Ford proves relevance of Kuga in ever-crowded SUV sector
From the hugger-mugger of the first iteration of Ford’s important SUV contender, Iain Robertson now revels in the chugga-lugga vitality of the latest version, in its most potent turbo-diesel form.
Ignorance might well be bliss but never in the new car scene. Regardless of the pointless nature of some carmakers’ offerings in the Sport Utility Vehicle sector, a case of ‘force majeure’ now exists, in that consumer demand is soon to outweigh supply. My arguments against the category are little more than wasted wind overtaken by time, in a maelstrom of hyperactivity, whipped up by car marketing departments and international buyers, whom perceive a need to own one.
Niche modelling is now the ‘in’ thing and, rather than the small, medium and large car ranges of yesteryear, each niche features its own S-M-L size chart, with occasional diversions into XS and XL. Fortunately, technology has moved on apace, since the first generations of the Toyota RAV-4, or the Honda CR-V, first hit our roads. My aeons-old suggestions about 4x4s being significantly more costly to live with are no longer pertinent, as so many of today’s SUVs no longer drive all four wheels. Those that do feature energy-saving technology.
In fact, the vast majority are front-driven only, while, even if a 4×4 option is on the cards, all-wheel-drive is normally the preserve of the highest specification variant, believed by the car companies to be of consequence only to the high-spending driver requiring such technology. The rest are superficial copy-cars. They provide the look but not always the capability of it.
Yet, with traction control systems being so smart these days, I hark back to my earliest exploits in the ‘competitive car trials’ arena, where front, or rear, wheel drive was eminently acceptable, as long as the tyres were appropriate and one knew how to modulate the car’s controls to maximise grip on sometimes treacherous surfaces. Anti-slip electronics now does the job for the driver. Besides, somebody woke up one day and realised that comfortably less than one per cent of ALL 4x4s was ever driven off-road. Of course, as motoring critics, me and my colleagues always enjoy an exhaustive, if largely feckless, day of mud-plugging in the latest models, even though the relevance is largely lost on the growing majority of SUV buyers.
Talk of cross-axle flexibility, traversing transverse corrugations and tackling the ‘boondocks’ are expressions almost solely the preserve of the strictly off-roading fraternity, or farmers, for whom these vehicles were intended in the first place. Yet, with Land Rover ditching its long-standing survivor, the Defender, undoubtedly replacing it with something significantly more design-orientated and ‘trendy’ (not that a Defender is anything less than trendy in some quarters), let alone markedly more expensive, it is only Suzuki (in the UK) that markets a proper, cost-efficient 4×4, in the form of the Jimny. The rest of the market is populated by vehicles with possibilities that are outweighed by a higher seating position for a better view outwards and the bleached-blonde, yummy-mummy brigade.
Therefore, allow me to introduce you to Ford’s ultimate pseud…the Kuga Titanium X Sport, powered by a 2.0-litre, 177bhp turbo-diesel engine, albeit with slick 6-speed manual gearbox and all-wheel-drive. To be fair, it is an impressive machine, even in the launch colour of Tiger Eye, which does make you squint somewhat, in certain light conditions. Based on the Ford Focus platform, it is a hiked-up family hatchback but it is also immensely competent on-road, while possessing a modicum of off-road talent too.
For a carmaker to harbour any hopes of success in the sector, price is the key and, with the Kuga, a sub-£21k starter is five quid short of a hot off the starting blocks position. Yet, I remind you that this is the top dog and it stands proud at a whopping £34,015, which includes the £545 paint job, another £550 for the Driver Assistance Pack (active city stop, lane reminder, traffic sign recognition, driver alert and automatic full beam), £525 for the blind-spot information system and £350 for the keyless opening and ‘hands-free’ power tailgate. Few owners will want for anything else.
It does look the business, with its prominent tailgate spoiler, silvered roof rails, 19-inch diameter alloys and the comprehensive exterior styling kit. While not the best-looking of SUVs, an accolade that I generally heft onto the current Kia Sportage (until Kia cocks-it-up with the next generation), it certainly possesses street presence and thus credibility, which is more than half the battle in this sector. In addition, as the ‘bells and whistles’ variant, this Kuga also features plenty of tackle for the inquisitive owner, although how much of it will ever be used knowingly is open to question.
The Convenience Pack includes ‘automatic parking’ (either parallel, or perpendicular), a full-colour rearview camera, sensors galore and puddle lamps to stop your Jimmy Choos from getting splashed nocturnally…a fashion faux-pas that no stylish Kuga owner would ever tolerate. Yet, the leather-clad cockpit is a most pleasant place to reside for the rest of the time. The seats are large, comfortable and accommodating fore and aft, the fronts being electrically adjustable in ten different directions; I tried; I know.
In fact, the driving position is no less than excellent, aided by a leather-wrapped tiller that adjusts for both rake and reach. The dashboard is current Ford fayre, with a centre stack topped by a slightly too small screen for sat-nav and other functions. It is a blessing that what appears initially confusing (the Kuga not having adopted its little brother’s significantly better minor control packaging) benefits from only brief familiarity. The main instrument pack is also customary Ford, clear and bright.
Cabin space is well considered and apart from the largely useless seat-back tables, which are hinged the wrong way and too great a reach for smaller rear seat occupants, storage considerations are more than acceptable, with deep door pockets and little rubber-lined slots everywhere. Just as the easy access hatchback door (waggle your foot below the back bumper and the door rises automatically, as long as you have the key-fob in your pocket) enables loading into a well-shaped boot floor (below which is the get-you-home skinny spare), the 60:40 split rear bench flips forwards without fuss, after lifting the lever on the outer edge of either seat.
As mentioned earlier, this Kuga is powered by a deceptively punchy diesel engine that boasts just shy of 300lbs ft of torque. To put that into perspective, should you be miss-geared during an overtake (okay, it happens), flooring the accelerator pedal will result in enough grunt to escape potential trouble. Despite the speediness of the Kuga’s 0-60mph benchmark time of 8.9 seconds (its top speed is given as 126mph), it belies the massive slug of mid-range capability that is always on tap. It is admirable but it also has side benefits, in that fewer gearchanges will equate to lower fuel consumption, something at which the Kuga is surprisingly adept.
Although I was unable to replicate the car’s Official Combined return of 54.3mpg (no real surprise there), I do believe that a fuel consumption of 44.5mpg, for a satisfyingly brisk drive from Lincoln to Farnborough and back, was decent proof of the Kuga’s credentials. The unit emits 135g/km of CO2, which gifts it a rating of Band E and £130 for the annual VED. Ally that to a modest Group 27E for insurance and you will appreciate that this might not be the cleanest, nor greenest, of SUVs but it will not bust the budget either, a factor that will be of use to a fleet manager, or perhaps even your domestic bank manager.
In terms of sheer driveability, the Kuga is more than plain satisfactory. It is comfy, well-damped and refined. It is technically interesting, to those that care, as its off-road competence is certainly greater than the majority of drivers will ever demand. Yet, it is as a road vehicle that it excels. The ride is compliant and quiet and its handling is safe and secure. It corners responsively and stops assuredly. If that is all that the average percentile SUV owner desires, then Ford has done its job and delivered beyond expectations.
Conclusion: Ford knows its onions, of that there is little doubt. The Kuga model is a winner for the brand and for its perceptive owners. There are enough ticks for excellence on any score sheet to warrant its position both in the line-up and to the wider market. Okay. The top-spec version is not too far shy of £35,000, should you opt for a few additional extras but, as most of its rivals are pitched into similar territory, it fits the market-led mould.