The Ford Kuga has for some time been a sales underachiever in the bustling medium SUV market — a segment that is now Australia’s second favourite after small cars. Optimists might call it a best-kept secret.
Why? It’s one of the great mysteries of the Australian car market. Perhaps for the same reason the Ford Focus sells in tiny numbers next to the Mazda 3, or the Ford Fiesta sells only small fractions of the Mazda 2's volume.
Figures will show you that this year, the Ford Kuga’s market share is only 3.2 per cent, compared to 18 per cent for the CX-5 and 15.1 per cent for the Tucson. Even the Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage and Mitsubishi Outlander have about doubled the Ford’s sales.
Ford appears to be getting more serious, though, given the introduction of a recent MY16 update, and something of an inescapable advertising blitz of undetermined efficacy. By early 2017, yet another update will have appeared with a new nose design and even better SYNC 3 infotainment.
But that's then and this is now. The 2016 Ford Kuga launched recently brings a new centre stack with 8.0-inch touchscreen and the SYNC 2 infotainment familiar from most other Ford vehicles. This addresses what we found to be one of the Kuga’s few major flaws last time we drove it.
We drove the flagship Kuga Titanium specification for this test, with the cheaper petrol engine, retailing for $45,190 plus on-road costs. Its closest rivals for the Kia Sportage Platinum ($43,490), Tucson Highlander ($43,490) and Mazda CX-5 Akera ($47,410).
Firstly, the new screen greatly improves the cabin layout. The old fascia was a mess of shiny black plastics and small buttons, with a laughably small screen tacked atop the dashboard. It paled in comparison to the CX-5 and co., and no doubt turned away buyers.
The new helmet-like design means the majority of the functions are moved to the new touchscreen instead, which both clears up clutter and greatly enhances the user interface. Functions such as the sat-nav, phone screen and reversing camera are now infinitely more legible.
Some of the plastics feel a little cheap, but nevertheless it spruces up the joint in tandem with the ambient cabin lighting. The Kuga’s cabin remains quite car-like, with a snug layout that ensconces the driver, befitting its vaguely ‘sporty’ positioning.
We also like the strong Sony sound system with nine speakers, the comfortable heated leather seats, the soft touch-points and the solid build quality. We aren’t fans of the '80s-chic neon green backlighting on the climate control, the tacky driver’s instruments and the cheapish-feeling steering wheel.
All said, there’s no getting around the fact that the bulging front cabin design is much improved, and distinctive for the class. It’s very much the high-riding hatchback.
Standard equipment levels are decent enough for a top-spec medium SUV. Unique touches in the range include 19-inch alloy wheels, an electric tailgate that operates via a kicking motion if your hands are full, bi-xenon headlights and electric-folding wing mirrors.
This extends to cabin touches such as a panoramic glass sunroof, leather seats (with heating up front), keyless entry, auto parking tech and parking sensors. This is in addition to the basics standard across all Kuga variants such as sat-nav, reverse camera, cruise control with speed limiter, three 12V and two USB outlets, and Bluetooth connectivity.
Our tester also came with the $1600 Technology Pack, which adds adaptive cruise control, low-speed autonomous braking, a blind-spot monitoring system, lane assist, automatic high beam and an on-board tyre pressure monitor, similar to the setup in the CX-5 Akera.
If Ford wanted a real selling point it’d have this safety pack as standard on the Kuga Titanium, given it’s also an option on the mid-level Kuga Trend. But kudos for at least offering it. Kudos also for the cheap $450 premium paint (still, not free like the CX-5).
On the topic of the Trend, that car offers the same powertrain and still has the same infotainment as the Titanium, for $36,890. That might be an even sharper bet.
The middle row in the Kuga is decent. Its dimensions are about par for the class (about 4.5 metres long on a 2.7-metre wheelbase). The seats offer sufficient pace for two adults, and offer good outward visibility, though the Titanium’s sunroof does impinge on headroom.
The rear seats recline, while you also get good door pockets, rear air vents, a 12V socket (but not the USB point offered in the Sportage rear), picnic tables in the back of the front seats that hurt knee room but are a novelty and Isofix child seat anchors. The only downer is the fact that the door plastics in the rear are cheaper and harder than those up front.
The cargo area is also pretty on-the-money. The electric tailgate is a good touch, and if you have the key fob in your pocket you can touchlessly open it by air-kicking under the bumper.
The 406-litre capacity matches the CX-5, while flipping the rear seats forward (via the excellent latches in the cargo area, a feature found on the Mazda but few other rivals) yields 1603L of space. That’s plenty for some flat-pack furniture. Under the floor is a space-saving temporary spare wheel only.
One of the best things about the Kuga has always been the way it drives. Under the bonnet is a strong 2.0-litre EcoBoost turbo-petrol engine that produces 178kW of power at 5500pm and 345Nm of torque between 2000 and 4500rpm.
This well and truly spanks most rivals (such as the 138kW/250Nm CX-5, 130kW/265Nm Tucson, 135kW/237Nm Sportage). Only the 177kW/350Nm Subaru Forester and forthcoming 162kW/350Nm next-generation Volkswagen Tiguan match up.
It’s a strong engine, with a good mid-range and ample punch to get the circa-1700kg Kuga (on the heavy side for the class) moving along once you’re up and running, though it’s not as crisp off the line as you might expect, a contrivance of the turbo spooling. You can tow a 1600kg braked trailer.
Fuel economy is a claimed 8.8 litres of premium unleaded per 100km, which isn’t great for the class. We averaged 10.1L/100km. As with most rivals, the Kuga Titanium can also be had with a more frugal diesel engine for a few grand extra — the Ford’s unit is a 2.0 TDCi with 132kW/400Nm outputs.
The Kuga uses a six-speed sports automatic gearbox (not the dual-clutch in the diesel), which is generally well behaved. That said, the manual mode uses silly buttons on the side if the shifter rather than a manual gate and paddles.
Torque is sent to the road via an all-wheel drive system (the base cars are FWD) that adjusts delivery to each wheel according to demand, and shows you the breakdown in the driver’s instruments. It also has a torque vectoring system that sends extra torque to the inside front wheel mid-corner.
The Kuga remains one of the best compact SUVs to drive. Its electrically-assisted steering is light but direct, and the body control is right up with the best. This Spanish-made SUV handles very much like a high-end European, reflecting well on the Focus donor car. The Control Blade independent rear suspension ensures good road contact.
The ride errs towards firm, as befits the sporty approach. The 19-inch wheels on 235/45 rubber are sizeable, and while this looks the part, it also means you feel road corrugations in the cabin more than with some rivals, and hear a little more tyre ‘roar’ on coarse chip surfaces.
Ford offers a three-year/100,000km warranty and free loan cars on all models. You also get lifetime capped-price servicing across longer 12-month/15,000km intervals. The first six basic services for the Kuga Titanium petrol cost: $310, $310, $310, $515, $310 and $310. Not half bad.
So that’s the 2016 Ford Kuga Titanium. The cabin updates make this an even more resolved offering than before, building on what was already a good car. Ford Australia needs to lift its game, because the Kuga deserves to sell much better.
Class-leader? Close. That said, we’d also urge you to also look at the Kuga Trend, or even the $30K Ambiente, which are equally family friendly, still good to drive and way cheaper. They might be an sharper bet (and potentially both 8.5/10 cars), unless you really want the little frills.
Whichever way, the 2016 Ford Kuga medium SUV contender is a winner.
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