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The Puma, The Vogue Machine

Nicholas Frankl
TACH European Bureau

Funny thing, these Coupes.

Not sports cars, hotted up versions of mundane shopping trolleys and certainly not super car eaters. Remember the Fuego? -poor thing, Renault tried, you know not a bad car, individual and "different"- it failed miserably. Then VW came along with the Scorpio, a Golf based two door with good engineering and credible performance. Next came? Well there wasn't anything. The market research said the consumer wanted pocket rockets, hot-hatches and Ford Escorts on steroids. They got them and a fine bunch they were, decked out with chin spoilers, rear spoilers, alloys and the like, performance was up, bhp was up, and even the ego got a little inflated -so appealing were they in fact that even people who couldn't actually afford them got hold of them too. So after 5 years of insurance hell the premiums killed off the fun options and we went and discovered APV's and lumbering 4 wheel drives, that of course none of the previous "hot hatch" brigade could drive as they looked and more importantly handled like farm machinery.

Enter the politically correct Coupe. The first and arguably still the best was the VW Corrado- a combination of one of the best front wheel drive chassis in the world linked to one of the sweetest V6 motors ever produced. But the new breed is slightly different... No Go faster decals, no flash race inspired badging, just clean, aggressive styling, tuned smaller 4 cylinder engines and some close co-operation with our friends at the insurance companies. Vauxhall you may have seen gave us the last word in hairdresser engineering back in 1994 and by sheer luck and good fortune sold a whapping 70,000 Tigras in 1996 alone. In the history of all motoring their has never been a car that promised so much and delivered so little - a bit like shaking the hand of a supermodel and imagining what might have been.

What the Tigra did achieve was education of the masses. Renault followed a year or so a go with the Megane Coupe and now Ford, as part of the drive to revamp an old and lackluster image - that started with the revised Fiesta in 95 and moved impressively forward with the Ka last year, has thrown in the RS towel and designed the best Coupe so far. Call it evolution but what started out as a design study called Lynx, has now given birth to the Puma.

At £14,550 the Puma is not cheap. But you do get quite a lot for the money. Having just battled through the Bavarian mountains for two days, overcoming every kind of caravaning moron and holiday trucker, I would have to say that this car's a winner. The styling is truly adventurous and genuinely different - in a positive way, with clues borrowed from the GT90 supercar. The Puma features some lovely details in the headlights which are a first for being all ellipsoid for side, dipped and full beam, a nice machined aluminium gear not, aluminium look bash, white dials that glow green at night and a very impressive radio/CD system which can be supplemented by adding additional custom made rear woofers and front tweeters plus a 300 watt amp in the boot which is all extra and yours for £250. With a fresh out-the-box 1.7 litre Zetec SE engine pumping out 125bhp the car accelerates eagerly to 60mph in around 8.8 secs strangely in feels quicker - and onto a theoretical top speed of 125mph - actually this is not theoretical as I have just done it on the Autobahn and the car was both quiet and stable.

The ride is firm as you would expect but supple over rough bits, the steering providing good feed back and plenty of feeling when on the limit - the only real criticism I had was for the 195/50 Pirelli p6000 tyres which although tenacious in grip suffer the same trait as all the rest of the range, namely tyre walls which are too soft and which roll when pressing on. Fortunately Ford are offering four options and I would choose the Michelin every time.

The interior is bright and comes with standard "bucket" seats - not quite Recarro's mind - but very supportive all the same. The driving position however is not quite what it should be, for although the seats are electrically height adjustable the steering wheel is fixed and so consequently any one with long legs must drive with rather bent knees if he's / she's (Ford expects over 50% of buyer's to be women) arms are not to be stretched out like some later day Italian racing driver.

The chassis stood up well to various mountain manoeuvres, Puma remaining poised and stable on initial turn in and right through the corner the rear end becoming ever so slightly light when nearing the limit- something that might lead to some games if pushed really hard in the wet. Fortunately in the event of an accident there is a standard drivers side air bag, an optional passenger one, plus all the usual seat belt pre-tensioners, side impact beams and integrated crash absorbing chassis structure.

If all this doesn't light the fire of your imagination, then just wait till you see what Ford's marketing department have come up with to launch their new baby. For years the joke in the industry was that it didn't matter how good the latest Ford product was - and they'll admit in retrospect that more than a few were truly awful - all you had to do was get the marketing team on the case and the damn things always sold. This time however, they have surpassed themselves with a 60 second ad featuring non other than Steve McQueen. The film was shot on location in San Francisco and shows McQueen driving the Puma whilst re-enacting part of the chase from the movie classic- Bullet. No morphing or computer generated Steves were used and all the shots you see are of the real actor - only his environment has been superimposed to fit the plot. Trust me it's one of the best ad's I've seen in a long time and with some of the best music too.

The Puma is the Vogue machine right now - how can it fail to be? What time will tell is just how dynamic a shape it is and if it has the legs for the planned 30,000 units Ford are aiming to sell to those fashion conscious Europeans.

1.7l 16V Zetec SE125bhp
1,039kg - kerb weight
126 mph - top speed
8.8secs - 0-60
38.2 mpg - European drive cycle.
£14,500/ $24,000
On sale across Europe from July.