Ford's Kuga just keeps getting better and better. It's now a serious contender in the compact SUV category but still doesn't get the acclaim it deserves. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The Ford Kuga hasn't changed that much in its latest iteration. It's been given more gear, a 1.5-litre petrol engine is slotted into the range and there are efficiency and power increases across the board. It's still a strong pick if you want a practical five-seater but don't like SUVs that handle like a hippo on casters.
By now, you ought to be pretty familiar with the second generation Ford Kuga. You are, right? It's like the first generation car but bigger, more efficient and smarter inside. There's still no seven seat option, but Ford reckoned that this was something only a small percentage of compact SUV buyers actually wanted. The latest model has come in for a bit of a wash and brush-up, with the diesel engines receiving some TLC from Ford's engineering team, reducing emissions and improving fuel economy right across the board. Otherwise, it's much as you were. The Kuga established its reputation as being one of the best compact SUVs to drive and this one is no different. A little more power form the diesel engine isn't going to be something that goes unappreciated by Kuga customers either. The news seems all good.
Somewhat slyly, Ford has slid a 1.5-litre petrol engine into the range, replacing the old 1.6-litre EcoBoost unit. As expected, efficiency increases but the bonus here is that the smaller engine makes more power too. The all-wheel drive automatic version sees power step up from 180PS to 182PS, while the entry-level front-wheel drive 1.5-litre makes do with a more modest 150PS. The 2.0-litre Duratorq diesels are offered in either 150 or 180PS guises, with the less powerful version also offered as a front-wheel drive manual model. Otherwise, drive goes to all four wheels and there's the choice of either a six-speed manual 'box or an automatic option. The 180PS model really does need to send drive to all four wheels as 400Nm to the fronts might not be such a great idea. All Kuga models get a quick and well-weighted electrically assisted steering system, although the strong self-centring action takes a little getting used to. Although Ford's engineers deny it, the chassis of this model feels softer than the first generation car, so the ride is better, but there's not that sane puppyish attitude as before. Call it part of the growing up process. The four-wheel drive system lends the Kuga a modicum of off-road ability but it comes into its own on road when pedalling the car quite hard. The torque vectoring control system reduces the sort of understeer you'd expect in a car of this type and sniffs out grip extremely well, shuttling drive between front and rear axles far more adeptly than, say, a Haldex system used extensively in VW group products. Drive a bit more sedately and you'll be impressed by the Kuga's ride quality and refinement. It can do the sporty thing but feels happiest when wafting. We'll take that.
Design and Build
The styling of this latest Kuga is unchanged over that of the original second generation model, a car that has always utilised an evolutionary look. Even if you'd never seen one before, the shape of the windows, the headlights and the rising belt line is all quite similar to its MK1 predecessor, which is no bad thing as that car was always one of the best-looking cars in its class. In the here and now, Ford has extended the colour palette to include some more adventurous paint finishes including Ruby Red Metallic, Magnetic Metallic and the lairy Tiger Eye Metallic orange. This second generation Kuga model is based on Focus underpinnings and was launched not only to replace its direct predecessor in the UK and Europe but also to replace the bigger Escape in the USA. Stateside, they call this car the 'Escape'. This design is certainly a global one. The chassis is built in Cologne, the powertrain in Dagenham and the upper body and interior in Detroit. Escapes are built in Louisville, America, and final assembly for Kugas is in Valencia, Spain.Inside, there's decent headroom all round, despite the car being 8mm lower than the Mk1 model. Rear legroom is good too; certainly better than you'd get in a five-door Focus, which is quite an achievement given the requirement to package the all-wheel drive mechanicals. The rear seats also recline at the pull of a handle. These same handles also allow the seats to fold flat. The additional length this car enjoys over its predecessor is largely accounted for by luggage room. The MK1 Kuga had 410-litres of space available but even with the rear seats in their fully reclined position, there's 438-litres in the latest car. Put the seats to a more upright position and you get up to 481-litres.
Market and Model
Prices open at around £21,000, which seems strong value for money, and the trim structure of Zetec, Titanium and Titanium X has been retained. Standard equipment for a mid-spec Titanium model includes fold-flat seats, reclining rear seats, adjustable load floor, Ford SYNC with Audible Text Messaging and Emergency Assist, a Visual AWD Monitor, Electronic Power Assisted Steering, Hill Start Assist and enhanced Cruise Control with Adjustable Speed Limiter. Ford's SYNC with AppLink multimedia system now features voice-activated apps, allowing drivers to stream music while paying attention to the road. The Kuga features keyless access, plus you've the option to open and close the tailgate by waving your foot about under the bumper. Also available is Adaptive Cruise Control including Forward Alert, which warns drivers if they are travelling too close to the vehicle in front. Another standard technology is the Tyre Pressure Monitoring System, which warns if any of the tyres lose significant pressure during a journey. There's a maximum five-star rating by Euro NCAP after this car achieved an overall protection score of 88 per cent, the highest-ever for a mid-sized SUV. Euro NCAP also awarded an Advanced reward for Ford SYNC with Emergency Assistance. Upon detecting airbag deployment or activation of the emergency fuel shut-off within the car, Emergency Assistance uses the on-board GPS locator and Bluetooth-paired device to set up an emergency call and provide GPS co-ordinates, in the local language where the car is being driven.
Cost of Ownership
Ford has pulled out all the stops to make the latest Kuga more economical than before. The Active Grille Shutter that was only available when you shelled out on an up-spec model before is now fitted to all versions. This closes the front grille, reducing aerodynamic drag when the radiator isn't in need of additional cooling and then reopens it upon demand. Auto-Start-Stop is also now standard across the range. The upshot of this is that emissions have been slashed and fuel economy stretched still further. The biggest beneficiary of these and a suite of other efficiency tweaks is the entry-level diesel model, which sees emissions cut by 17g/km to just 122g/km. The petrol engines fare reasonably well, the 150PS front-wheel drive model being 11 per cent better than before at 143g/km and the 180PS all-wheel drive automatic seeing 8g/km shaved off its predecessor's figure, at 171g/km. Even the top 180PS diesel with the Powershift transmission and all-wheel drive will emit just 140g/km. Features like an Eco Mode and a Gear Shift Indicator help keep your right boot out of the carpet.
Wind the clock back a few years and Ford was a sprawling, out of control mess of different platforms and models for different markets. Even in 2014, the company had no fewer than 14 different vehicle platforms that it was looking to cut to just eight by 2016. Therefore this Kuga needs to appeal to a lot of different countries if it's to earn its corn and while some have grumbled that it doesn't feel particularly tailored to UK buyers, that's something we're going to have to get used to. Sales haven't been bad, so Ford's clearly doing something right. The latest model becomes more efficient, gets a bit more kit and a better 1.5-litre petrol engine, but otherwise the script doesn't change radically. If you want to make a style statement, you'll still keep saving for a Discovery Sport. Otherwise, the Kuga still represents the benchmark compact SUV for those who love to drive.