When we first drove the second-generation Ford Kuga in April 2013, we found it to be one of the class’s better contenders, and potentially an opportunity for the Blue Oval brand to make a genuine impact in the compact SUV market where it hadn't shone for years.
That was then… In the ensuing time, the Kuga has struggled to get traction in the sales race against rivals such as the Mazda CX-5, Subaru Forester and Nissan X-Trail. Its annual sales, despite big growth this year, are barely one-quarter that of the Mazda, and it sits eighth in segment.
But this week, Ford launched a MkII version with the aim of improving this, and appears to have gone the right way about it — by addressing those areas most needing improvement.
First and foremost, there is an overhauled trio of engines (two petrol and one revised diesel), yielding either more power, better economy, or both.
Ford has also trimmed the pricing on a number of variants, most notably on the entry-level Ambiente, on which it also finally offers an automatic front-drive variant.
As such, the revised range comes with three specification levels, front- or all-wheel-drive configurations, and one of a trio of turbocharged petrol or diesel engines, matched in all but the very base model to a six-speed automatic transmissions.
Kicking off the range is the base Ambiente with a revised (1499cc) 1.5-litre turbo four producing 134kW/240Nm with a six-speed auto, or 110kW/240Nm with the six-speed manual. The list prices are $27,490 and $28,990 apiece, which is sharp for the class.
It may have a reduced capacity over the previous 1.6-litre engine, but it produces the same peak power (at 5700rpm) and torque (between 1600 and 5000rpm) at the same point as before.
As the figures suggest, it has a meaty low end that makes it nippy around town, which is where it will spend most of its time. Under more duress such as during an uphill overtake, its lack of top end causes the auto to downshift with some regularity, generally without hesitation.
This behaviour will warp the claimed 7.2L/100km fuel consumption on the front-drive auto. The AWD model weighs about 1650kg, which is heavy for the class. In urban duties, we stress, it’s a fine little unit.
Better is the new 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo option - with 178kW (at 5500rpm) and 345Nm (2000-4500rpm), which not only thumps the old 1.6-litre unit into the stands but also shades the Subaru Forester XT as the most powerful compact SUV at the mainstream end of the market.
This engine comes on the mid-range Trend and flagship Titanium AWD models with a six-speed auto. It’s a great match, relatively responsive and immediate off the mark, linear in its delivery and much more meaty across the rev range.
All the better, then, to capitalise on the Kuga’s familiar car-like driving dynamics which, alongside the CX-5 and Volkswagen Tiguan, feel sharper than most.
Its electric steering is light and easy to operate around town, but offers a nice level of feel and feedback if you want to clear your head with some more dynamic driving. Too bad that four-spoke wheel looks a bit naff.
Meanwhile, the all-round independent suspension (MacPherson strut front and Control Blade multi-link rear) still offers a near class-leading combination of bump absorption (on both inner-urban roads and higher-speed highways) and predictable body control in corners.
The Kuga is also impressive on gravel, soaking up rapid-fire corrugations better than we expected. Our Trend’s 235/50 Continentals on 18-inch alloys held on well, and we commend Ford for the quality standard rubber (though the Ambiente on our test got chubbier Hankooks which we didn’t get a chance to test in the same way).
Completing the engine triumvirate is the uprated 2.0-litre turbo diesel with 132kW at 3500rpm and 400Nm between 2000 and 2500rpm. With claimed combined cycle fuel use of 5.5L/100km, it costs an extra $2000 over the 2.0 petrol on the Trend and Titanium.
It's certainly better than the petrol for fuel use (the petrol has a claimed figure of 8.8L/100km, which we’ll verify when we get a week-long loaner), and feels substantially more muscular, as well as featuring fairly good levels of refinement.
That said, all three engines are rated to tow the same 1500kg braked or 750kg unbraked. This is about on par for the class, as is the 11.1-metre turning circle. The petrol models, incidentally, need at least 95 RON premium juice.
The mid-range Trend now costs $36,490 in entry petrol form, while the AWD diesel auto is an extra $2000 at $38,490. The flagship Titanium costs $44,990 as a petrol, while the diesel is $46,990. On both, the petrol costs $250 more than before while the diesel is $750 less.
Keeping in mind our time behind the wheel at the launch was brief, it’s immediately obvious that the new engine range is an improvement, with the 2.0-litre EcoBoost petrol being the obvious highlight.
Inside the cabin things are almost entirely familiar, hence our focus on the powertrains so far. Disappointingly to some, yours truly included, the Kuga retains the same dash design as before, rather than getting the improved interface on the (as-yet-unreleased) 2015 Focus.
The base Ambiente features a rather busy and basic interface with a tiny 3.5-inch blue-lit screen and a basic trip computer display that resembles a Fiesta. It feels a bit low-rent for a $27,490 car.
The Trend and Titanium are better, with the familiar glossy black backing behind the audio buttons, of which there are too many. The overly small screens (4.2-inch or 5.0-inches respectively) remain buried way back in the fascia, and the button-operated (not rotary dial or touch) system is clunky at best.
The omission of sat-nav even as an option at Trend level, and the fact you have to pay a dealer (an undisclosed sum for now, as deliveries don’t begin until January 2) to put a reversing camera into the car (and into the rear-view mirror at that) is a fail.
Rivals such as the CX-5, Honda CR-V and X-Trail — to name but a random few — all offer cameras across the range, and the Mazda and Nissan have standard sat-nav from mid-range. The Titanium rectifies this, though it kicks off just shy of $45K before on-roads.
The cabin itself, bar the disappointing interface and overly small screen, is generally pleasant enough and spacious. The Sync system pairs your Bluetooth fast and the voice control is relatively efficient, and the seating position is commanding while remaining car-like.
All Kugas also 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.
The full list of standard equipment by variant can be seen here.
Room in the rear row is excellent, with plenty of headroom and shoulder room, as well as plenty of room for feet under the seats. Cabin storage is decent, and you get cupholders and pockets in both rows. The Ambiente misses out on the Trend’s and Titanium’s rear vents though, which is stingy.
The back seats also have decent under-thigh support and tilt back, though don’t slide. Drop the 60:40 rear row and cargo space grows from 406L to a voluminous 1603L, abetted by the low loading lip (and space-saver spare).
That said, you can’t drop the rear row from the cargo area, meaning you have to walk around to the side of the car. If you have a Titanium, you get a standard electric tailgate that opens if you swing your foot under the rear bumper and have the key fob in your pocket. It’s now a $1200 option on the Trend, too, and is clever if you’re bag-laden.
Our brief time behind the wheel of the new Kuga convinced us the new engines, at least at Trend level and above, are right at the sharp end of the segment. That 2.0-litre EcoBoost puts most rivals to the sword.
Given the CarAdvice consensus already had the Kuga as one of the better offerings out there, and given the new engines and the generally reduced prices, it’s a better bet again.
At the same time, while the cabin is as spacious as it needs to be (excluding the colossal Honda CR-V), the general presentation and multimedia systems fall short of the class leaders, and the lack of a reversing camera below the Titanium seems cheap.
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