Car reviews - Ford - Kuga - range
Sharp steering, excellent body control, compliant ride, punchy and frugal diesel engine, clever hands-free tailgate on Titanium version
Room for improvement
EcoBoost petrols average at best, no front-drive auto option, no reversing camera on lower grades, Ambiente cabin feels cheap, cargo space design could be smarter
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17 Apr 2013
FOR all the negative talk about dwindling Falcon sales, Ford’s lack of a competitive compact SUV rival to the Mazda CX-5 has for so long had an equally heavy impact on the brand’s sales.
Buyers love soft-roaders, and continue to migrate to them in droves. With the new Focus-based Kuga, Ford has a mainstream product to offer to people for whom a Territory is just too big and pricey.
Signalling its ambitions, Ford will pay through the nose to integrate the Kuga into Australia’s favourite TV show – reality program The Voice. Eye-catching styling and some tricky technology make for ready made headlines too.
But under the gloss, it is any good?
The $27,990 plus on-roads sticker price for the base front-drive 110kW/240Nm Ambiente is competitive with the CX-5, as well as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
However, since Ford doesn’t offer an automatic with its front-drive configuration, buyers need to spend $31,490 to get into a base variant with a self-shifter – the more powerful 134kW/240Nm all-wheel-drive version of the Ambiente.
Here the value equation is less strong, since this car comes with cheapo steel wheels and is missing several features – most notably a reversing camera – standard on some $32,000 rivals.
The walk to the mid-range Trend ($36,240) buys you sharper 18-inch alloy wheels and roof rails – adding some car park cred – but you still can’t get the camera, sat-nav or the headlining hands-free tailgate until you fork out $44,740 for the flagship Titanium.
The instrument fascia and overall cabin design is pure Ford Focus, meaning it is much more driver-oriented than typical for a SUV. It will polarise, but it isn’t dull, and the ergonomics are great. The base Ambiente’s Nokia-inspired dash is a touch cheap, though.
We also found front legroom a bit tight, since the fascia extends further into the cabin than average.
Rear-seat space is good for the long-legged, although tall heads will hit the roof in the flagship Titanium (which gets a space-eating sunroof), and the cushions feel thin and a little lacking in support. Base versions also lack rear vents.
Cargo space has grown, and the floor folds flat – albeit, with a slight downward slant – but you can’t drop the rear seats via either a latch in the cargo space, or a latch mounted atop the rear bench.
Ford tells us that it isn’t hard to wander around to the side of the vehicle to lower the seatbacks – we respectfully disagree.
On a more positive front, the tricky hands-free tailgate that responds to a kicking motion (provided the key fob is in your pocket) is a brilliant idea for when you return to the car with full hands. But why not make it an option on the Ambiente and Trend?
Ford Australia admits it will consider option packs and running changes on the car, introducing things such as the tailgate and a rear parking camera as options or additions as time goes by. We reckon they should make haste.
The other headline bit of tech – the emergency assist system that can call 000 for help via Bluetooth when it senses an airbag deployment or fuel shut-off – is clever and, more importantly, it works. Thankfully, this is a free service available on all versions.
The first car we drove was the base Ambiente front-drive – the only car in the range with the lower-tuned 110kW 1.6-litre turbo-petrol engine, and the only version offered with a manual gearbox.
It’s nothing special on paper, but it’s a sweet combination. The pairing of the lightest kerb weight (1550kg) with the do-it-yourself shifter and the revvy little engine made for a pleasant city companion, albeit one that could struggle under more arduous loads that two motoring writers.
We preferred this arrangement to the larger 134kW version of the 1.6-litre engine in the all-wheel-drive Ambiente, and the Trend and Titanium specifications.
Blame the six-speed torque converter automatic, which is strangely reluctant to kick down a cog (higher gears conserve fuel), and therefore exposes a torque deficiency in the small force-fed engine.
The Sport mode holds lower gears a little longer, but it’s a bit like putting icing on an overcooked cake. Furthermore, the manual mode can only be controlled via an unusual switch, rather than a shift gate or paddles.
My companion and I did some independent tests in a Trend automatic petrol, and got the following results: 0-100km/h in 12.0 seconds, and the crucial 80-120km/h overtake test in 8.5s (with a full 1.5s wait for the auto to finally kick down a cog).
Fuel use can also grow alarmingly if you’re not careful. The engine has to work hard, and at times we recorded upward of 13.0 litres of premium fuel per 100km over a route that included a few sections of hard driving, but also some more subdued behaviour in suburban and urban environs.
The proven 120kW/340Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel is an extra $3000 – the almost $40,000 entry price for the oil-burner is about par for the course in this segment – but in the real world is the better bet.
Ford’s official fuel use figures of 6.3L/100km aren’t markedly different to the petrol’s figures of 7.7L/100km, but over our road loop, we found the discrepancy to be much larger. We recorded a figure of 6.4L/100km in a suburban commute.
Furthermore, the comparative plethora of torque, and the much better dual-clutch automatic transmission make it a swifter and more assured companion. Ford’s decision not to fit this excellent Powershift auto to the petrol is – to say the least – an odd one.
As you’d expect from its Focus underpinnings, road manners are a real strength. The ride was firm but composed over a mixture of surfaces, and bodyroll negligible. The CX-5 and Volkswagen Tiguan have a real rival on their hands, from a dynamic perspective.
The electric steering is light and lacks feedback, but is direct and sharp, and turn-in is eager. On a twisty road, the agile Kuga is almost top of class – just like its Territory big brother.
The Ambiente elicited more road noise from its Goodyear tyres than the Trend and Titanium variants riding on lower-profile Continentals.
To conclude, Ford’s new SUV is undoubtedly a more competitive bet than its predecessor, which – while fun to drive – was pricey and had a limited range of variants.
In terms of driving ability, technology and style, the Kuga is a fine choice. We wish the petrol/auto combination was better, though, and hope Ford makes some running changes to make that clever tailgate, sat-nav and a reversing camera available on lower grades.
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