In late 1999 I was in the mood for buying a new car. Not just a newer car to replace my tired Corsa but my first ever brand new car with no previous owners and no miles on the clock. The followers of the Bangernomics Bible will be rolling their eyes now but I put it down to the impetuousness of youth.
There were some conditions – it had to be a hatchback and it had to be a good drive and at that time the list of candidates was short. The Astra was dull, Megane horrible, Golf overweight and A3 unsatisfying and overpriced, while all the Japanese hatches were solid but exceedingly dull to drive.
Peugeot’s 306 was an early candidate, being the last of the Peugeots that were considered fun to drive, but this was also the time when Ford had started producing cars with a sparkle that other manufacturers could not match. Gone were the days of the lacklustre Escort, instead we had a range of cars with sweet steering and wonderful handling. So it was that I found myself having to decide between the fantastic Focus and the dinky little Puma, both cars that were gathering rave reviews for their class-leading handling.
Choosing between the two was tough and to cut a long story short I went for the Focus. In the end practicality won the argument but as soon as I paid the deposit to the Dutch dealer to import my shiny new Ford (this was the time of Rip-Off Britain when you could save a fortune by importing from Europe) I had second thoughts. Did I make the right choice? Would I have had more fun in the Puma?
A Bold Design
First unveiled in 1997, the Puma was a bold design that followed some of the principles of Ford’s new ‘Kinetic’ design theory that had crafted the Focus and Ka. A mixture of sharp edges and sweeping curves, the 3-door coupé was certainly distinctive. Not the most aggressive of designs, but quite sporty. Sadly the Puma’s diminutive form appealed more to the fairer sex and it soon gained a reputation as a hairdresser’s car. That put a lot of blokes off, but their silly prejudices meant they were missing out.
Underneath that pretty frock lurked the underpinnings of the Fiesta. To those in the know that was a good thing as the humble Fiesta was blessed with an entertaining setup, to the badge snobs it was a reason to deride the Puma as nothing more than a tarted up hatchback. What the badge snobs wouldn’t tell you was that the Puma could run rings around its competition, the closest of which was the Vauxhall Tigra, and could embarrass a lot of ‘proper’ sports cars. In terms of smiles per pound spent it was hard to beat.
Admittedly the contributions from the Fiesta’s parts bin went a touch too far. The interior was completely lifted from the Fiesta with no effort to disguise the dash, steering wheel or switchgear. It was a shame, because with some decent seats and a bit of a revamp the Puma’s interior could have been a much nicer place to spend time.
There was one item that was changed and it was a lovely little touch. On top of the gearstick sat a smooth ball of aluminium, cool to the touch (especially on a winter’s morning) and perfectly sized to fit in the palm of your hand. It made gear changes seem a much more pleasurable affair.
Then there was the engine. There were three units available, the smallest being an asthmatic 1.4-litre with 88bhp and the mid-range was a 101bhp 1.6-litre. The one to go for was the 1.7-litre which boasted 123bhp, a top speed of 126mph and 0-62 in 9.2 seconds.
It was on holiday in Cornwall in 2001 that I fell in love with the Puma. The future Mrs Auty and I decided to treat ourselves to a hire car for the week and the Puma fitted the bill perfectly. It looked good, was quick and wasn’t going to hurt my wallet too much.
The car we ended up with was a 1.7-litre on a 51-plate with less than a thousand miles on the clock, and when we returned it at the end of the week it had racked up almost 1,600 more miles. The return trip to St.Ives, via St.Austell on the south coast, accounted for about 600 miles and the rest was spent blatting around the twisting lanes of Cornwall.
The narrow roads linking Cornwall’s coastal villages were ideal for the Puma. Tight and twisty, the Puma handled them with ease, it’s compact shape being a big plus when approaching oncoming cars on some very narrow stretches of road. Snicking up and down the tightly packed ratios was great fun, with the raspy note from the Yamaha-developed engine a joy to listen to.
Economy was a different matter. Average economy over the trip was in the low 30s, but the biggest problem was the small fuel tank that meant that you were filling up at roughly 300 mile intervals. The Puma also wasn’t designed to be a long distance cruiser, something that was obvious on motorways with the engine buzzing away quite loudly at 70mph.
Never mind, as soon as you returned to the back roads it was coaxing you on, faster and faster. It loved corners, turning in sharply, gripping well and resisting understeer before darting away from the apex. With only 123bhp it wasn’t rocket-ship fast, but that also meant that the front wheels were never troubled by torque steer and you could get on the throttle early in corners without fear of pushing wide. It was great fun.
Sadly my holiday romance had to end and it was with a feeling of regret that I handed back the keys to the Ford dealer. I had really enjoyed my week with the Puma, even if the wife-to-be hadn’t enjoyed it so much from the passenger seat. Mind you, the Puma had a similar effect on her – her normally sedate driving style became noticeably more aggressive when she got behind its wheel.
Did I make the right decision when I chose the Focus? With hindsight maybe not, the Puma’s flirtatious character is something I didn’t truly appreciate when I made my choice. On the other hand the Focus went on to be a faithful companion. It never let me down in over eight years and 110,000 miles of travels, tackling the punishment that I threw at it on a daily basis. It’s been gone for three years now and I still miss that car. Would I have said that about the Puma? As Cher once sang, ‘if I could turn back time…’.