The new Ford Kuga will have brought huge sighs of relief at the car maker’s local HQ in Broadmeadows, Victoria.
Ford Australia has been uncompetitive for years in the ever-growing mid-sized SUV segment – for the majority with the ageing and slow-selling Escape, then from 2012 just a single, overly expensive variant of the previous Ford Kuga.
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The second-generation Ford Kuga is virtually guaranteed to become a more significant player against an impressive array of famous and popular nameplates such as the Mazda CX-5, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4 and Nissan X-Trail.
A $27,990 sticker for the entry-level Kuga Ambiente (above) is a good starting point, as is a prominent integrated advertising spot on TV’s The Voice and some headline items of technology.
For the latter, we’ll kick off – literally – with an automatic tailgate that opens and closes if you flick your leg beneath the rear bumper.
It may sound like a gimmick, but it’s unquestionably useful for any owner (with the keyfob on their person) who is approaching their Kuga with both hands busy holding bags or other items.
At launch, however, only the range-topping Ford Kuga Titanium – priced from $44,990 – is offered with the technology that uses two sensors beneath the rear bumper to detect a kicking leg (and not animals running underneath).
It’s not available even as an option on the entry-level car or the mid-trim Kuga Trend – from $36,240 – though Ford Australia says it is keen to change that.
A rear-view camera and parallel parking assistance technology are other technology only found on the Ford Kuga Titanium.
All Kugas, though, come with a system that can use your Bluetooth-paired smartphone to automatically dial 000 and provide GPS co-ordinates for emergency services in the event of an accident.
You can read more details about the Ford Kuga pricing and specifications in our separate article, though generally the SUV is well equipped throughout the range – with each higher trim level justifying its extra premium.
The flagship Ford Kuga Titanium, for example, costs $8500 more than the equivalent Trend but adds noteworthy items includes 19-inch alloy wheels, panoramic sunroof, LED daytime running lights, front and rear sensors, auto headlights, heated front seats, a 5-inch colour display, and picnic tables attached to the front seatbacks.
The Titanium we tested was also further brimmed with a $2650 Technology Pack incorporating active cruise control, blind spot/lane keeping/lane departure warning systems, auto high beam, and a driver alert system that monitors for drowsiness.
Lots of gear, however, can lead to a heavy car, and the new Ford Kuga arrives as one of the heaviest in the class.
Weighing 1550kg in front-wheel-drive manual-only Kuga Ambiente trim, mass rises to 1652-1662kg for the all-wheel-drive auto-only petrol Kuga Trend and Titanium. All three spec levels get a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol 'EcoBoost' engine, producing 110kW as a manual, 134kW as an auto, and 240Nm in both states of tune. But that mass has a detrimental effect on the Kuga – especially in the AWD models which most obviously feel heavy and offset their extra power.
The six-speed torque converter auto is the main culprit, even if there are mitigating circumstances with what is arguably insufficient torque for a vehicle of this weight.
Although upshifts are smooth on light throttle application, kickdown response is tardy and the auto is too busy - eager to find a higher gear just when it needs to hold it or even downshift.
Matters improve little with the Sport mode that aims to hold gears longer, while the thumb button manual shift buttons on the side of the lever are far from ideal ergonomically.
Ford says a fix for the petrol’s auto calibration is in place, and should be applied in time for Kugas coming on later shipments in the second half of 2013.
The upshot is a Ford Kuga that doesn’t feel particularly quick, a seat-of-the-pants sensation that was supported by a timed 0-100km/h run in a Trend AWD that took 12 seconds. (Ford doesn’t provide performance data.)
In-gear response was also leisurely, with 80-120km/h recorded at 8.6 seconds.
It also does little to address the fuel efficiency issue of the previous Kuga's larger, 2.5-litre turbo. Our trip computer in a Titanium EcoBoost read as high as 14.2 litres of premium unleaded per 100km before settling at 13.7L/100km after a long stint that involved some push-on driving but mostly a mix of speeds and urban/suburban roads where the vehicle would typically spend most of its time.
For an expensive, $3000 premium on the Trend and Titanium models, a far more effortless drive is provided by the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel that has less power (120kW) but crucially an extra 100Nm of torque (340Nm). It's easily enough to overcome the even heavier 1731-1738kg kerb weight.
It gels nicely with a six-speed auto that for the diesel is a dual-clutch system rather than a torque converter arrangement. Shifts are quicker, more intuitive and more imperceptible than the restless auto of the petrol.
Although we spent less time with the diesel Ford Kuga Titanium, a trip computer readout average of 6.4L/100km on a country/suburb/city stint gave a strong indication of greater real world fuel savings over the petrol.
Officially, there’s a 1.6L/100km difference over 100km for the combined fuel consumption figures of the petrol (8.0L/100km) and diesel (6.4L/100km) Titaniums.
A consistent thread throughout the Ford Kuga range is great steering and taut body control that is the best challenger we’ve tried recently for the benchmark Mazda CX-5 and Volkswagen Tiguan.
The most agile handling comes in the best petrol model - the front-drive Ambiente with six-speed manual that’s not coincidentally the lightest of all Kugas. The further you go up the range the more the weight and larger, grippier tyres combine to dilute the fun.
The Ford Kuga drives just like a taller-riding version of the Focus – the small car with which it shares its platform.
That includes a car-like driving position that is backed by highly comfortable seats.
The cockpit may feel a bit on the snug side for drivers taller than six feet, though passengers of similar height will find good legroom in the back seat (an area much improved from before). Headroom is also plentiful in the Ambiente and Trend models, though is noticeably depleted in the Titanium that features a standard sunroof.
Ford’s base model Kuga misses out on rear air vents, though.
Open the Kuga’s tailgate – a choice of four ways: the kick, keyfob, dashboard button or latch – and there’s 406 litres of boot space that is about average for the class.
It’s not particularly wide but high rear seatbacks allow for a decent cargo height and there’s also a usefully low loading lip (helped by a temporary spare wheel).
There’s a lack of clever thinking for the cargo area, however. Unlike rivals such as the CX-5, CR-V … there aren’t any levers in the boot to automatically lower the rear seatbacks.
Neither are there release levers on top of the seatbacks so you can’t fold down the rear seats from the boot – you have to open the rear doors and pull a lever there instead.
The Kuga also asks you to manually lift the rear cargo floor section and place it onto a ledge at the bottom of the (now folded) rear seatbacks to create a flat cargo section up to the front seatbacks.
Storage options are good throughout the cabin, including plenty of spaces for coffee cups or water bottles.
As with the Focus, the dash design of the Kuga depends on model. The base model gets the Nokia-phone-inspired centre stack first seen in the Fiesta city car, with the Trend and Titanium getting a more premium, gloss-black treatment with (strong-sounding) Sony audio.
The higher-spec infotainment control panel is less intuitive, though, with the plethora of tiny buttons taking plenty of familiarisation.
The Ford Kuga gets smarter with its Sync system that allows occupants to use just their voice to make phone calls or choose music.
A wider choice of variants also makes the new model a smarter buy than its predecessor, though there are compromises throughout the range.
The front-wheel-drive Kuga is the most entertaining to drive but isn’t available with an automatic. The Trend and Titanium petrols get a more powerful engine, more attractive dash and features line-up but are hampered by a poorly calibrated auto.
Turbo diesel variants offer better real-world performance and fuel efficiency, but ask a minimum of $39,990.
Whichever Ford Kuga model you choose, though, you will find an SUV that’s at the pointy end when it comes to accomplished driving ability.