Game changer. That's a phrase that's become quite the cliché in the automotive industry; the reason being is that a lot of manufacturers have at least one model that they think will change the game in their respective classes.

Take Ford Philippines, for example. In 2010 when they launched the Fiesta, they branded it as a game changer in the subcompact class. They used the term again in 2011 for the Ranger and again in 2012 for the Focus for the pick-up and compact car classes, respectively. It seems changing the game has become normal for them, and it's hard not to see it; each of those three new models, in their own respective rights, have raised the expectations of customers to a much higher level than the norm.

So when we were told by Ford that we were going to drive their latest “game changer” called the EcoSport in Thailand, we were a bit suspicious not because of the obvious cliché, but because we beg to differ.

In a good way.


Onto new territory

Revealed for the ASEAN market at the 2013 Bangkok International Motor Show and launched in the Philippines in late January 2014, the Ford EcoSport is one of the most promising models in the Ford lineup; the reason being that doesn't have much in the way of direct competition and has the potential to sway customers in its favor who are shopping in many other categories. Imagine being able to own a small crossover utility vehicle for the price of a Fiesta, Vios or Jazz; isn't that interesting?

During our deep dive briefing at the Sheraton resort in the royal town of Hua Hin (the Thai king has a massive palace there), we got a chance to meet and talk with the guys behind the EcoSport.

The way I see it, Ford is actually venturing out onto new territory in three distinct ways: (1) because the EcoSport nameplate and model concept has been adopted from Brazil and produced for the world, (2) because the segment hasn't really had much attention since, well, the Daihatsu Feroza of the 90's and (3) because it really looks like the handsome Ford Territory in the Australian market.

The design guys were also keen to share how they've worked to make the EcoSport B-segment crossover, a car undoubtedly based on the Fiesta's platform, feel like an SUV. We actually had the chance to talk to one of the designers of the EcoSport, Nick Eterovic, and he relayed that the B-segment SUV was actually worked on simultaneously with the Territory; hence the EcoSport's rather good looks.

The EcoSport's design was also intended to maximize the aero efficiency and practicality. While the EcoSport may be geared for urban situations, it's got a low drag coefficient for economical highway driving. The clever rear end has the spare mounted in the middle of the tailgate to afford a clean, symmetrical look along with the tailgate switch neatly concealed on the right taillamp.


From Brazil to the (developing) world

This may be our first time out with the EcoSport, but over in South America, the first generation of Ford's small utility vehicle has been a staple on their roads for a decade.

Norberto Catani, one of Ford's Brazilian engineers, tells us of how the model exceeded expectations in his home country when the Fiesta-based EcoSport was first introduced. The pricing, the fuel economy, the overall usability and ride height made the subcompact crossover a very popular model in Brazil and held off competing models like the Volkswagen CrossFox.

With the nameplate's success, Ford decided to incorporate the vehicle under the Alan Mulally's One Ford Plan, wherein the automaker expanded their volume and profits by introducing global Ford models; each optimized for their respective markets. Models like the Focus, Fiesta, Ranger and EcoSport now fall under the plan and more are on the way like the next generation Everest.

The arrival of the EcoSport is not all about mere numbers. The reason Ford is banking on this subcompact crossover particularly in ASEAN lays in its capability, given the similar road conditions the EcoSport was engineered to tackle in South America.

Flash floods? Not a problem as those are common in Brazil, and thus Ford therefore gave the EcoSport 550mm of wading capability; that's knee deep of water therabouts (21.6 inches). Rough roads? The suspension was beefed up to handle that comfortably and reliably. Got a rock in your way? If it's just under 200mm tall, the EcoSport's undercarraige can clear it. Got a tight parking spot? No problem given the EcoSport's dimensions. Need space? The spare tire is on the tailgate to afford more boot space in the back; cargo room to the tune of 705 liters with the rear seats down. It has enough to fit a decent size washing machine.

These are factors (among others) that made the EcoSport such a hit in Brazil, and it only made perfect sense for Ford to introduce the vehicle in ASEAN given our similar needs, roads and weather conditions.

Let's put it to the test then.


Driving Hua Hin

After the extensive presentation by Ford's engineers and designers, it was time to finally drive the subcompact crossover. Awaiting all of us at the front of the Sheraton in Hua Hin was a fleet of EcoSports, all in top-spec Titanium with the sunroof, SYNC, Bluetooth, USB, voice recognition, hill hold, stability control, a 6-speed dual clutch gearbox and 1.5 liter Ti-VCT engines.

We actually ask the Ford engineers as to why they hadn't opted to bring in turbocharged 1.0-liter EcoBoost for the EcoSport yet, and their response was that the EcoBoost only had a 5-speed manual. Of course this is contrary to the fact that the Fiesta 1.0L EcoBoost we drove 4 months earlier already had the 6-speed Powershift gearboxes.

We also ask about the possibility of TDCI in the EcoSport, but it doesn't look like they will spec it that way, given that the EcoBoost can already achieve very similar consumption figures. Also, all ASEAN EcoSports will be front-wheel drive only, although they have all wheel drive versions in South America.

