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Ford goes on SUV attack with Kuga

Shelf life: Ford will only sell the current Kuga in Australia for about one year, at which time the new version will arrive to replace it.

Ancient Escape to be replaced by ‘old’ Kuga as Ford finally makes SUV move

Ford logo5 Dec 2011

By RON HAMMERTON

FORD Australia will dump the Escape nameplate when its replaces its oldest model with the European-built Kuga compact SUV in March as it finally gets serious about one of Australia’s biggest market segments.

Ironically, the Blue Oval brand will replace the decade-old AWD Escape – based on Mazda’s long-gone Tribute – with a vehicle that is already three years old.

The German-made, Focus-based Kuga crossover vehicle will be used as a pipe-opener for the new nameplate before the all-new second-generation Kuga arrives about one year later.

The 2013 Kuga will share all of its main elements with the new Ford Escape – this one developed by Ford – that was unveiled at last month’s Los Angeles motor show.

Ford Australia has opted for the European Kuga version of that vehicle, which will make its public debut at the Geneva motor show in March – about the same time as the current first-generation model is making its belated entrance into Australia.

Ford blames the Kuga’s popularity in Europe for its tardy arrival in Australia, saying it had now achieved production for Australian customers.

Ford Australia president and CEO Bob Graziano said the company’s Kuga strategy was clear: “To build awareness of the nameplate ahead of the introduction of the all-new model approximately 12 months later.

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“We are in a unique position of being able to do that, with a vehicle that is still recognised as an outstanding competitor in that segment, even while it is nearing the end of its model cycle,” he said.

However, the Kuga will not have Ford’s latest EcoBoost engine technology until the arrival of the second-generation vehicle in 2013.

Instead, the model arriving in March will be powered exclusively by the Volvo-developed – and highly regarded – 2.5-litre Duratec petrol inline five-cylinder developing a healthy 147kW of power at 6000rpm and 320Nm of torque between 1600rpm and 4000rpm.

This engine has been employed in high-performance versions of the Ford Focus, and packs considerably more punch than the soon-to-be-pensioned-off Escape’s Mazda-based 109kW/199Nm 2.3-litre four-cylinder.

Ford claims a 0-100km/h sprint time of 8.2 seconds for the six-speed manual 2.5-litre Kuga, and 8.8 seconds for the five-speed automatic.

The Taiwanese-made Escape, which was last facelifted in 2008 when the 3.0-litre V6 version was dropped, accumulated only 2195 sales for Ford in the first 10 months of this year, giving the company a compact SUV share of just 2.2 per cent, compared with the market-leading Subaru Forester’s 10,935 sales and 11.1 per cent market share.

Mr Graziano said Kuga would be directly aimed at achieving a bigger share of the segment for Ford.

“Ford Kuga marks a name change from Escape, but it has newer technologies, improved safety, performance, and Ford’s corporate kinetic design DNA, which we think customers will appreciate,” he said.

Because the Kuga to be introduced in March will do duty for only a year, Ford is planning to keep the line-up simple, with just the one five-cylinder engine and two specification levels, Trend and Titanium.

A 2.0-litre diesel engine available in Europe in two states of tune – 100kw and 120kW – will not be offered in Australia, at least in the first-gen Kuga.

No prices or specifications will be released until closer to launch, but the UK version comes with five-star safety – including curtain airbags.

The UK 2.5-litre Duratec-engined Kuga comes exclusively with a Haldex ‘intelligent’ all-wheel-drive powertrain that automatically directs drive between the front and rear wheels as needed (2WD is available with the diesel in Europe).

The vehicle will be made for Australia in Ford of Europe’s Saarlouis plant in Germany, where the current Ford Focus is also built for the Australian market.

Although Focus production will be switched to Ford’s Thailand plant next year, the Kuga will continue to come from Germany, at least until some time into the next generation.

The next Kuga will offer Ford’s new EcoBoost four-cylinder engine technology, possibly in both 2.0-litre and 1.6-litre four-cylinder forms.

At least one of those will make it into the Australian version, and possibly both.

The 2.0-litre EcoBoost – similar to the engine bound for the locally made Falcon next year – seems to be a certainty, replacing the five-cylinder 2.5-litre engine of the first Kuga.

But no hybrid will be offered as Ford is dropping the petrol-electric drivetrain of the current US Escape to focus on EcoBoost as the model’s fuel-economy leader.

If the new Escape shown at the LA show is any guide, the next Kuga will also get hands-free tailgate opening, active park assist, blind-spot alert system, voice control operation and – on some models – active grille shutters that open and close according to engine cooling needs to improve aerodynamics.

The American vehicle – which first surfaced as the Vertrek concept at the 2011 Detroit motor show – will also be offered with a standard 2.5-litre four cylinder engine, but it is unclear if that will be coming to Australia.

Likewise, the European Kuga will get at least one diesel option, but Ford Australia corporate communications director Sinead Phipps told GoAuto that the engine line-up for the local model was a long way from being discussed.

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