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Car reviews - Ford - Kuga - 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Ride comfort, engine, steering, brakes, styling inside and out, cockpit storage areas
Room for improvement
Road noise, cramped rear quarters, small boot, ponderous transmission

17 Feb 2012

FORD Australia has replaced the dated, utilitarian Escape SUV with a four-year-old model that is soon to be succeeded by a significantly redeveloped version, its March on-sale date taking place in the same month its successor will be unveiled at the Geneva motor show.

Those who may be concerned about the impact on resale values caused by the Kuga’s limited lifespan might be comforted by the level of exclusivity ensured by Ford Australia’s importation of just 200 units per month – a limit that is apparently linked to the reason it took so long to get here: high European demand.

Just two variants are available for the next year or so, both highly specified and powered by a punchy five-cylinder turbo-petrol engine closely related to that of the Focus XR5, driving all four wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission.

As a result, the $38,990 (plus on-road costs) for the Kuga Trend range-opener puts it at the top end of the compact SUV segment. It also makes it just $1000 less than the least expensive Territory from the next size up, but Ford says its market research shows customers are drawn to highly-specified compact SUVs and are willing to pay the premium.

Ford is confident of selling all the Kugas it can get hold of despite many manufacturers racing to offer entry-level versions of their compact SUV offerings with front-wheel drive. It says people wanting a low-cost Ford SUV will still have the chance to buy an Escape until stock runs out.

Ford held its media launch for the Kuga in New Zealand, where the top-spec Titanium variant ($44,990) gets huge 19-inch alloy wheels, whereas this side of the Tasman the Kuga rides on 17- or 18-inch rims depending on the variant. The only other notable specification difference is a lack of panoramic glass roof on the NZ Kuga Titanium.

First impressions of the Kuga are that it is one of the better-looking compact SUVs, a successful application of Ford’s ‘kinetic’ design language due to the tall-boy format, although it does look a bit slab-sided, something borne out by its measly 188mm of ground clearance and a roofline that casts a shadow over the Subaru Forester – which has at least 220mm of air between its floorpan and terra firma.

Climb aboard and the Titanium variant is well-appointed with dual-zone climate-control, leather upholstery, electric adjustment for the driver’s seat and heated bottoms for both front occupants. This top-spec variant also has rear privacy glass, reversing sensors and automatic headlights and wipers.

The Trend does away with the aforementioned niceties, but standard equipment includes keyless start, cruise control, air-conditioning, Bluetooth connectivity, voice activation, multi-function steering wheel, an eight-speaker sound system with MP3-compatible CD player and USB/iPod auxiliary inputs.

Safety is a strong point, the Kuga having a five-star ANCAP crash-test rating and standard safety technology including six airbags, electronic stability control with roll-over mitigation and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution.

Both Kuga variants provide plenty of little storage areas, with two types of door bin, a deep recess under the centre armrest, a generously sized glovebox, coin and card holders, cupholder-cum-storage area with a roller blind, and a dished area on top of the dash.

Beside the front seats are little trays that appear to be designed to catch objects that might fall from pockets while on the floor, behind each front seat, is a little trap door providing access to small under-floor storage compartments. Lifting up the rear seat cushions also reveals yet more hidden storage.

Rear passengers in the Titanium can store items inside their centre armrest, which also features two cupholders, but there are no door bins or air vents back there.

All the handy interior storage spaces could well come in useful as the Kuga loses points on boot space, which at 360 litres is smaller than most rivals – and even most small hatchbacks – if the rear seats are up.

There is a handy split tailgate for throwing small items into the boot and, although items must be lifted quite high to meet the lowest part of the main opening, there is no lip to overcome.

Ford says it is aiming the Kuga at young childless couples, which is probably a good thing given the lack of boot space for the paraphernalia associated with transporting a family, but this audience is also more likely to carry adults in the back.

The time-honoured test of positioning the driver’s seat for your 186cm-tall correspondent and then attempting to get comfortable in the seat immediately behind resulted in jammed knees, made worse by the otherwise useful presence of fold-away seat-back tables that come standard on the Titanium. Most rivals subjected to this test provide more knee-room.