We get settled into the EcoSport and head on out with our massive convoy of EcoSports taking to the open highway. What was surprising was that none of us were (in these right hand drive versions) mixing up the wiper stalk with the signal stalk, as they're usually reversed between RHD and LHD versions.

The seaside town of Hua Hin, Thailand is a great location for a drive and to test the capability of the EcoSport. Unlike Krabi (for the current Ford Focus) and Chiang Mai (for the Ford Fiesta), both of which have a nice mix of high speed driving and demanding mountain roads, Hua Hin offers a good mix of wide open dual carriageways, tight city streets and everything else in between with potholes, roads under construction and speedbumps.

Power from the Ti-VCT engine is ample, as it delivers 110 PS and 142 Newton-meters of torque. Before driving it I actually had my doubts, but George Thornton, one of Ford's engineers on hand to answer any of our questions, was keen to point out that they found ways to make the EcoSport lighter than its extra size should weigh. I'll take his word for it given his obvious passion for advanced materials technology (and the fact that he races cars and owns a Shadow DN3 Formula One car from 1974), like the use of strong, lightweight boron steel on strategic locations on the steel monocoque.


The Eco...

Ford has a lofty fuel consumption claim for the EcoSport: 15.4 kilometers per liter on the highway. If we had the opportunity to fully test it (full tank to full tank) we would, but as it stands, we could only perform a simpler test from the drive computer.

Just before we continued on our way, I set everything to zero so we can take readings on average consumption, distance and average speed. There are two of us in the car though (just to get it out of the way) we probably had the equivalent weight of three average people. Weather was bright and sunny, though the highway wasn't as clear as we would have wanted with a few intersections and road incidents. No special hyper miler driving techniques were involved.

In tight city streets with some provincial roads and stops in between, at an average speed of 28 km/h for 10.9 kilometers, the EcoSport's computer registered 10.5 liters per 100 kilometers. Converted, that's 9.5 km/l. The driving for that leg would be characterized as typical of local out of town journeys.

With everything set to zero again, the convoy pressed on to the open highwy. After driving for 49.0 kilometers and with an average speed of 65 kilometers an hour, the Fiesta's, err, EcoSport's (the gauges are exactly the same) drive computer registered a consumption of 6.7 liters per 100 kilometers. That translates to 14.9 kilometers per liter; not very far off from Ford's claim.

Of course that will go down if you really fill up the cabin with passengers and luggage or if you choose to drive with a lead foot, but the EcoSport's fuel computer does give a good indicator as to what it can do.


...and the Sport

The EcoSport is surprisingly light on its feet both in a straight line and in the corners. It probably won't win stoplight to stoplight sprints, but the handling does exhibit the capability of the engineering that went into the steel monocoque. We actually entered a vineyard with plenty of dirt roads and kept thinking of doing a bit of rally cross, but we figured the grape farmers wouldn't appreciate that very much.

Despite it's bigger dimensions and higher center of gravity, it's not too far off the sprightly Fiesta. Also, the extra ride height and the suspension tuning does give the driver the peace of mind on dirt or dilapidated roads commonly found in the Philippines. The brake system is a bit eager at first, but once you get used to it it's perfectly fine.

One thing they still havent engineered out of the 6-speed dual clutch gearbox (Powershift) is the shift shock when shifting up from 1st to 2nd and 2nd to 3rd in city driving conditions, particularly if you keep steady pressure on the throttle. We ask that question with every new OFP model they get us to drive but it's still there (though it wasn't as prominent in the EcoBoost Fiesta). It's really a natural trait of the dual clutch gearbox according to Ford, so the best way we've found around it is to lift off the throttle a little bit when you feel that it is shifting from 1-2-3. After a while it becomes a bit of muscle memory and the powertrain feels fine.


A whole new ball game

In the Philippines, the B-segment SUV/crossover category is practically non-existent. Okay, that may have been an exaggeration given that Suzuki does dabble in it with models like the Jimny and SX4 Crossover (maybe the S-Cross soon?), but that's really it; a niche or novelty, so to speak. The class hasn't really had much attention since the popularity of the Daihatsu Feroza back in the 1990's.

If you wanted a small crossover, you typically had to go for cars like the Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Tucson, Honda CR-V, Subaru XV, Subaru Forester and the like, but those models are getting to be more expensive and larger with every generation that it's almost ironic to keep calling them 'compact' crossovers. This is where the Ford EcoSport comes in.

In the world of sport utility vehicles, one crossover is on a mission (try reading that line in a Don LaFontaine voice). It's out to prove that it's got the capability, the style, the refinement, the comfort, the fuel economy and versatility like the bigger boys one class up.

More importantly the Ford EcoSport is out to show that you don't have to pay 7 digits for your own top-spec, all options urban crossover. We still would have preferred an EcoBoost version right away, but knowing the blue oval, they're probably saving that for the mid-cycle refresh; you just don't reveal all your cards at the start.

Calling the EcoSport a game changer probably doesn't do this crossover's concept right, simply because it implies that the game it's playing already exists. Instead, Ford is writing the rules on a whole new ballgame and setting the standard of play very high, and they will be working hard to maximize their newfound advantage in a class that is packed with plenty of potential.

Nope, the EcoSport is no game changer... that's because Ford's mini-ute is a real game maker.