Here’s Fords’s answer to the CUV segment: the Ford Freestyle
Here’s a statistic that highlights the Indian obsession for SUVs – and the fact that neither can we afford nor do we want proper SUVs. While SUVs, like the rest of the market, are growing by single digits the Compact SUV segment is exploding and is expected to double in volume to 1 million units by 2022. Everybody, obviously, wants a piece of the pie but what do you do if you already have a Compact SUV? Here’s Ford’s answer: The Ford Freestyle
The Ford Freestyle: A Compact Utility Vehicle or cross hatch?
That’s what CUV stands for, but let’s not confuse matters – the Freestyle is a cross-hatch much in the same vein as the first-off-the-block-but-now-discontinued VW Cross Polo. And it’s not virgin territory either with the Hyundai i20 Active, Toyota Etios Cross and even the Honda WR-V already doing business. The formula is simple. Take your regular hatchback, add taller springs for a higher ground clearance, fill the wheel arch gap with plastic cladding, garnish the bumpers with something that looks like skid plates, tack on roof rails, paint the alloys black and, voila, you have the Freestyle. There’s no hiding the Figo origins on the Freestyle (unlike what Fiat did with the Avventura / Grande Punto or more recently Honda with the WR-V / Jazz) but neither is it too familiar like the Hyundai i20 / i20 Active. There are new headlamps and taillamps to go with the new bumpers and even the bonnet is new. And the roof rails aren’t purely ornamental, it can take 50kg of load so don’t worry about throwing a cycle rack on the roof. Styling is of course a personal subject and I leave you to draw your own conclusions but as for me I quite like the execution, stance and overall handsomeness to the Freestyle, with half of the work being done by Ford’s ever-expanding team in India under the leadership of Maneesh Tikekar.
Are the Ford Freestyle and Figo mechanically identical?
Underneath the skin this is a Figo but with one very, very big difference. The Freestyle debuts the 1.2-litre 3-cylinder version of Ford’s new Dragon engine that we’ve already seen in the recently revised EcoSport. Now before you let out a big groan at the thought of a measly 1.2 in something that wants to masquerade as an SUV check out the Dragon TiVCT’s figures – 94.7bhp and 120Nm. That’s a fair bit of power for a small capacity motor and with the Freestyle weighing not much more than the Figo it gives it sprightly performance. It revs hard and takes on a rorty exhaust note towards the upper end of the rev range – the latter is the gruffness of a typical 3-cylinder but what Ford have managed to do is make that sound sporty which is a really neat trick. The 5-speed manual transmission is all-new and is claimed to be 15 per cent lighter and consumes 40 per cent less oil. To operate it is slick with nice short throws while the reduction in friction has led to an improvement in fuel efficiency. The petrol has an ARAI-tested efficiency of 19kmpl but if you consider that to be inadequate then there’s the diesel with 24.4kmpl. That oil burner is the familiar 98.6bhp, 200Nm 1.5-litre unit and though we didn’t get to sample that on our first drive I can tell you from experience that it is one of the nicest diesel mills in the business and will suit the Freestyle really well.
The Ford Freestyle is fun to drive
Our test route took us from the airport in Jaipur to the Sambhar salt flats that accounts for 8 per cent of all of India’s salt. The two and a half hour drive took us over a mix of triple-carriageway highways and narrow bumpy village roads and it is on the latter that the Freestyle really came alive. Ford do make some of the most fun-to-drive cars in their respective segments and the Freestyle is no different. Building on the Figo’s excellent base the Freestyle gets taller springs to raise its ground clearance to 190mm (in comparison the EcoSport is at 200mm) while the offset on the 15-inch alloy wheels has gone up to increase the track width marginally (and give it a more proportional stance). This means it does not ride as well as the Figo and there is an underlying firmness that had our photographer Rohit complaining very quickly. (This is exacerbated by the cabin that is not as spacious when compared to its rivals). But that’s the back seat passenger. Up front I had a big grin on my face. The Freestyle stays planted and stable over bumpy roads and truth be told Rohit’s complaints were also down to me pushing the Freestyle harder than I would any another car in this segment. The well-sorted dynamics of the Ford give you that confidence to push it harder, carry more speed through corners and generally enjoy the driving experience. There isn’t much body roll and though the steering is lacking in feel and a touch overly assisted it isn’t lifeless either so you know exactly what the car is doing and how much to push it. An upside of the sorted dynamics is that the Freestyle feels like a safe car too. Adding to the safety are 6 airbags on the top-end Titanium trim, electronic stability control (that cannot be turned off completely) and the Sync 3 infotainment (with an excellent Car Play and Android Auto-compatible 6.5-inch touchscreen) also has emergency call assist.
Verdict on the Ford Freestyle
The price announcement and first deliveries of the Freestyle will happen at the end of April but going by recent form we expect Ford to be competitive. Plus the boss of Ford India assures me that the overall cost of ownership will be at least 6 to 7 per cent less than the best in class. Anurag Mehrotra also claims the per kilometre service cost, over 100,000km, for the petrol is 41 paise while for the diesel it is 51 paise – going so far as to say that the annual service bill, even in the fifth year, will not be more than Rs 6000. Peace of mind, assured.
The question then is not whether the Freestyle is a good car or not (it is good!) but whether Indians are ready to open their wallets for a cross-hatch, never mind it is branded as a Compact Utility Vehicle.