However, with the driver’s seat moved to liberate more space, the rear bench is arguably more comfortable than up front, although it is rather narrow, meaning anyone perched on the compromised centre space is likely to feel cramped if situated between two adults.

Back up front, the dashboard has a typically Ford – if a little dated – combination of decent quality materials, with metallic trim surrounding the Sony audio system. Like other Ford products, though, the fiddly buttons and cheap feel of this unit seem at odds with the chunky controls for air-conditioning, seat and windscreen heaters.

The steering column has a huge amount of adjustment for height and reach and the front seats provide plenty of adjustment fore and aft, although thigh support for the long of leg is somewhat lacking.

Although there is plenty of headroom, drivers exceeding 180cm tall will find themselves disappointed when reaching for the height adjuster as even the lowest setting means peering through the very top of the windscreen, giving a claustrophobic feeling and turning the sunvisor into a blindfold.

That too-high-for-tall-drivers driving position does provide a commanding view of the road ahead and all-round visibility – including the mirrors – is good, making motorway lane changes easy.

The high window line and lack of reversing camera on either variant make parking and reversing a bit more challenging, and only the Titanium model comes with rear parking sensors.

With drive selected on the ergonomically located console-mounted shifter, smooth progress is made through town with a purposefully bassy five-cylinder soundtrack from the engine at low revs that disappears into a quiet background whir as speeds rise.

We were impressed by how fluidly the Kuga rides over bumps, even on its NZ-spec 19-inch wheels, its well-damped ride never crashing or bouncing over uneven surfaces.

However, there is some pay-off in its tendency to roll through bends, making quick changes of direction – such as fast roundabouts – a bit of a roller-coaster, though plenty of grip is available. That said, the Kuga is impressively composed compared to Asian rivals like the Mitsubishi ASX.

The Kuga’s steering is one of its best points, at urban speeds being light enough to make quick turns and lane changes a cinch but without the artificial, over-assisted feel that often blights cars of this type.

On the open road, the steering gets even better, being direct, accurate and full of feel. In some situations there is so much feedback that some people may find its constant chatter tiring and we experienced some quite forceful kickback on mid-corner ridges.

Those 19-inch wheels could be to blame for unacceptable levels of road noise (Ford says the smaller 18- and 17-inch wheels on Australian Kugas will be 10-15 per cent quieter) but we get the impression that something about the acoustics of the Kuga’s interior also amplifies intrusive sounds.

The example we drove also had a few cabin creaks and rattles and there was also significant wind noise around the door mirrors at highway speeds.

Torque from the Volvo-derived turbo-five delivers a great launch feel with no discernible lag when taking off from traffic lights and inspires confidence when pulling away from a side road into a gap in traffic.

Official combined fuel economy is 10.3 litres of pricy 95 RON premium unleaded per 100 kilometres and we averaged 12.5L/100km on the test route that included motorway, country roads and urban traffic.

The Kuga’s 1653kg weight means that even with this engine it is no firecracker, and 0-100km/h comes in a claimed 8.8 seconds. We enjoyed the smooth, linear power delivery and, once on the move, there is plenty of mid-range shove for confident overtaking.

Overtaking confidence is sometimes marred by the dated five-speed automatic transmission, which takes its time to kick down and often ends up in the wrong gear on twisty roads.

The manual mode reacts quickly to requests, but it is possible to feel the Kuga decelerating while the transmission’s slow, deliberate action swaps cogs. Luckily the engine’s torque can pull it out of most situations when a higher than optimum ratio is selected.

Overall, the Kuga provides a tempting prospect at the top of the compact SUV market and holds more appeal than most Japanese or South Korean contenders, particularly for drivers who want an SUV without sacrificing too much in the way of fun.

In terms of driving experience – if not equipment levels – it is leagues ahead of the Euro-badged, South Korean-built Renault Koleos but the elephant in the room is Volkswagen’s classy Tiguan, which offers a similar level of dynamic prowess, better fuel efficiency, more refinement and better boot space.

The subjective issue of badge appeal could also favour the VW, which combined with its recent facelift points to potentially stronger resale values.

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