Johannesburg - Everyone wants a big, butch-looking SUV these days, but real-world budgets get in the way for many, which makes this small SUV segment a complete no-brainer for car manufacturers. In fact, we’re surprised there aren’t even more players in the affordable end of the SUV sand pit.

As one of the earlier entrants, Ford has done rather well with the EcoSport, leading the segment with sales exceeding the 1000 mark in most months. But the little suburban wilderness conqueror is facing a whole lot more competition these days, so thankfully Ford has hit the refresh button.

The previous EcoSport straddled a fine design line that combined some sleek car-like design elements with the towering stance of a proper SUV. The facelift takes things in a more butch and truck-like direction, largely thanks to a more upright trapezoidal grille that’s now positioned between the headlights rather than below them. The new ‘baby Ranger’ look is sure to be a hit with the EcoSport’s target market.

Moving around the vehicle, there’s not much else to tell it apart from the pre-facelift, apart from subtle revisions to the rear bumper and taillights and new 16-inch alloys on the Trend.

It does get a brand new dashboard, however.

This is where things really start to look up for the new EcoSport. Gone is that old-fashioned “was cool for a nanosecond” Nokia 3310 design, and in its place is a user-friendly dash that places Ford’s very latest Sync3 touch-screen infotainment system within very easy reach, although it is only fitted to mid-range Trend and range-topping Titanium models, with respective screen sizes of 16.5 and 20.3cm.

The Sync system is a cinch to operate and features modern-looking graphics. Advanced voice control is also part of the deal as is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, while navigation is included in the case of Titanium models. Sadly there is no reverse camera, but both versions do get a park-assist graphic display.

Also worth noting is the classy look and feel of the interior, at least in the case of Trend and Titanium models that are now sourced from Europe. The entry-level Ambiente, now with a diesel engine as standard, continues to be sourced from India and has a spec sheet that’s more in keeping with its budget positioning.

The cabin offers decent space, and two adults will fit quite happily in the back, with comfortable leg and head room, although three abreast will be a squeeze. The 334 litre boot has a relatively small load floor but it is very deep so be prepared to stack things on top of each other.

On the road, noise suppression is excellent and overall the EcoSport has a mature and cocooned feel to it out on the road. The ride is reasonably comfortable, nothing to really complain about but perhaps a little more firmly sprung than we’d like from a family vehicle such as this.

Road-holding is not bad considering the vehicle’s relatively tall and narrow stance (just don’t get too carried away when cornering in the EcoSport), and the steering has a nice, weighty feel to it.

Trend and Titanium models are fitted with the familiar 1-litre, three-cylinder turbopetrol engine, and it’s a gem of an engine from a driveability perspective, although it’s not as economical as it claims to be. The motor delivers its power smoothly across the rev range and you don’t get any shakes at idle. It’s got enough power to tackle the urban grind and open road relatively briskly, but I wouldn’t call it fast.

Both Titanium and Trend can be had with either a six-speed manual or a new torque converter six-speed autobox, the latter having been fitted to our Titanium test car. The box is not exactly sportscar snappy, but it swops cogs quickly and efficiently.

VERDICT

Priced from R267 500 for the 1.5 TDCi Ambiente to R346 900 for the 1.0T Titanium auto on test here, the EcoSport spreads its net quite widely across the compact SUV market and offers a refined driving experience.

That, and the recent improvements to its styling and cabin design are likely to ensure its continued success in the small SUV segment.