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DURBAN, KwaZulu-Natal – When the Ford EcoSport bounded onto the local scene way back in 2013, the mini-crossover landscape was a vastly less populated one. The Blue Oval brand’s diminutive Fiesta-based SUV found itself with very few direct rivals (the Renault Duster launched in South Africa at around the same time, but appealed to a slightly different audience), and slotted in below traditionally larger, more expensive offerings of the time.

The EcoSport quickly found favour among South African motorists whose appetites for both a lofty ride height and a raised driving position – at light hatchback prices, no less – were rapidly growing. In fact, this city-biased model soon became the Dearborn-based automaker’s second most popular local offering (behind the Ranger, of course).

Fast-forward around five years and the EcoSport finds itself having to contend with considerably more (and significantly stiffer) competition. Indeed, after seemingly reserving itself a place on our monthly list of SA's 10 best-selling passenger vehicles, the EcoSport has fallen off the pace somewhat in 2018, making the cut only twice in the first six months of the year.

Examine the sales figures a little more closely and you’ll find that rivals such as the Hyundai Creta are threatening the EcoSport's long-held title as the country’s best-selling light crossover (in fact, the Creta outsold Ford’s offering by 261 units in first half of 2018). Sure, a fair part of that slowdown could be attributed to the Ford going into run-out stock ahead of this very facelift, but there’s no denying the EcoSport was showing its age.

Rejigged range

So, in need of a refresh the EcoSport most certainly was. And that’s exactly what it’s been given. Still, while this long-awaited facelift rings in meaningful styling changes up front, a couple of new transmissions and significant refinements to the previously button-festooned facia, it’s the reshuffled make-up of the local line-up that is perhaps most interesting.

Trimmed from six derivatives to five, the renewed range no longer features the naturally aspirated 1,5-litre petrol engine that previously powered both the base model and the flagship. Instead, Ford’s 1,0-litre EcoBoost mill now provides urge to four variants (in mid-range Trend or top-spec Titanium specification), with the old 74 kW/205 N.m 1,5-litre TDCi mill (South Africa won’t get the new 1,5-litre EcoBlue diesel unit offered in some overseas markets) now available solely in entry-level Ambiente form, fitted with a manual gearbox.

Interestingly, while this single diesel derivative is still sourced from India, South Africa’s 1,0-litre EcoBoost derivatives now come from the brand’s Craiova plant in Romania. And it was the turbocharged three-cylinder that was on hand to drive at the local launch.

Transmission trade

As before, this characterful yet refined little three-pot delivers 92 kW and 170 N.m to the front wheels. But it’s now available with either a new six-speed manual gearbox or an equally box-fresh conventional torque-converter automatic with the same number of cogs (in the pre-facelift range, the EcoBoost mill was mated exclusively to a five-speed manual). Offering this self-shifter – and ditching the dual-clutch from the range – in conjunction with the 1,0-litre will likely prove a deft move as South Africans living or working in our traffic-infested cities continue to shift away from manual transmissions.

While paddle shifters ship standard, you rarely need them as the automatic gearbox does a fair job of keeping the turbo-triple – which offers its peak twisting force from as low as 1 400 r/min right through to 4 500 r/min – on the boil. While the 1,0-litre powerplant feels up to the job in the EcoSport, there’s no denying that it feels decidedly perkier in the (admittedly lighter) Fiesta.

In addition, the new auto transmission carries a slight fuel consumption penalty, with Ford claiming a combined figure of 6,3 L/100 km compared with the 5,4 offered by the manual. For the record, our trip computer indicated a figure of around 10 L/100 km after a fairly spirited drive through the KZN Midlands, but one of less than six after a more leisurely highway cruise back into Durban the following day. It all depends on how you drive, then.

Gravel gambol

Little has changed under the skin, which means the EcoSport still serves up a relatively pliant ride (more so in the case of the Trend derivatives with their 16-inch alloys than the Titanium variants, which run on slightly lower-profile 17s) courtesy of its (previous-generation) Fiesta-based underpinnings. Ford included plenty of gravel roads in the launch route and the little SUV performed admirably, chiefly thanks to its generous 206 mm of ground clearance.

While the steering is accurate enough, the EcoSport feels somewhat ponderous through sweeping, high-speed bends and, when driven with gusto, generally lacks the sparkle that defines its Fiesta sibling. Still, that’ll matter little to the majority of prospective buyers, who will place more value on the EcoSport’s ease-of-use at city speeds, its improved safety levels (six airbags for the Ambiente and seven for the Trend and Titanium, along with rear parking sensors and electronic stability control across the range) and its noticeably more modern cabin.

Step inside...

The latter is perhaps the most striking element of this update, seeing the EcoSport borrow much of the new Fiesta’s uncluttered facia. The result is a vast reduction in the number of physical buttons, an easily legible new instrument cluster and a 6,5-inch touchscreen display (in the case of this Trend model; the flagship Titanium boasts an eight-inch item with integrated navigation) running the brand’s clever Sync 3 software.

That said, some scratchy plastics remain, the vast majority of which are thankfully tucked away in infrequently handled areas. Space inside is more plentiful than the EcoSport’s exterior dimensions might suggest, while the luggage compartment, which is again accessed via a side-hinged door (SA-spec models furthermore retain their tailgate-mounted spare wheel) that proves cumbersome in tight spaces, gains a nifty adjustable floor.

While the rejigged range makes it tough to compare outgoing prices with new ones, the line-up’s bookends haven’t shifted implausibly far north (particularly when one considers that most derivatives are now shipped from Europe). In addition, Ford has been fairly liberal with its standard specification, and this mid-spec Trend variant boasts items such as LED daytime running lights, front fog-lamps, roof rails, tyre-pressure monitoring, manual air-conditioning, a leather steering wheel (and gear-lever), the touchscreen mentioned above and electric windows all round.

Titanium models add the likes of cruise control, keyless start, a fancier air-con system, leather upholstery, a centre arm-rest/bin, the larger touchscreen, puddle lamps, automatic headlamps and rain-sensing wipers, but the Trend trim level seems positioned as the pick of the range and will in all likelihood do the heavy lifting in terms of local sales volumes.

New lease on life?

So, do these changes run deep enough to breathe new life into Ford's baby crossover? Well, first impressions suggest so, with prospective buyers likely to be drawn in by the sorts of things they’ll immediately notice (a more modern look to both the EcoSport’s visage and its cabin) and further tempted by less obvious improvements, such as added safety kit and the increased availability of (new) automatic transmissions.

But it'll be interesting to see how Ford’s decision to extensively rearrange the line-up will affect the EcoSport’s popularity with local buyers, who enjoy more choice in this segment than ever before. We’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on the sales charts…

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