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Click for pictures“Ford Puma —
  one of the best
  small sports coupés
  you can buy”

JUDGED ON LOOKS ALONE it was clear from the day the Puma was unveiled that Ford had a winner on its hands. This radically curved sports coupé — instantly recognisable by its almond-shaped
'alien eyes' — soon proved to be a seriously competent driver's machine as well as a flamboyant style statement, and its success was guaranteed. In fact, it's been the best-selling coupé in the UK for each of the past nine months.

And it's not hard to understand why. Climb aboard this refined little rocket ship, strap yourself into the bolstered sports-style cloth seat, and you could be in a car costing much more than its 12,995. While the Puma's dynamic abilities might urge you to drive like a boy racer, the driving environment is beautifully restrained. Build quality is as impressive inside as it is out, with the kind of attention to detail that makes it a rewarding car to own as well as drive. Electric windows and mirrors, a decent sound-system, power-assisted steering, traction control, driver’s airbag, remote locking, and ABS are all fitted as standard equipment.

Black-on-white instruments behind the chunky half-leather steering wheel are complemented by satin alloy highlights on the dash; a theme tastefully extended to the door handles and the tactile metal gearknob. The solid, machined-aluminium ball is exactly where the palm of your left hand expects it to be and the driver’s seat adjusts electrically to your optimum driving position.

Headroom is surprisingly good, although rear seat passengers may wish they were sitting up front enjoying the action. The split/fold rear seats can, however, expand the luggage space considerably. Air conditioning today is a must so for 360 extra you’d be crazy not to opt for it.

We tested the 1.7-litre model (a 1.4-litre is also available) and at its heart is a real peach of an engine. The all-aluminium alloy Zetec SE unit delivers 125bhp and 116lb ft of torque that on the road means a stream of usable power delivered smoothly throughout the rev range. Thanks to variable cam timing the engine remains smooth and eager during hard acceleration yet is just as responsive driving around town. The sprint to 60mph is accomplished in 8.7 seconds, and top speed in fifth is a stable 126mph.

Going fast is not much use unless you can stop. And when you want to stop in a Puma, that is exactly what you do. Aided by brake-activated traction control, the anti-lock brakes are enormously reassuring, with good feel from the pedal. Key controls are well-weighted, including the smooth action clutch that along with a sporty, short 'n' snappy shift action, makes swapping cogs up and down the close-ratio, five-speed gearbox an addictive pleasure.

Chassis development was the province of Ford's Special Vehicle Engineering (SVE) people, who tuned the chassis, suspension and steering to suit enthusiastic driving, while retaining safety, predictability and stability. The result is a car with an outstanding blend of nimble handling and supple ride refinement.

And which explains why, the harder you press on and the faster you go, the easier the Puma feels to drive. Bumps rarely faze it or dislodge the impressive grip from the Pirelli 195/50s, even when charging hard. Communicative steering makes placing the Puma no more difficult than thinking about where you want to be.

Long runs saw 37mpg; in town that figure drops to a still reasonable 28mpg. Drive like a hooligan and it will be your licence that takes the hit, not your petrol consumption, which will still stay the better side of 20mpg.

If cars had star signs, the Puma could only be a Gemini. On the one hand it's a smart, practical everyday car with an uncanny knack of shrinking long tiresome journeys into short fun runs, while on the other it's a rewarding road rocket with genuine sports car dynamics. Two cars, in fact, for the price of one. Uncle Henry would be delighted...

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Ford Puma 1.7 | £12,995
Maximum speed: 126mph | 0-60mph: 8.7 seconds
Overall test MPG: 28mpg | Power: 125bhp | Torque: 116lb ft
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