Car reviews - Ford - Kuga - Trend 5-dr wagon
Performance, dynamics, styling, cabin space, seats, drivetrain, exhaust note, value for money, exclusivity
Room for improvement
Dated interior, fuel consumption, no Bluetooth audio streaming, no integrated GPS availability
25 May 2012
THE term “oldie but a goodie” is a tired old cliché.
Nevertheless, via a number of clichés, we’ll prove their worth as they effortlessly extol the virtues as well as expose the vices of the Ford Kuga – a not-so-fresh yet fascinating member of the normally dull compact SUV club.
Just launched here, this previous-generation Focus-derived crossover really has been on the slow boat to Australia (cliché #2), having first seen the light of day (#3) in Europe some four years before coming here.
Indeed, the current Kuga is not long for this world (#4), with its successor – already unveiled at January’s Detroit motor show – due on our roads by early 2013. This ain’t no spring chicken, then (#5).
Why the long wait? Initially the excuses ran thick and fast (#6). In 2008 our dollar was too low against the Euro for the German-built Ford to be competitive. There was also no suitable diesel/auto option. And the ancient Escape – a 1997 626-based relic that Mazda ditched two vehicle generations ago – was still selling relatively well back then.
But the world is a very different place to what it once was (#7) and the $A has strengthened while the Euro has plummeted, more buyers than ever are flocking to compact SUVs and petrol prices have not been such an issue as they once were, easing the need for a self-shifting diesel.
But we’re still shocked that somebody at the Blue Oval gave the current Kuga the green light (#8) for Australia (and New Zealand) so late in its lifecycle.
Ford isn’t exactly dropping the cat among the pigeons though (#9), with just 400 well-equipped examples coming in total, all fitted with Volvo’s thrusty (if thirsty) 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo-petrol engine, as found in everything from the C30 to the XC90 as well as the Focus and Mondeo XR5s.
So that’s the Kuga’s back-story. We are talking about a Dead Model Walking, after all, and a lush with a stupid name no self-respecting woman would be seen dead in at that.
While the plot doesn’t thicken from here on in (#10), it does move and meander in an enjoyable and very un-compact-SUV sort of way.
Let’s cut to the chase, then (#11). No compact SUV provides as much premium bang-for-your-buck (#12) as this Ford. Subaru claims its cars are ‘All 4 The Driver’ but the Kuga begs to differ (#13).
Open the hefty door (that shuts with a heavy thud like that of a Volvo XC60), buckle up and push the (cringe-worthy) ‘Ford Power’ start button (the position of which is guaranteed to flummox a first-time driver every time – it’s located between the centre vents under the hazard flasher switch!) and the throaty five-pot burble will put some people in mind of the iconic Audi Quattro.
Nobody will confuse the Kuga with a Hyundai ix35. It possesses an actual proper noise, an exhaust attitude that sounds like no other soft-roader for the money.
With a diesel-like 320Nm of torque, and tied to a slurry five-speed automatic gearbox with a low first-gear ratio, the Swedish-powered Ford jumps into action instantly the moment you tickle the throttle (#14).
And, thanks to a quintet of slick gearshifts, the whoosh of acceleration builds ever more strongly as the turbo keeps the five-pot on the boil, underscoring the Kuga’s formidable and quite unexpected pace.
Furthermore, while there is an inevitable fuel consumption penalty, with our average of 11.2L/100km somewhat surpassing most of the four-cylinder opposition on paper, you can keep it down because there’s ample torque to tootle about with so you don’t need to rev the engine to high heaven (#15) to get going.
All the Kuga’s power would seem like a handful if the chassis wasn’t up to the job, but thanks to those Focus underpinnings – as well as standard part-time all-wheel drive – there’s plenty for enthusiasts to sink their teeth into (#16) here as well.
The hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering is old-school in today’s electrified world, but a honey in terms of smoothness and feedback, blessing the Kuga with uncanny levels of poise and stability for what is a high-riding wagon.
Wet as well as dry surface grip is excellent. Push through a tight corner very hard and the front end will eventually run wide, accompanied by some steering rack rattle over really bad surfaces, but this is only in extreme circumstances since the car – backed up by a subtle stability control system as well as a very responsive set of brakes – keeps control of the situation.
Overall, then, the Kuga’s handling characteristics are first class. It’s not quite as agile as a Mazda CX-5, but there is a premium veneer normally found in much more expensive vehicles. Volvo’s XC60 springs to mind, though the Ford delivers more enjoyable dynamics.
All in all, there is nothing old or cumbersome about the way this vehicle drives, or rides on its 17-inch alloys. The entry-level Trend tested here features firm yet pliable suspension that performs a top job in keeping bumps – if not all road noise – from entering inside.
The tailgate has a Territory-type separate opening window that’s larger than usual so even not-so-small items can be stowed easily without having to open the lower section as well.
Additionally, the rear seats can be folded forward for a long and flat load area, there is a 12-volt outlet on one side and a space-saver spare wheel beneath the floor. All in all, the amount of cargo capacity (ranging from 360 to 1555 litres with the backrest folded) is quite generous.
If you’re familiar with the previous Focus, the Kuga’s cabin will look and feel very familiar. From the large four-spoke steering wheel to the flat (though still attractive and simple) centre console design, the SUV’s presentation and ambience is very Euro Ford circa 2005. This means solid, blocky, and very Teutonic.
If you prefer the Fiesta-style fussy dash styling that is spreading to all of Ford’s latest products, you may be disappointed, but we’re not.
There is nothing much wrong with the dashboard’s layout or execution, though Volkswagen owners may scoff at the low-fi cheapo plastics used in the lower dash areas (especially the flimsy glovebox lid), along the console and in the door cards, which do their darnedest to really date and downgrade in comparison to the Tiguan. But the Kuga’s operational simplicity ought to make most newcomers feel right at home (#17).
Ford has been building crossovers for years, so its competence in terms of entry and egress, seating position, ergonomics and overall usability is clearly evident.
Absolutely great front seats that have you perched high and mighty are a boon, adding to a feeling of control that so characterises the Kuga driving experience.
Most controls are grouped together for minimum distraction – a black art that evades most newer Fords – so they fall easily to hand (#18). And the padded cloth door tops make excellent elbow rests.
The rear seats are really elevated and taller occupants may find the headrests don’t quite reach up high enough, but otherwise there is enough space for three adults (at a squeeze) while the view out is commanding.
However, there are no rear door pockets or vent outlets, though there is a token rear-of-centre-console shelf and a centre armrest containing cupholders and a lidded bin.
We could probably do without the flimsy rear-seat tray tables (standard on the Titanium only), which are too shallow to even accommodate the 13-inch laptop on which these words are being written.
Rear parking sensors are a notable omission as reversing can be fraught at the best of times (#19) with the Kuga’s rising shoulder line and thick pillars.
Finally, the standard Bluetooth telephony lacks the audio streaming facility that we’ve come to love so much in more recent car designs.
Which brings us back to the beginning of this cliché-ridden road report.
Sure, the Kuga is now deeply into its twilight years (#20), but the old girl can still lift up her skirt (#21) when push comes to shove (#22).
Seriously, though, the Kuga does feel like a Volvo SUV – only with better driving dynamics and for a whole lot less cash.
In a class that – the Mazda CX-5 aside – is currently quite stale, you could do a whole lot worse. Indeed, compared to a Subaru Forester XT, Volkswagen Tiguan 155TSI, BMW X1 or any other ‘performance’ compact SUV, the Kuga is anything but a cliché.
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