Ten second review
Few markets evolve as rapidly as the compact SUV and you only need look at this second generation Ford Kuga to realise what it takes to keep pace. It's bigger, more economical and better equipped and will appeal to a different crowd than its predecessor. There's no seven-seat version and it's still no great shakes off road but giving a car of this kind some serious off-road capability usually compromises it on road. I think this is one of those vehicles that would work really well as a long term ownership proposition, especially in 2.0 TDCi diesel form.
Ford ought to be number one in the SUV and Crossover segment, but for a long time the company has had a strangely half-hearted attitude to cars of this kind. While rivals quickly realised that British buyers would love something like a Land Rover Freelander but at lower prices, the Blue Oval didn't really commit, offering us the Maverick from 1993, basically a roughly rebadged Nissan Terrano, following it with the frankly awful 4.0-litre petrol Explorer from the US and then petrol-engined second generation Maverick, itself a rebadged Mazda Tribute.
So for a full 15 years, Ford missed the boat, selling us cars that were never really designed for the European market and which always looked third rate at best compared to rivals like the Freelander, the Nissan X-Trail, the Toyota RAV4 and so on. All of these cars developed into ever slicker models during this period and it was a wonder that when Ford did finally pull its finger out and offer us something tailored to our needs that the Kuga was as good as it proved.
But even that car was compromised, as Ford would openly admit. The Blue Oval's been playing catch up ever since. Has this latest Kuga got what it takes to level with the very best of its rivals? We took the 2.0 TDCi diesel version for a drive to find out.
Most UK buyers will probably choose one of the two diesel engines on offer. Here you choose between a 140PS 2.0-litre TDCi unit, which is expected to be the volume seller, or a range-topping 163PS version of this engine, also a 2.0-litre. The 140PS unit is available in manual front wheel drive guise too, which is the most economical model in the range, or you can buy a four-wheel drive version and specify it with the Powershift transmission if you fancy. The 163PS engine's only available as a four-wheel drive chassis, again with the option of Powershift. I think the front-wheel drive 140PS unit might be the bargain of the range, as there's very little difference in torque between these two engines and when the more powerful model is loaded up with all-wheel drive, Powershift and a few options, there's relatively little difference in their sprinting ability. With a manual gearbox and AWD, the top diesel takes 9.9 seconds to 62mph, while the entry-level car in the same spec manages 10.7s.
Although Ford's engineers deny it, the chassis of this model feels a good deal softer than the first generation car so the ride is better, but there's not that same up-and-at-'em attitude as before. The four-wheel drive system lends the Kuga a bit of off-road ability but it's probably more useful on road when conditions are slippy or if you're driving 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.
Design and Build
If this car arrived on your drive with the badges taped over, chances are you wouldn't take much more than a second to guess it was a Ford Kuga. Personally, I don't think that's a bad thing. The old model's styling was always one of its best features and Ford has accommodated this latest car's additional size without losing its predecessor's charm.
The extra 81mm of length and some cleverer packaging solutions means that this Kuga is properly spacious for four or five passengers although the lack of occasional sixth and seventh seats may see it struck from some lists.
The new car's additional length is largely accounted for by luggage space. The old car 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. Fold them flat and there's 1,928 litres available.
The dashboard is familiar if you've driven the latest Focus with a winged dial pack and extensive use of brightwork finishes across the fascia. I'm not fully sold on the infotainment system in this car as the controller is such a reach away and positioned so close to the screen that I think a touch screen would have worked better. Most of the fascia is built from quality soft touch materials, but the dash top feels a bit scratchy.
Market and model
You'll pay from around £22,000 for an entry-level 2.0 TDCi diesel model with front wheel drive and 140PS. Getting the same car with AWD would involve a price premium of around £1,500 and you can also pay a further £1,500 to get the Powershift 6-speed auto transmission. There's quite a price hike from here if you want the 163PS version of this engine as it only comes with AWD and the pricier trim levels.
As for equipment, well a typical mid-range car will get fold-flat seats, reclining rear seats, adjustable load floor, Ford SYNC with Audible Text Messaging and Emergency Assist, Visual AWD Monitor, Electronic Power Assisted Steering, Hill Start Assist and enhanced Cruise Control with Active Speed Limiter as standard. Other interesting bits? Well, the Kuga is also available with keyless access, plus you can open and close the tailgate by waving your foot about under the bumper.
On the safety side, there's a maximum five-star rating by Euro NCAP after achieving 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. That's pretty clever stuff.
The Ford Kuga is a car that rewards a bit of time spent with it. Look at it superficially and it's fairly easy to find rivals with more space, that drive a bit more sharply, that offer better fuel economy, wear a more prestigious badge or feel posher inside. But when you try to find the car that combines all of these qualities into one, it becomes a bit more difficult and gradually the Ford emerges as a real contender, especially in the 2.0 TDCi diesel form that most UK customers will choose.
Of course, it'll have its work cut out. There's some real talent in this compact SUV division and often the decision will come down to something as straightforward as whether you like the styling, whether you can get a discount, or how close your dealer is to you. If you're drawing up a shortlist, by all means put the Kia Sportage, the Mazda CX-5 and the Nissan Qashqai on it. But you'd be missing a trick if you didn't compare them to this latest Ford Kuga. It might just have 'em all covered.