The Ford Kuga Ambiente is comfortably the best compact SUV available for under $30,000, and that's partially because it's the most comfortable-riding Ford Kuga in the range by far.
Choosing the best of two Ambiente powertrains available, however, means regularly enlisting the services of your left leg, as the entry-level front-wheel-drive version is available exclusively with a six-speed manual transmission, priced from $27,990 plus on-road costs.
Choosing the Ambiente grade with a six-speed automatic necessitates getting all-wheel drive, and that adds both cost and weight – an extra $3500 and 106kg respectively – which mean corresponding reductions in performance and economy.
Part of the success of the Ford Kuga Ambiente is down to the fact it doesn’t follow the formula of almost every other front-drive entry-level compact SUV in the market.
Both the 1569kg manual and 1675kg auto utilise the same 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder enigne, though the former gets 110kW of power, while the latter partially offsets its extra heft with 134kW (both produced at 5700rpm). In both cases there’s 240Nm of torque, and it’s this latter figure that moves the Ford Kuga ahead of its rivals.
By comparison, the $26,990 Hyundai ix35 Active, $27,490 Honda CR-V VTi, $27,640 Mitsubishi Outlander ES, $27,880 Mazda CX-5 Maxx, and $28,490 Toyota RAV4 GX all conform by using non-turbo 2.0-litre engines attached to their front driveshafts. Even the all-wheel-drive $30,990 Subaru Forester 2.0i gets an engine of that same capacity.
All have the same problem – two litres of unpressurised engine simply isn’t enough to haul at least 1395kg (the lightest of the group, the Outlander ES).
While power outputs are typically competitive with the turbocharged, smaller capacity Kuga engine, all engines need at least 3600rpm (the RAV4) and at worst 4300rpm (the CR-V) to deliver much less torque (53Nm and 50Nm less in the Toyota and Honda’s case respectively).
This means that whether moving off the line at the lights or maintaining speed on freeway hills, the competition to the Ford Kuga are all similarly buzzy, noisy and require working their manual gearshift levers or unlocking their optional torque converters frequently.
The Ford Kuga Ambiente, by contrast, makes its peak torque from just 1500rpm, meaning relaxed freeway cruising, and keeps it strong all the way to 5000rpm, giving it terrific mid-range punch. Only the $28,490 Volkswagen Tiguan 118TSI can match the Kuga Ambiente by using a 1.4-litre twincharged engine that produces the same torque.
We tested both the Ambiente manual front-wheel-drive and Ambiente automatic all-wheel-drive back to back, and found the DIY-shifter noticeably perkier and sweeter, despite making a bit less power.
Curiously, though, the automatic used is a torque converter six-speed in the Ambiente, but switches to a dual-clutch unit with the same number of ratios in the higher spec $36,240 Trend and $44,790 Titanium all-wheel-drives. The Ambiente also isn’t available with a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine that adds 100Nm more torque and $3000 to the price of those loftier grades.
But where the Trend and Titanium add more features and bigger 17- and 19-inch alloy wheels over the Ambiente, both lack the same stellar value equation and smooth ride quality of the cheapest model; at $35,000-plus all its competitors have bigger, better engines, too.
The Ambiente is still reasonably well equipped with push-button start, Sync Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, power windows, cruise control and even a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
There’s parking sensors only at the rear, however, plus no reversing camera, budget-looking hubcaps – though most competitors get steel wheels or hubcaps, too – and headlights that don’t automatically turn on and switch off.
The interior design of the Ford Kuga shares the same decent plastics and good ergonomics with the Focus hatch on which it’s based. The Ambiente also, however, shares design elements that distinguish it as a base model, such as the small, pixellated monochrome display, audio controls that lack tactility and look as though they’re based on a 1990s Nokia, and basic air conditioning switchgear.
But the Ford Kuga Ambiente is a cheap compact SUV in terms of the price and powertrain it offers. It may be one of the heaviest models in its class, but it’s also among the largest inside and the most refined.
The rear tailgate opens to reveal a surprisingly low loading lip, which is handy for lifting larger items in and out. Capacity of 406 litres is about average for the class, but extends to an impressive 1603L with the rear seat folded.
Seats that are comfortable both front and rear, with a soft, supportive cushion, ensure fine long-distance comfort, and both cabin width and legroom are up with the Outlander and RAV4 while eclipsing the CX-5, Forester and others.
A feeling of soft, soothing comfort is backed by a suspension tune that combines quite firm spring and damping rates with chubby 55-aspect 17-inch tyres that iron out sharp-edged potholes and surface changes that affect Kugas on thinner, larger rubber.
It really is the best of both worlds – the suspension still provides control, while the tyres play their part to iron out the worst of urban lumps and freeway expansion joints.
Even the all-wheel-drive still has decent punch.
While the Ford Kuga Ambiente needs to be worked hard to deliver its performance, meaning the claimed 6.7L/100km (manual) and 7.6L/100km (automatic) consumption can nearly be doubled around town, it is still sweeter, and more effortless once up and running than the rival 2.0-litres.
The lighter manual, with a sweet, slick, if long-throw shifter is perhaps even a hidden driver’s compact SUV, such is its willingness to go hard.
As with most European-engineered Fords of the modern era, the Kuga has the best steering in its class, with brilliant consistency, mid-weighting and sharpness.
The handling, meanwhile, challenges the class-benchmark Mazda CX-5, but only a back-to-back test can confirm which would one have to accept second place.
Riding on ‘mud and snow’ Hankook tyres, the Kuga can get a bit pushy when hustled through corners. But the chassis balance is superb and the slight lack of grip only adds to the fun.
The electronic stability control interferes quickly when it detects understeer, but lift off the throttle when the front end starts pushing and the Kuga’s rear plays around a bit, keeping the SUV pointed.
If that sounds all a bit much for a compact SUV, know that the stability control stays silent with slight lift-off oversteer moments, proof that the supremely talented Ford engineers calibrating the active safety systems know how to trust their chassis and let good drivers have fun.
Therein lies the brilliance of the Ford Kuga Ambiente. The manual version may never realise its full potential on the sales charts, but it’s the best compact SUV available under $30,000, mixing value, space and practicality with punch and driver appeal.