Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) said that it has begun full production of a new small crossover SUV called the Puma, at its factory in Craiova, Romania.
The Puma is an all-new model that slots into an interesting niche in Ford's lineup: It's smaller than an Escape, but bigger than the little EcoSport.
Officially, at least for now, the Puma is just for Europe. Ford said that it has no plans to sell the Puma in the United States. But that seems like something that could change -- and even if it doesn't, the Puma seems well-positioned to give Ford's European sales a boost.
Either way, it's of interest to Ford investors. Let's take a look.
About the Puma: A small but not tiny crossover
The Puma is a new design that uses Ford's "B-car" architecture, shared with the all-new Fiesta that Ford introduced in Europe in 2017. It's a little longer (about 3.5") and lower (about 5") than the upright and boxy EcoSport, with sleeker styling and a bit more space inside.
European-spec Pumas will come with Ford's well-regarded 1.0-liter three-cylinder turbo EcoBoost engine mated to a so-called "mild hybrid" system. The system captures energy during braking and coasting, then uses it to electrically boost torque during acceleration and improve fuel economy. It's not a full hybrid system, but it helps, and it takes up less space inside the vehicle than a "regular" hybrid's battery would. There are two versions of the powertrain, making 123 horsepower and 151 horsepower respectively.
Inside, it looks a lot like the new European Fiesta, which is to say it's pretty much standard-issue Ford, with good-quality materials and lots of storage bins and other convenience touches. Most of Ford's infotainment and advanced driver-assist systems are available.
The Puma starts at 20,845 pounds (about $25,450) in the U.K., priced between the smaller EcoSport at 17,850 pounds and the outgoing 2019 Kuga at 23,375 pounds.
Will Ford sell the new Puma in the United States?
I asked Ford if the plan was to replace the EcoSport (in Europe) with the Puma, which seems nicer and not a whole lot bigger; the answer is that the company will keep both. Ford sold over 110,000 EcoSports in Europe last year, and thinks there's room for an option one (small) size up, with different, sportier styling.
But could it come to the United States? On the one hand, it seems to fit nicely with what Ford is trying to do in the U.S., moving customers out of sedans and into higher-margin crossovers and SUVs. Here, the Puma might be a nice replacement for the EcoSport, offering Ford customers styling similar to the attractive new 2020 Escape in a package that's one size smaller but not tiny. (Ford sold about 54,000 EcoSports in the U.S. in 2018.)
In Europe, on the other hand, the Puma is being built alongside the EcoSport, a vehicle with which it shares parts and underpinnings. If Ford were to try to bring it here, it would be most cost-effective to build it in a factory that's already building one of its mechanical siblings.
But right now, Ford doesn't build the EcoSport (or the newest Fiesta or Focus) in North America. There isn't an obvious factory for the Puma here, meaning that a decision to build it locally for the U.S. would have to come with a significant investment.
That said, it's possible that Ford could decide to build it elsewhere and import it, possibly in India, where Ford builds the EcoSports that are sold in the U.S.
My guess is that if the Puma were offered in the United States, it might start at around $23,500, slotting in between the EcoSport at $19,995 and the all-new 2020 Escape at $24,885. Given that the EcoSport doesn't get a lot of love here, I think the Puma might give Ford a better shot at capturing a larger share of the small-crossover segment.
Will it happen? We'll find out.