Croft original

Exciting new sports car, meet exciting new race track. Matthew Franey ventures north in the Ford Puma to see the transformation at Croft

Have you ever driven a car so fast that you thought you couldn’t go any quicker? Then tried it just a few miles an hour faster still and found that even though you may have not been happy doing it, the car most certainly was? If you have then what follows should make a great deal of sense. If not, then all I can suggest is that you borrow the keys to a new Ford Puma and find out what it’s like.

The Blue Oval’s new sports coupe has all those things its design team deems necessary to become a success in the ultra-competitive sportscar market. Ford refers to its ‘New Edge’ design its rounded haunches, organic lines, feline presence. But what the Puma also has is handling to shame cars that cost their owners £10,000 more. New Edge design maybe, but the age old qualities of performance and fun are what convince someone in search ofa sportscar to part with the best part of £15,000. Ford, to its credit, has not let its discerning public down.

Whether or not you are swayed by the hightailed squatness of the Puma is in many ways an side issue. There are indeed some attractive details on he car those sleek rear lights, five-spoke alloy wheels, elliptical windows but visual appearances count for little when you are driving so quickly.

What places Ford’s coupe so evidently ahead of its rivals is its poise and balance. Not the front-wheel drive, torque-steering, wheel-chirping behaviour that’s prevalent among the hot hatches of the 1990s, but tight, secure handling that imbues the driver of this little car built on the same platform as the Fiesta and Ka with the confidence that allows you to throw it relentlessly into corner after corner with ever-increasing velocity.

On the twisty country lanes of North Yorkshire the Puma is in its element. Riding camber changes and bumps with aplomb, its superlative damping prevents the uprated chassis transmitting bumps and thumps into the cabin as we head north to visit the site of a remarkable regeneration for British motorsport the racing circuit at Croft.

After very nearly 20 years of frantic club and international motorsport in the 1960s and ’70s, the north-east’s only racing venue went into gradual decline throughout the last decade before the present owners began a renovation process that has earned impressive returns from a major investment. Gone are the makeshift cabins and exposed pitlane; in their place shiny new pit garages and a superb, reprofiled track. In recent months the British Touring Car and Formula 3 Championships have returned to the circuit and motorsport fans from the northeast have returned to watch.

To this impressive, renewed facility we came to demonstrate just what Ford’s chassis expert Richard Parry-Jones has succeeded in creating. Croft’s engaging mixture of fast sweepers, tight constant radius curves and quick chicanes is rapidly becoming a favourite proving ground for racing teams. As you venture out you can see why.

At the end of the long start-finish straight the track veers right through the dauntingly quick Clervaux and Hawthorn Bends. Next it’s time to dive on the brakes to slow the car before powering out of the chicane on to the former pit straight. Flat out up to Tower Bend the circuit turns hard right, as you fight to keep tight to the apex and exit neatly for the burst up to the Jim Clark Esses where the great man himself, if legend is to be believed, ploughed the earth to create this quick left-right flick. Hard on the power through the Barcroft kink, the track then turns right, off the old circuit at Sunny corner and up the tight, twisting new section where handling and brakes come into their own before you round the final hairpin for the next lap.

The Puma boasts all manner of mechanical trickery to help it cope with these 2.2-miles of asphalt. Its purpose-built 1.7-litre 16-valve Zetec engine comes complete with variable cam timing producing 125bhp and impressive torque at low revs. Traction control, which cannot be switched off; is standard too. Ford’s acoustic whizzkids have produced a good rorty tone a new induction manifold with equal length intakes lets your ears hear what your eyes can already see: very fast progress in your intended direction of travel.

Allied to this impressive powerplant is a slick, quick-shifting five speed ‘box, which transmits the Puma’s power through large 15-inch wheels and 195/50 section tyres. To cope with the extra cornering forces generated, Ford has stiffened the Fiesta platform by 19 per cent at the front by raising the spring rates and beefing up the antiroll bar. The rear end is 21 percent firmer, the rear twist beam increasing in torsional rigidity by one third.

