Sep 232014

MANILA, Philippines – I was walking along the parking lot of a mall in Makati when I came across two unlikely cars: a gleaming 1976 Colt Lancer L-Type and an equally pristine 1979 Ford Escort parked right across each other. There being no old school car show or car club meet ongoing at that mall, I chalked it up to coincidence that two well-kept compact sedans from the ‘70s would find themselves parked near each other at the exact same moment. 

Then it hit me. Compact. The Escort and Lancer L-Type were the iconic compact sedans of their time. But parked among a sea of late-model Civics, Altises, and Elantras—likewise compact sedans—I was struck by the vast difference in sizes between the cars of two different eras.

The Escort and L-Type were dwarfed by their contemporary brethren. The L-Type, in particular, seemed tiny–seemingly smaller and narrower than even a current Ford Fiesta, which is now classified as a subcompact car.

What happened? Did we, as human occupants of these cars, double in size? I’d like to think not. But even if obesity is more a concern now than three decades ago, it’s more due to better public awareness than the fact that the population is growing in width. Well, at least not as fast as our cars are growing and gaining weight.

Thirty years ago a car like a Corolla or a Lancer would weigh 1,800 to 2,000 pounds. Today they’d weigh at least 2,200 pounds and can tip the scales to as much as 2,600 or even 2,700 pounds. That’s almost a ton and a half. Surely we did not grow that much, percentage-wise.   

But why and how did our cars grow? The answer is easy: because we keep asking for more. More space. More features. More power. More safety. These add weight. And these demand volume. Ergo, bigger and heavier cars.

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Which made me long for the good old days. What if…

What if a car company made a car that’s about as small as the ones we had in the ‘70s?

What would happen if say, Mitsubishi made a new Lancer that’s as small as the original? Or what if Toyota came out with a 2015 RAV 4 that’s a diminutive as the pioneering 1996 RAV 4? Hard to imagine that happening, right?

  But it did. And it really doesn’t take much effort to discover when and where it happened. Because that very car is in showrooms now and you can actually go out and buy one.

I’m talking about the Ford EcoSport. When it made its global debut, it sent just about every other car company back to the drawing boards. Here is a car that looks every bit like a bonafide SUV but costs as little as P775,000. Brand new. That’s a winner in anybody’s book.   

Just when the so-called compact SUVs were retailing for upwards of a million apiece, Ford comes out and hits one out of the park with a one-size-smaller sport-cute that’ll leave a cool quarter-of-a-million bucks in your pocket when you buy one.

Sure it’s smaller than the competition. But I’ll be darned if people don’t line up for a P775,000 RAV 4 if Toyota comes out with a new one that’s the same size as the original. Today, a brand new RAV 4 will set you back a heady P1.3 million to as much as a head-spinning P1.9 million. You do the math. Actually you don’t even have to do the math.   

It’s the upsize mentality that’s making us pay, literally and figuratively. Upsized fries and drinks. Upsized television screens. Upsized smartphones. Do we really need them and the hit they take on our waistlines, our wallets, and our pockets (have you slipped a phablet in your pocket lately?).

I never buy new pants to accommodate my expanding waistline. Once I do that, I’ll have a size 34 or 36 waistline before I know it. I work at it until I can comfortably close the button of my size-32 pants. Ditto moving to the next hole in my belt.

Which brings me back to the EcoSport. Yes, it’s a tight fit when you seat five occupants inside. But how often do you drive or ride with four other people? Look around you while you’re stuck I traffic. Look at the Fortuners and Montero Sports or even the Innovas and all those other MPVs, AUVs, and other people movers. How many of them actually carry anywhere near their maximum passenger carrying capacity?

For 80th or even 90th percentile driving, we can all do with a vehicle that can seat four comfortably. Just like an EcoSport. It’s tall and rides high (200mm ground clearance), giving you a commanding view and a 550mm water-wading capability that’s at par with several much bigger SUVs and even some pickups.

Its high roof and multi-folding back seat gives it the packaging versatility and functionality of any SUV. It can even fit a mountain bike. Try that in a Camry. Heck, with its spare tire hung out back, it even looks more like an SUV than any of its bigger rivals. And we all know that most people buy SUVs for style and not for their off-roading capabilities. 

The original 4x4s—the 70’s Land Cruiser and Wrangler—and even the first-gen CRV’s and RAV 4’s had their spare tire hanging from the tailgate like God intended them to be. Many of today’s SUVs are really nothing more than glorified station wagons.

And even if the EcoSport is based on the humble Ford Fiesta—like its larger contemporaries which are all based on sedan counterparts—it is still laudable by its sheer honesty and singularity of purpose. It simply never pretends to be what it is not.

So what exactly is the Ford EcoSport? Here is how I see it. The EcoSport is a four-seat runabout that’s relatively spacious, simple, easy to maintain, and economical (I drool dreaming about an EcoSport powered by the Fiesta’s ultra-efficient 1.0-liter 3-cylinder turbocharged EcoBoost engine—now that’s another downsized fast-and-frugal marvel). That the EcoSport is good-looking is just the icing on the cake.

This little Ford might seem like it was built to a cost ceiling from cobbled-together Fiesta parts, but it delivers stunning value for money. It packs Ford’s cool voice-activated Sync connectivity system, keyless entry and push-button start, ABS, EBD, Hill Launch Assist, Traction Control, Electronic Stability Control, and rear parking sensors. So what if it doesn’t have those exotic and expensive all-wheel-drive hardware (few go off-roading anyway, as demonstrated by the higher sales of 4×2 variants of SUVs and pickups versus their 4×4 siblings). It’s still the only SUV that can perform like one and boast all those features for under a million bucks.

And that’s the beauty of it. Ford has midsize (Everest), large (Explorer), and XL-sized (Expedition) SUVs, but they—and everyone else—had no true small (or subcompact) SUV. Until now. Soon Ford will be introducing their version of a compact SUV in the 2015 Escape. It will do battle with the Tucsons, Sportages, CX-5’s, Foresters, XV’s, CR-Vs, and RAV 4’s. But there will always be the one that’s slightly smaller than the rest of them. And inch for inch, it’s every bit more ingenious than any of them.

Yes, size does matter.

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