2018 Ford EcoSport First Drive: Launch Control

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“Dearborn, we’ve got a problem here.” We imagine the 2018 Ford EcoSport’s marketing manager paraphrasing Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert’s famous line upon discovering the full details of the hand-me-up subcompact cute-ute he or she was tasked with launching into one of America’s hottest and fast-growing sales segments. Swigert was reporting what turned out to be an oxygen-tank explosion that compromised the ship’s electrical and life-support systems. Ford’s marketing team faces the daunting if less critical task of peddling a “brand new” six-year-old vehicle optimized for emerging markets.

The EcoSport is based on 2011 Fiesta underpinnings and since mid-2012 has been produced in Romania, China, Brazil, Russia, Thailand, and (for our market) India. We bet it’s a peach in those places. But in the U.S., where it must lure customers away from Subaru Crosstreks, Kia Souls, Jeep Renegades, Honda HR-Vs, and the Chevrolet Trax, the EcoSport looks to us like a tough marketing challenge.

How have Ford’s “mission controllers” handled this dicey launch? By taking a page from Buick’s introduction of the Chinese-built Envision and quietly releasing the car into the market in January before ever formally inviting any automotive press to drive or report on it, thus bending the adage: “If they won’t have anything nice to say about it, don’t let them say anything at all.” So in March we finally drove two EcoSports that were on hand following a 2019 Ford Fusion backgrounder.

The mainstream 1.0-liter three-cylinder EcoBoost EcoSport (say eek-oh-boost echo-sport) engine produces 123 hp at 6,000 rpm and 125 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm. These numbers are lowest in the class, resulting in the highest weight-to-power rating, so it’s no shocker that this three-banger seemed to struggle with two adults onboard. It moans under hard acceleration and it vibrates the steering wheel when it’s working hard. Not even a brake-torque launch could elicit so much as a chirp from the front tires. Ford optimistically rates the 1.0-liter as capable of towing 1,400 pounds. Please don’t try this.

Opt for all-wheel drive and you automatically get the 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four cylinder and an “intelligent” torque distribution system that lets you monitor where the torque is going via a dash screen. This engine produces a healthier and more class-competitive 166 hp at 6,500 rpm and 149 lb-ft at 4,500 rpm, earning a more plausible 2,000-pound tow rating. The only available transmission with either engine is a six-speed torque-converter automatic—a welcome upgrade from the little-loved dry dual-clutch box the EcoSport was born with. Ford claims the steering wheel shift paddles offered on the SES 2.0-liter we drove are a segment first (our Titanium 1.0-liter lacked them). Although the big engine greatly improves acceleration response, it still feels and sounds coarser and less refined than those powering the class leaders.

By the literal yardstick, EcoSport measures among the smallest in the class, measuring 1.7-14.5 inches shorter than the top six sellers, riding on the only sub-100-inch wheelbase in the bunch. It’s also narrower than everything in the class since the Nissan Juke’s departure. In fact, dimensionally it’s like a Juke that stands about 3 inches taller.

That short wheelbase and tall seating position give EcoSport a slightly squirrelly handling demeanor. Nothing dangerous, mind you (stability control comes standard), but we found it disconcertingly easy to induce oversteer—and instantaneous intervention from the nannies—when braking into some ess-turns in north-central Detroit. Ride quality is another area where the intersection of elderly underpinnings and a design optimized for third-world roads and expectations result in sharp reports and steering wheel judders from driveway curb-cuts and frost-heaved pavement slabs its competitors take in stride.

Inside, the segment’s top sellers are all larger in the front and back seats, though the EcoSport holds a narrow cargo-space advantage over the Trax and the Renegade with its seats up. There’s also an available cargo-management system with a movable load floor. Of course, if you find yourself needing to carry something a bit longer than the cargo floor, you’ll be better served by a top-hinged hatch you can tie down to meet it than by the Ford’s left-hinged, side-opening rear door. As unique selling propositions go, this is not a strong one.

Our EcoSport SES’ interior was trimmed in attractive black cloth with copper stripes on the seats and copper anodized-look accents on the dash, console, and door panels. And looking more closely at the pebble-grain plastic on the dash revealed it to feature a unique pattern of recessed circles inside raised squares. Ironically, the more expensive Titanium grade trim looked cheaper, with shiny “piano black” trim replacing the SES’ copper anodized stuff. Because nothing in this interior hints “Steinway,” this shiny black stuff comes off looking plasticky and contributes to making the black perforated leather seem more like vinyl. All EcoSports get Sync connectivity, with most getting the upgraded Sync 3 (on-screen Waze!) with a 6.5- or 8.0-inch touchscreen, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and available 4G LTE Wi-Fi that can connect 10 devices.

Finally, it’s hard to find any compelling news on the value front. EcoSport base prices span from $20,990 to $28,325, which only convincingly undercuts the Trax. If you don’t need AWD, a Kia Soul is better looking, way more fun to drive, and way cheaper ($18,695-$23,795 for automatic-transmission models); an HR-V ($21,445-$27,515 for automatic models) brings legendary Honda resale value; and a $25,905 mid-grade Subaru Crosstrek with the EyeSight option package gets world-class crash-prevention systems and adaptive cruise control not available on this little Bollywood Ford. We wish this EcoSport a safe and expeditious landing and hope its imminent successor reminds us more of Apollo 14.

2018 Ford EcoSport
BASE PRICE $20,990-$28,325
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINES 1.0L/123-hp/125-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 12-valve I-3; 2.0L/166-hp/149-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 3,050-3,300 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 99.2 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 161.3 x 69.5 x 65.1 in
0-60 MPH 9.0-10.0 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 23-27/29/25-28 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 126-147/116 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.70-0.76 lb/mile
ON SALE IN U.S. Currently



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