On the track the firmer chassis is immediately noticeable. The Puma bands into Clervaux corner at 80mph, pulling you through the apex and exit without hesitation or complaint. Body roll is present but not excessive, as is understeer; not the terminal variety that manufacturers dial into so many cars today, but a progressive washing wide of the nose. A small lift of the throttle or even a light tap on the brake with your left foot is all it takes to bring the car onto a tighter line.

Here is the first indication that the Puma is blessed with class-leading grip. Here also the first warning sign that the Ford has a surfeit of adhesion to power. Accelerating hand away from the corner, the Puma doesn’t budge from its line, doesn’t deviate an inch from its intended direction. Traction control or not, the car just pulls itself clear onto the straight, even unfair provocation from your right foot can’t upset its rock-solid poise.

The Puma is proving to be an easy car to drive. The driving position is good, the firm seats offering excellent lateral support in the very quickest and harshest corners (although a bit more lumbar padding would stop you feeling quite so slumped forward). The small steering wheel, quick clutch and short-travel brake pedal all help to generate the sporty feel and the cool, tactile, metal gear knob is more than just a neat bit of design. Your palm moulds neatly round the small aluminium ball and gear changes are as quick and smooth as you could possibly want. Close ratios help you make rapid progress and a rev limit of 6750rpm means that you can pull 85mph in third gear.

Hard on the anti-lock brakes into Tower and the Puma sheds speed efficiently but not spectacularly. At the front, 10.5-inch vented discs are backed up by rear drums which do enough to stop the highriding back end snaking around when your foot is hard to the floor, but fail to provide you with that reassurance that only large discs all round can. Where this car shines, however, is in the transition between retardation and acceleration; that point when you are making the critical decision of when and how hard to jump back on the throttle. Pitch sensitivity is almost non-existent, the Puma’s attitude during weight transfer exceptional indeed finesse with your right foot becomes a moot point, for all you need to do is plant the throttle back against the floor and wait for the revvy engine to do its job.

Exiting Tower at about 60mph, an extra tweak on the wheel bringing the nose further into line, the Puma heads up towards the fastest section of the track, Clark’s Esses and the Barcroft kink. Here, if the Puma has a flaw, it will surely be revealed. And it is. But not really as you might expect. You enter the Esses at a shade under 90mph and exit them at nearly 100mph. With its ability to navigate the tighter sections of Croft with ease you wonder whether the Puma might come unstuck now.

Setting the car up for the initial left, you await the first sign of high-speed nervousness. It doesn’t arrive. Sure and stable, the Puma four-wheel drifts across the track, the nose marginally ahead of the tail but not enough to induce you to lift. The Ford is demonstrating what it does best and at the same time, exactly what lets it down.

As brilliantly as the Puma changes direction, the very thing that makes it do so the steering fails to live up to your expectations. With just 2.9 turns from lock to lock, you might anticipate that the sharp handling is matched by similarly incisive steering, but somehow the rewards of this car’s poise felt through the chassis are not reflected through the steering wheel; inadequate fed forces you to make minor corrections to draw yourself back on line. It is not a major flaw, more an annoying one; especially considering the obvious thought and attention to detail that has gone into the Puma. With every lap you complete you don’t want, nor expect, to find yourself inadvertently taking a different line, hitting a different apex. But that is the way it happens.

It’s a regrettable omission to what is otherwise a fine machine. The Puma is very obviously the work of people who knew what they wanted when they designed this car and more importantly, dearly sales figures are to be believed, what the market wanted too. It cruises comfortably, if a little bit on the noisy side, and high-spec levels for interior trim a CD player, twin airbags, power windows and side mirrors are all included ‘mean the Puma doesn’t just perform well on the race track.

Yet it is on the track, or, more likely, fast country lanes, that the Puma is, in many ways, most at home. To demonstrate its real potential, the coupe demands really high-speed motoring but try and extract the utmost from the chassis on the road and you will find yourself travelling very fast indeed before the car misbehaves in any way probably rather too fast.

The much-missed Lancia Delta Integrale was often charged with being too good for its driver; so capable, that in the end it was slightly antiseptic. The Puma was never intended to be the next Integrale and that the two are mentioned in the same breath is praise indeed. But at the end of the day what the Puma lacks be it 30 more horsepower or more driver feedback is just the final few percent of an impressive package. It is all that separates it from being a very good car and an exceptional one.