Its recent stateside debut notwithstanding, the Ford EcoSport is no spring chicken. The 2018 model represents a substantial update but not a full redesign of the nameplate’s second generation, sold internationally since mid-2012. The first generation dates back to 2003, and Ford calls it “echo sport” — a pronunciation I suspect most U.S. shoppers will abandon in favor of “eeko sport,” which keeps with the more-recent “eeko-boost” marketing of Ford’s turbocharged gas engines (EcoBoost). That’s all but assured on the front-wheel-drive EcoSport, which has an EcoBoost three-cylinder engine. “Echo” stands no chance.
Optional all-wheel drive pairs with a non-turbo four-cylinder. We tested both FWD Titanium and AWD SES models. Those are the two highest of four available trim levels, which you can compare here.
A Real (Looking) SUV
A tall, if stubby, profile gives the EcoSport a legitimate SUV likeness, something lacking in competitors like the Honda HR-V, Fiat 500X and Mazda CX-3, which all sit noticeably lower. It looks like a truncated Escape; it’s 16.8 inches shorter measured from bumper to bumper but only about an inch lower in height. That nails the ethos of a tiny-footprint SUV: still tall, just small.
The SUV vibe continues inside, where the EcoSport offers high seating positions front and back. Massive A-pillars pinch the forward sight lines, however, and the glass, though tall, is so far ahead of the driver’s seat that a hulking roofline cuts off traffic lights overhead. Flip-down rear head restraints aid the view out back, but the rear window is small even when unencumbered.
That’s just the beginning of the rear annoyances. Instead of a traditional liftgate, the EcoSport has a rear swing-gate. It’s a setup that requires some 4 feet of clearance behind the car to fully open — anathema to parallel parking and tight garage spots. Last I checked, such quarters are the norm for trendy urbanites who supposedly buy tiny SUVs. Instead of an exposed handle to open the swing gate, the release button sits inside a cutout in the passenger-side taillight, with a lip in the upper reflector that serves as a handle. It’s a novel idea … except the whole thing looks like a broken taillight from a distance. (Hey, now that’s urban.)
Slow and Unsteady
On front-drive models, the EcoSport’s 123-horsepower, turbocharged three-cylinder has some punchiness at higher revs and sufficient low-end torque to ratchet up speed if your right foot is patient, but one editor complained of excessive drivetrain lag from a stop. With more displacement but no turbo, the four-cylinder (166 hp) trades that punch for linearity. It’s a smoother trip up the tachometer, but it’s hardly a quick one. The midrange torque from the turbo three-cylinder is clearly missing, and the extra horsepower doesn’t make up for it — nor do the extra 250-280 pounds of curb weight (another roughly 9 percent) you get with AWD, which blunts any positive effect.
Both engines work with a six-speed automatic transmission that’s given to frequent multigear downshifts. What’s more, fuel efficiency isn’t great: EPA-estimated combined mileage for the EcoSport is 28 mpg with FWD and 25 mpg with AWD. That trails most major competitors, particularly if you want AWD.
Suspension tuning is comfortably soft in all but the EcoSport SES, which gets a sport-tuned suspension that’s noticeably firmer. Still, neither setup can mask the SUV’s tiny wheelbase — at 99.2 inches, it’s the shortest in the class — which plays havoc on rough roads. Encounter uneven pavement and the front suspension can scarcely begin to sort out what happened before the rear hits the same thing. Body motions go unchecked as the EcoSport teeter-totters its way out. Even among subcompact SUVs — a group of short-wheelbase cars prone to this problem — Ford’s contender is particularly unsorted.