the pub. Revised camshafts, intake manifold and engine management means that power output has increased, but only from a rather meagre 125bhp to a still unstartling 153bhp. That equates to just a couple of tenths off your 0-60mph times. The suspension too has been worked on; its layout remains the same but uprated springs, dampers and anti-roll bars make for a markedly stiffer set-up.

Where the Racing Puma really does at last start to stand out from a crowd of its stock sister is in its appearance. The front and rear track has swelled by 70 and 90mm respectively; an increase that instills in the Puma even more of a go-kart feel while allowing the stylists to pen a set of the most outrageously flared wheel arches. From all angles Racing Puma looks the part; some might say it looks now only as the original should have from the start Under the nose sits an air splitter to complete a brutally beautiful picture. You don’t need to brag in the pub. All you need do is nod silently towards the car park.

Inside the changes continue apace. In come a set of superb Sparco bucket seats that appear to have been borrowed straight from a touring car. Trimmed in blue suede, a recurring theme right down to half the steering wheel, they are as supportive as they first appear. If they are lacking in anything it is more shock absorption, for on anything other than the smoothest of asphalt the harshly sprung car transmits a succession of jolts through your backside.

Vibrant upholstery aside, the Racing Puma retains many of the standard car’s internals. That means the dash and instruments are unchanged, the excellent Ford CD system is included while the pretty pointless rear seats remain. Convince yourself that this is a car for a family of four and the two children in the back will be signing themselves up for adoption.

If the Puma is a visual masterpiece, your ears have not been forgotten either. An entirely new exhaust system runs beneath the floor pan culminating in a cannon-sized tailpipe. Position yourself anywhere along its length and the result is more than surprising. Ford’s engineers have allowed the Puma to be a little extravagant with its fuelling and if that means that the odd puff of unbumt super unleaded should make its way through to the exhaust system then so be it. The result is a rorty, bass note punctuated by a series of metallic pops and bangs on over-run.

If it’s true that it’s the little things that make a total driving experience then assessing whether the Racing Puma offers up quite enough is a real conundrum. Nobody buys a car like this expecting the ride qualities of a Focus, but they should feel entitled to be able to drive on less than perfect roads without excessive tramlining through ruts and thumping over manhole covers. That the Racing Puma is incapable of doing so is its greatest indictment. When cars like Porsche’s 911 GT3 ride as well round town as a Ford, somebody has got his sums wrong.

Of course just when you are on the verge of becoming tired of Racing Puma’s dark side, life has a way of throwing in a little ray of sunshine. In the case of this car that comes in the shape of any road that has a) corners and b) no traffic. If ever a car was made for those country lanes of motoring hack folklore, then this is it.

At anything approaching exciting speeds the Puma is transformed. The low-speed jarring vanishes to be replaced by a sure-footedness that makes this a remarkably easy car to simply to drive quickly but to drive really hard too. The wider tyres, traction control — and moderate power levels — mean that it is impossible to generate more than the odd chirp of protest as you accelerate away from low speed corners. Indeed, only mild understeer is the order of the day as you feed the power in, especially above 4000rpm where the Tickford engine — progressive in its delivery without ever being astounding — is particularly on cam.

Without much grunt and front-wheel drive, exiting corners will never be as much fun as entering them and it is here that the Puma is worth its price tag. In a chassis as dynamic as this, the heavily revised suspension only serves to make the car feel even more alive. As you skit from turn-in to apex, the car reacts precisely to driver inputs, whether from right foot or steering wheel. Feel the front end washing wide and the nose will tuck in simultaneously — almost telepathically — as you ease off the throttle. Find a sudden need to tighten your line further and the same is true should you wind on more lock.

Such positive responses are what any driver wishes from a car and the Puma delivers with ease. What’s more, it possesses that indefinable character — an ability to feel quicker than it would appear on paper. Gearchanges, for example, clunk enjoyably through the gate, the action precise, the clutch equally so.

Steering is also sharp and quick, the winged edges of the bucket seats coming into play in S-bends as you transfer weight effortlessly from one side to the other. If I have a gripe it is that the seating position and lack of adjustment in the wheel itself go some way to eliminating a sporty feel within the cabin. When you are playing at racing drivers, it can be nice to feel like a racing driver.

Brakes are the final area of the package to have had a seeing to. The rear discs remain the same at 270mm, but inside the front wheels sit 295mm discs now shod with four-pot Alcon calipers. Throughout an afternoon of hard driving they showed no signs of fading and while the retardation is effective there remained in my mind an underlying feeling that Ford knew this car would never arrive at corners at totally break-neck speeds. While the rest of the Puma carries the aura of a racing car, the brakes feel rather more road-based.

Which of course is where this car will spend 95 per cent of its time. The crux lies with whether you will spending that time sitting on the M25 or planting your right foot as you head into the Yorkshire Dales. As you rumble your way along the former you may just resort to buying one of those beaded seat covers beloved by mini-cab drivers of my acquaintance. On the latter you will rest easy in the knowledge that there are very few cars available today that will stay with you.

If Ford is to sell 1000 Racing Pumas then my guess will be that they will go not to people who research the market in the greatest of detail but to someone with a generous company car allowance, even, dare I suggest, the odd Essex hot-rodder. That’s not to say that the Racing Puma is not worthy of the discerning driver — it is undoubtedly brilliant when being hustled along — but at the end of the day you have to ask how many people are going to part with £23,000 for a 1.7-litre Ford. However good it is.

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