The Ford Kuga is the brand's much-needed combatant in the ever growing, and ever more competitive compact SUV segment. The question is whether it has the chops to go head-to-head with the segment leaders like the Mazda CX-5?
Names alone can be a little deceiving in motoring terms. When Australians first got a look at Ford’s Kuga, it was a slightly upmarket SUV (well, it tried to be at least), with AWD and a turbocharged five-cylinder engine. That Kuga only made its way here at the very end of its life cycle and was sold alongside the cheaper Escape SUV, but it didn’t stay on sale in Australia for long.
Now, the new Kuga is with us, and it features smaller capacity engines – still turbocharged – with a diesel option (from $39,240), and a 2WD option too (the entry-level Ambiente: $27,990). On face value, this new model is better placed to make some inroads into the local market than the old Kuga ever was. That fact is especially so, given the rapid raising of the bar in competitive terms in this segment.
We’ve opted for the mid-grade, all-wheel drive Trend model for our weeklong test and it’s a sensible offering within the range when you take into account its price ($36,240) and the list of standard equipment. Externally, the Kuga is one of the few in this segment rolling on 18-inch wheels and I think they are perfectly matched to the slightly edgy styling. There’s no surfeit in ride quality that you might expect with the large rims, but we’ll get to that later.
Kuga Trend gets rear parking sensors, but bizarrely no reverse-view camera. The sensors work well but I’d almost expect a camera as par for the course now in such a competitive segment, but Ford only offers it on the top-end Titanium. Push-button start is standard – along with the requisite smart key – as are auto headlights and wipers and an auto dimming rear-view mirror, so it’s not all bad news by any means.
Dual-zone climate control is a bonus given Trend is the middle of the range model in the Kuga line-up, and rear air vents help to make the back seat as comfortable as possible for passengers.
The 4.2-inch colour display is a little on the small side nowadays, but the ten-way adjustable driver’s seat and part leather trim is well executed. Added to our surprise at the lack of a backup camera is the lack of standard satellite navigation – another feature we’d expect to be a given in this segment, especially considering the Trend's price point.
The interior is comfortable even after a few hours behind the wheel, and I appreciated the extensively adjustable driver’s seat, which allowed me to get comfortable and maximize visibility. The main negative inside the cabin is the amount of road and wind noise that makes its way in. It’s not deafening by any means, but it does start to grate after a few hours behind the wheel at highway speed. Around town though, the noise isn’t an issue.
As with many of Ford's current offerings, the Kuga features an overloaded centre cluster where buttons, switches and controls abound. It’s fair to say that once you work all the controls out, it’s all easy enough to understand. It will take you a while, though.
Under the bonnet, there’s a potent little 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine. I use the word ‘little’ because the Kuga is going into battle in this segment with engines up to twice the size (in the case of Jeep Cherokee for example). Despite the size deficit, the 1.6-litre is more than capable of matching it with the bigger opponents: 134kW of power and 240Nm of torque aren’t stratospheric numbers by any means but they are enough to punt the Kuga along right up to highway speeds without the engine working itself into a lather.
Drive the Kuga a little more enthusiastically, though, and the engine does feel like it needs to work hard to unleash it’s best. As such, the six-speed auto works a little harder and more urgently than I’d like as well, although the shifts are fast and smooth. Engine and gearbox work well together for the most part to get the Kuga hooting along, and the average daily drive will be dispatched with ease.
The official fuel figure is a claimed 7.7 litres per 100km and I managed a measured 8.6L/100km during just over 200km of mostly city driving. As I mentioned before, the six-speed automatic is cleverly paired to the small four-cylinder and the Kuga is able to match it performance-wise with bigger engines on the open road thanks to this pairing of engine and gearbox.
An important point to note is Kuga’s insistence on 95RON fuel as a minimum. That's not a huge issue if you spend all of your time around town, but it could be a little annoying if you head into the country often, where higher quality fuel isn’t always readily available.
Despite the fact the Kuga doesn’t love enthusiastic driving in terms of engine performance, the handling and steering dynamics are really impressive. With the Mazda CX-5 still reigning as the benchmark in the class, the Ford Kuga isn’t far behind, and handling is aided and abetted by the high quality Continental tyres.
Out on open country back roads, the Kuga also manages to tread the line between comfort and handling that many small SUVs seem to struggle with in the current climate. Despite the large (for the class) 18-inch wheels and tyres, there’s no nasty crashing and shuddering over bumpy road surfaces. Those tyres won’t be quite as cheap to replace as smaller rubber, though.
Kuga is capable of a spirited punt without losing its handling composure, but it’s also a comfortable medium-to-long distance tourer. The steering is precise at any speed and belies the Kuga’s SUV underpinnings but the ride is most worthy of note. It’s much the same story around town, where the Kuga dispatches pot-holed suburban roads with ease, soaking up the worst Sydney roads could throw at it.
In terms of ownership, the Ford features a three-year 100,000km warranty, and has a capped price servicing program that requires visits every 12 months or 15,000km, but extends to seven years or 135,000km depending on how much you drive the car. Over three years, the Kuga will cost you $1095 to service, which is reasonable against its main rivals. If you spend more time in your car, though, the Kuga becomes dearer ($1885 for the first 60,000km).
The Ford Kuga might not be right up there with the segment-leading CX-5, but there isn’t a galaxy separating the two, either. Kuga will suit buyers looking for something a little different, and crucially, it has given Ford a competitive entrant into a highly competitive segment.