If you subscribe to the hype around the new crop of pint-sized high-riding hatchbacks, you could buy a specced-up baby SUV for about $30K. Or you could choose an entry-level mid-size model like the vehicle we’re testing here - the 2015 Ford Kuga Ambiente.
The Kuga Ambiente kicks off the range from just $27,490 plus on-road costs for the entry level manual front-drive variation, while the new front-wheel drive six-speed automatic variant (as tested here), which has been added to the range “in response to customer feedback”, starts from $28,990 (plus on-roads). It's a pleasant change to see an auto 'box attract a less exorbitant premium, so thanks for that, Ford.
That pricing positions the Kuga alongside some of the high-spec tiny high-riders, yet also pits it against entry versions of the Toyota RAV4, Nissan X-Trail, Subaru Forester and the best mid-size SUV in the class, the Mazda CX-5.
Yet unlike all of those models, and most of the baby SUV brigade, too, the base model Kuga features a small capacity turbocharged engine.
The updated Kuga gets a 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder EcoBoost powertrain which is more efficient than the previous model, and an automatic gearbox with FWD. (The previous version was powered by a 1.6-litre turbo engine and was available with a manual gearbox only in front-drive guise.)
Fuel consumption for the FWD six-speed manual dips from 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres to 6.3L/100km; the auto FWD has claimed consumption of 7.2L/100km. There’s an all-wheel drive version that uses 7.4L/100km, down from 7.7L. Over about 500km during our week of testing we used an average of 9.5L/100km.
At a glance those figures look like the auto is a bit of a guts, but it does produce considerably more power than the manual. The 1.5-litre churns out 110kW/240Nm with a stick shifter (identical to the old 1.6 manual), while the auto has a more beefy 134kW/240Nm - just a few kilowatts and Newton metres less than the 2.5-litre Mazda CX-5 (138kW/250Nm).
In Ambiente guise, and despite being a little thirstier than the sticker would have you believe, the Kuga is a considerably better car for the new engine.
It isn’t the most refined EcoBoost engine we’ve driven (that honour goes to the larger 2.0-litre in the Falcon), but it is a peppy, willing thing that revs freely and has more notably grunt than its predecessor, not to mention some rivals. You never feel like it is short of power, even with four adults on board.
The gearbox shifts through gears reasonably well, performing at its best in stop-start traffic. However, we noted that under hard throttle the gearbox could be a little slow to shift up a gear, allowing the revs to hang.
Ford’s penchant for making some of the most impressive handling cars in the respective classes in which it plays continues with the Kuga, thanks to the car’s nimble nature.
Its steering is quick to react to responses, and there’s excellent feel through the wheel whether you’re pushing hard through a roundabout or twirling the tiller when parking. That said, we noticed some torque-steer, where the steering wheel tugs under hard throttle, and a bit of chatter from the steering rack over mid-corner inconsistencies. It can also be a little twitchy at the straight-ahead position.
Ride quality has long been a positive of the Kuga, and the Ambiente doesn’t stray from the formula.
The suspension absorbs bumps well, and coasting over speedhumps is dealt with easily. Only very large potholes will upset the body of the car, which in part is due to the hefty kerb weight of 1595 kilograms. It rides on 17-inch steel wheels with 55-profile tyres – but as good as the ride is, we can’t help but hate the hubcaps.
While the bits under the bonnet are better and the drive experience solid, the interior of the updated Kuga remains fairly similar to the car it replaces.
That is to say that Ford’s dopey little 3.5-inch blue screen display still sits atop the dashboard, with a vast array of confusing, mobile phone-inspired buttons strewn below.
The media system is tricky to get used to, particularly because of those buttons and the tab system that you use to flick between menus.
That said, the Kuga Ambiente has Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming and a clever Emergency Assistance function that will call the authorities if the car is involved in a crash. The voice control system also works pretty well.
The cockpit is comfortable for the most part, with decent storage available in the doors and dash for smaller loose items, and there are reasonably well-sized cup-holders, too. The plastics, though, are hard and quite unattractive.
Back seat space is good, with reasonable head, leg and toe room – even for taller adults with big boppers in the driver’s seat. There are three top-tether child restraint points and two ISOFIX clips, too.
Equipment highlights include a standard auto-dimming mirror that doubles as a reverse-view camera monitor, and there are rear parking sensors, too. See full 2015 Kuga pricing and specs here.
Kuga has seven airbags standard (dual front, front-side, full-length curtain and driver’s knee protection), and the Ford also has a five-star crash test rating.
The cockpit has three 12-volt outlets, a USB input, and push-button start but no keyless entry (only available as standard on the flagship Titanium).
Items it misses out on include auto headlights (though the lights will turn themselves off if you lock the car) and auto wipers, while the manual air-conditioning controls look a little low rent, even if the ventilation system itself is strong.
At the very back, the boot is fine in terms of size, with 406 litres of space available putting it better than most small hatchbacks but short of class leaders such as the Honda CR-V. The boot expands to 1603L with the rear seats folded down and stuff stowed to the roof, but the load space isn’t flat.
However, the aperture is large and has a low load lip, which is great if you’re lifting in heavy items often, but shorter people need take note – the boot lid opens up a long way, and there’s no dongle (for want of a better term) to help you pull it back down. Higher spec Kugas have an electronic tailgate system to negate this.
As with all Ford models, the Kuga is covered by a capped-price service program that runs intervals of 12 months or 15,000km, whichever occurs first. Over the first five years or 75,000km, the average cost per visit on current pricing will be $299. Ford’s warranty is three years or 100,000km.
The updated Ford Kuga Ambiente automatic is undoubtedly decent at a lot of things, and its turbo engine is the standout here - and in its class.
It’s a solid option worthy of consideration, particularly if space and comfort are your priorities – and it makes some of the dearer baby SUVs look silly in that regard, too.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Christian Barbeitos.