The idea was brilliant. I would be driving a car named after a big cat through the national park, eyes peeled for the long-fabled big cats that stalk these parts.
Over the years, hundreds of sightings have been reported in the forests of the ACT and NSW, but nothing scientifically irrefutable has ever turned up. Until now …
It has that connection and exclusivity that make up every journalist’s dream story.
Many people across NSW and Victoria as close as Goulburn and Braidwood allege to have either seen footprints, shredded livestock, or even the black cats themselves slinking through bushland or across roads.
The popular theory goes something like this: the US Navy kept them as mascots during World War II, and once this came to an end in the 1940s, the troops decided against bringing the exotic cats back home to show ‘Mommy’ and dumped them along the coastlines of Australia and New Zealand.
A more believable story is that over the years, many have escaped from zoos, circuses, and illegal pet owners and into the dense and largely unpopulated forests of south-east Australia. There’s no shortage of food for them here, with plenty of animals about to keep them fed.
That said, witnesses may have just sighted feral cats, which also come in black and can weigh up to five kilograms.
ACT Wildlife hasn’t heard or seen anything about a black panther or other large cat-like creature, and dismiss it as nothing more than urban myth. But it’s an urban myth that has been around for decades. Namadgai National Park rangers say that reports are not regular, but do happen.
I don’t really expect to see anything today but I set out for the Brindabella Mountains anyway. I am, first and foremost, testing a new car and there are nice roads out there.
The Ford Puma gets its name from not only the big cat but also a 1997 sports coupe.
The original was exclusive to the European market – the closest we saw here in Australia was the KA and AU Falcon. All shared the rounded bubbleness and sharp creases of Ford’s ‘New Edge’ styling, which may not have been well received on the Falcon, but handed many design awards to the definite cat-like features of the Puma.
It all worked so well, an advertisement was even made that took scenes from the Bullitt film but cut Steve McQueen into a Puma instead of his famous dark-green Mustang.
Production ended in 2001, but as with everything – including the MG – it has been reincarnated this year as a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV).
Also like the MG from last time, I thought this to be pure profiteering and a waste of a good badge. After all, Steve McQueen would not chase baddies in an SUV.
But then I realised that it actually looks quite terrific and somehow still like a cat. For what I had planned for it, it also turns out to be perfect.
Just be sure to make a two-door coupe version, Ford, and I will be in love.
Today I’m in the driver’s seat of the top-of-the-range ST-Line V model, carrying a sticker price of $39,390, so it isn’t exactly cheap, but it does have all the latest media mod-cons, as well as a premium B&O sound system, sports suspension, and adaptive cruise control. It can even steer itself into a car park.
The interior is a nice place to sit, with carbon-fibre weave material on the dash and a meaty, leather-wrapped steering wheel in front of you. It’s worth pointing out that the leather seats are not only perforated but also quilted. Just like in an Audi, or Bentley.
The display is blue as I set off from the Ford dealership in Phillip, but Uriarra Road will be no place for ‘Normal’. I cycle through the driving modes until ‘Sport’ is activated and the digital dials glow red around the edges.
The steering is instantly heavier, the suspension stiffer, the accelerator more eager, and the noise from the back snarlier. I don’t feel embarrassed like I did in the MG ZST. In fact, I don’t feel like I’m driving ‘just another jacked-up hatchback’.
I mean, that is a very crude way of describing exactly what it feels like to drive, but – sacrilege aside – the solid quality, the funky styling, and the Puma backing make it all seem a bit more cool.
I reach the turnoff for Brindabella Road soon enough, where – thanks to the recent rain – the going gets slippery. Fortunately, there’s another driving mode for this, called … believe it or not, ‘Slippery’.
I’m reflecting on how the Puma’s prowess on all surfaces makes it even more like its namesake when the tarmac suddenly runs out. Time to engage ‘Track’ mode. Despite the fact that there are ruts and rocks everywhere, the ride remains comfortable. It has always been stiff in a faintly sporty way, but always comfortable. It never ceases to amaze me when engineers manage to pull that off.
I think I’ve gone deep enough into the foothills now, so I find a spot to pull over and take some shots of the view with my phone. Reception went long ago, but the camera still works.
And that’s when I see it: a large, unmistakable footprint. I’ve tracked some mud into the carpets. Blast.
Ford Puma ST-Line V
- $39,390 drive-away
- 1-litre 3-cylinder turbo petrol, 92 kW/170 Nm
- 7-speed automatic, FWD
- 5.3L/100km fuel use
- 410L boot space
- 5-star ANCAP safety rating.
This car was provided for testing by John McGrath Ford in Phillip. Region Media has no commercial arrangement with John McGrath.