Ford Freestyle is no SUV, but is still a rugged little thing
I've just about hooked up my phone to the Freestyle's infotainment system when the speakers come alive with a ringtone. Its photographer Paul and he's called in to tell me there's a threatening cloud cover in the area of our shoot location, about an hour and a half away. Rain is a motoring photographer's worst enemy, and I can hear dread in his voice. He also informs me the road leading to the location has deteriorated since the last time we shot there. I'd better get a move on.
It's a quick exit out of Mumbai; the highway is a breeze, but just as I turn off towards our rendezvous point, I get what Paul was talking about. The 'road' seems to be missing a top layer altogether. It's all dust and mud, and the surface isn't even either. I tiptoe the Freestyle at first. What impresses me is just how well it is rounding off the bumps. The chunky tyres are ably taking the first 'hit', and the suspension beautifully softens the blow further. The Freestyle rides on 185/60 tyres on 15-inch rims, and the larger rolling circumference means the tyres don't get swallowed by large potholes, like on the standard Figo hatchback that runs on smaller 14 inchers. What also comes handy is the extra 15mm of ground clearance; the lowest point of the underbody is an impressive 189mm off the ground.
As I build speed, the experience keeps getting better and better. The Freestyle doesn't get ruffled by bumps taken at speed, the suspension filters out most of the thuds and only little of that road shock is transmitted to the steering on really bad patches. The whole package comes together so well, you'd think the Freestyle was just made to be driven on bombed-out roads. It's no SUV, but it still feels like a rugged little thing.
One thing's for sure, the raised ride height does make the Freestyle look more substantial than the standard Figo hatchback. It's also got all the typical cross-hatch styling elements. Roof rails, cladding that wraps around the wheel arches and the lower portion of the body, and even scuff plates at the front and rear…they're all here, and they give the Freestyle some personality. The upsized eight-spoke 15-inch alloy wheels still look a bit small, though. What's interesting is that the Freestyle previews the look of the facelifted Figo hatchback and Aspire compact sedan that will come soon. The 'V' of the bonnet is more pronounced now and it flows into a sharper-cut iteration of the familiar hexagonal grille. The Smoked-effect headlights, a sporty mesh for the grille and a contrast effect for the wing mirrors are other details that further enhance the look. The stickers on the lower portion of the doors? They don't look half bad, but the faux vents on the rear bumper are perhaps a step too far. In all, it is a handsome car.
We make the most of the barren landscape to get some shots of the Freestyle in its element, dust flying and all. What's impressive is that the Freestyle comes with traction control and ESC, and there's also Active Rollover Protection that detects and reacts to potential rollover scenarios by braking individual wheels and reducing engine torque. When I do chuck the car on the loose, gravelly surface, I can feel the electronics at work to 'restore' stability. Oh, before I forget, there are six airbags too.
It doesn't feel floppy like some of the other raised hatchbacks. On the contrary, body control is really good; the beefier front anti-roll bar helps here. The Freestyle turns in to corner after corner with great poise; it feels agile and there's loads of grip from the tyres too. The electric power steering is also much nicer than I remember the Figo's to be. The Freestyle seems set up by driving enthusiasts.
Also impressive is the engine. The Freestyle diesel shares its 1.5-litre engine with the Figo and Aspire, and makes a healthy 100hp and 215Nm. Responses are good from just over idle, and power build-up is nice and linear too. Making its debut on the Freestyle is a new Getrag-made five-speed gearbox that's lighter to shift and a clear step up from the old IB5 unit. In our preliminary performance tests, the Freestyle recorded a 0-100kph time of 11.7sec, making it the quickest of the diesel cross-hatchbacks. The Freestyle promises to offer much for petrolheads too. The cross-hatch will be the first model to use Ford's all-new 1.2-litre, three-cylinder Dragon engine, and the headline figure is its 96hp of power. It's on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway that the Freestyle comes across as an easy cruiser. The engine has enough to give when there's a need to overtake and stability is good. However, road and wind noise insulation is not quite up there with the best in class.
What's also not special is the quality of plastics in the cabin; the dash plastics, for instance, appear quite scratchy. But the more time I spend in the Freestyle, the more the cabin's unique chocolate-brown-on-black colour combo grows on me. Also new here is the free-standing 6.5-inch touchscreen on the dash top, to accommodate which the centre console had to be redesigned. Ford's latest Sync 3 touchscreen unit not only brings the Figo-derived dashboard into the present but is also among the best systems around. Touch responses are really slick, it's super-quick to pair with your phone via Bluetooth, and though satellite navigation is missing, it does come bundled with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Touchscreen infotainment system aside, the Freestyle also gets keyless entry and go, auto climate control (its knurled dials are a premium touch), auto headlamps and Ford's MyKey function.
The Freestyle may sit marginally higher than the Figo, but you don't get a better view out. The large front seats with their long base are nice and accommodating, but the absence of a dead pedal is disappointing and the steering is a size too large. Also, the overly simple instrument cluster looks outdated now. There's enough storage spaces around the cabin too and there are two USB slots up front, as well as a 12V charging socket.
When I eventually switchover to the back seat, I realise it's a bit of a mixed bag for the passengers here. While legroom is good and the windows nice and large, the seat is a bit soft and there's only one bottle holder here. Taller occupants (I'm 5ft 11in) will find headroom just about adequate and be bothered by the fixed rear headrest that juts into the middle of their shoulder blade. A cursory glance at the boot section reveals a sizable 257-litre luggage area and also a slightly high loading lip.
Overall, the Freestyle may seem a bit of a surprise addition to Ford's line-up, given that it already offers a proper compact SUV in the EcoSport. But with SUVs being the craze they are in India, it can only help to have more and more 'outdoorsy' products in the mix. And, as a product, the Freestyle has some solid strengths.