Last year, Nissan sold over 230,000 examples of its Juke compact crossover worldwide. MINI sold over 100,000 Countryman and Paceman models. Kia moved nearly 400,000 Sportage crossovers.

The message here is that subcompact and compact crossovers are big business. Ford knows this, which is why its new EcoSport (pronounced "Echo-sport") is to be sold in Europe and the Far East, as well as its home markets in South America.

U.S. sales are unconfirmed--and as yet, unlikely--but we got behind the wheel for a first drive in Barcelona, Spain.

Europe is a key sales arena for subcompact crossovers like the EcoSport. As well as the aforementioned Nissan Juke, the Ford is up against Renault's new Captur, the Peugeot 2008, the Opel Mokka and several more over the next few years.

As subcompact cars themselves improve--as anyone who has driven Ford's Fiesta will attest--crossovers based on these cars improve too, offering levels of comfort, performance and equipment far greater than small cars of the past. Throw in pseudo-off road styling, the extra utility of a raised seating position and highly-efficient small engines, and their popularity isn't at all surprising.

Brazilian origins

Unusually for a modern Ford, it's been designed not in the U.S, nor Europe, but by Ford's team in Brazil.

This is where the original EcoSport was developed and sold, on the market since 2003. With raised suspension and chunky body styling it was designed to take on tough roads, yet small engines and a Fiesta-sized footprint meant low running costs and ease of use.

The new EcoSport follows that trend, with a platform donated by the current-generation Fiesta.

It's just over 1.5 inches longer than a Fiesta but its raised ride height, 8-inch ground clearance and chunky body styling make it look much bigger in the flesh.

Unusually for a modern crossover, the EcoSport also features an externally-mounted spare tire, which does add several inches to the car's length--accounted for by the reverse parking sensors, we're told. Due to this, the car has a side-hinged tailgate rather than the typical top-hinged hatchback design.

These details and the car's relatively narrow footprint do lend the EcoSport an ungainly look--neither as sleek as the Fiesta it's based on nor as sophisticated as its European rivals.

Those impressions continue into the cabin, where the design is all Fiesta but the execution less impressive. The plastics are hard and shiny, and the car's SYNC display graphics seemingly a few generations behind systems used by other companies. Mercifully, your regular contact points--seats, wheel and gear shifter--all feel up to standard.

Ford EcoSport subcompact crossover first drive review

Ford EcoSport subcompact crossover first drive review

Engines and economy

In Europe, the EcoSport will get three power units.

The base engine is a new 1.5-liter Duratec gasoline engine, available with a five-speed manual transmission or six-speed auto. This was unavailable to test.

Next up is the familiar 1.0-liter EcoBoost three-cylinder from the Fiesta--direct injected and turbocharged, it develops just under 125 horsepower and on the European cycle, manages around 44 mpg. You can take 15-20 percent off that for an equivalent EPA figure--though the Fiesta is expected to get around 45 mpg highway.

During our drive though, its real-world economy was even lower--barely bettering an indicated 30 mpg.

That's not just the usual journalist lead-foot factor, but an issue familiar to the latest generation of tiny turbocharged gasoline engines. To achieve good real-world economy, you really have to be incredibly careful--and frankly, drive at velocities unrealistic to modern traffic.

As ever, the engine itself is pleasant to use: very smooth for a three-cylinder, admirably quiet and uniquely thrummy at higher revs. It's also responsive and torquey enough at low engine speeds, though has little more to give when you extend the engine.

Officially, it'll do 0-62 mph in 12.7 seconds and 112 mph. Ford also provides a 31-62 mph acceleration figure of 12.8 seconds in 4th gear--not spectacular, and illustrative of the 500-pound weight penalty and poorer aerodynamics the EcoSport carries over the equivalent Fiesta.

At 3,050 lbs the 1.5-liter Duratorq diesel model is heavier by another 80 lbs, and also develops just 90 horsepower.

This really does feel sluggish out on the road. 0-62 mph arrives in 14 whole seconds and it's a little slower over the 31-62 range too. Arguably it feels even worse out on the road, with none of the turbocharged shove you get in similarly-sized diesel rivals from low revs.

Acceleration is instead accompanied by plenty of noise--an unpleasant, old-school diesely racket at that--and vibration through the controls. It's a truly unpleasant engine to use and a long way off the units offered by competitors, but does eventually settle down at a constant cruise.

Combined economy of 50.7 mpg on the European cycle is little to write home about either when similarly-priced rivals are 15-20 percent better.

The indicated 35 mpg we achieved on the test route is indicative of the engine's unwillingness to gather speed and the surprisingly short gearing of the 5-speed manual--the engine turns at around 3,000 rpm at 70 mph.

Ford EcoSport subcompact crossover first drive review

Ford EcoSport subcompact crossover first drive review

Other observations

Thankfully, it isn't all bad news for the EcoSport.

Like all Fords these days, ride and handling is very good indeed--there's good weight and feel to the steering, decent grip for a relatively tall vehicle and a composed ride--though smooth Spanish roads rarely throw up too many ride issues.

It's also a comfortable cruiser, not always the case in small cars. Wind noise is relatively low--though the windshield wipers did whistle at speed, another trait you rarely find in cars developed in Europe or the U.S. these days.

The seats are well-shaped (if a little lacking in support when cornering), the gearbox and clutch light and slick, the brakes responsive and while the cabin does feel a little nasty, there's a lot of space--the extra height over the Fiesta has allowed for plenty of occupant and luggage space.

But overall, the EcoSport feels like a compromised product.

The chunky body makes one of Ford's best engines--the three-cylinder Ecoboost--feel undernourished and uneconomical, and the diesel is well off the pace. The interior lags behind that of the Fiesta and ultimately it isn't as good to drive either.

In Europe, pricing will be a little more than that of the Nissan Juke, and similar to its Renault and Peugeot equivalents.

It's certain to sell at that price, and to Ford's credit it'll cost little more than the equivalent Fiesta. But customers who have sampled its rivals may be a little underwhelmed--and put off by anachronisms like the side-hinged tailgate and externally-mounted spare.

Will Ford offer it in North America? It doesn't look likely for the time being--and the car's low performance and so-so economy certainly wouldn't endear it to American drivers.


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