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SUV practicality, Focus underpinnings, plug-in hybrid tech: is this another Ford hit?

You may have noticed, as the new Ford Kuga lands in the UK, that Ford is on a roll.

Admittedly, the company is undertaking major restructuring in Europe, something felt most keenly in the UK by the closure of its historic Ford Bridgend engine plant. And in an effort to rationalise R&D costs, it is also now teaming up with the Volkswagen Group on electric and ‘autonomous’ vehicles. There is some belt tightening, and plenty of business uncertainty, but this is the road test section of Autocar, not the news pages, and from the perspective of the driver’s seat, Ford is doing things very well indeed.

Most of the Kuga range is front-driven, although the top-ranking 2.0-litre diesel also comes with rear driveshafts. That’ll be useful if you know you’ll need to scramble up dirt driveways and the like.

The most recent Ford Ford Fiesta won’t blow anyone away with its cabin ambience, but in terms of handling, it is simply head and shoulders above supermini rivals. And when it arrived in 2018, the fourth-generation Ford Focus followed suit. Even the basic versions exhibit a degree of involvement and dynamism beyond that of even some bona fide hot hatches, and in a way that Ford hasn’t perhaps achieved since the Mk1 Focus of 1998.

Then, late last year, the Ford Puma nameplate was revived for a small SUV built on the Fiesta’s underpinnings – and it trounced its numerous rivals for driving enjoyment.

Now it’s the turn of the new Ford Kuga. In a bid to win people over from the Nissan Qashqai, Volkswagen Tiguan and Peugeot 3008, all of which outsold the previous Kuga, Ford has softened the car’s exterior design, made the interior more spacious and added economical mild and plug-in hybrids to the range.

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What we’ll now discover is whether that’s enough to fire it up the rankings.

The Kuga range at a glance

Never before has a prospective Kuga owner had so much choice over the powertrain. There are conventional models, and it’s possible to have the car with a plain old petrol motor and six-speed gearbox or a more juicy diesel mated to an easy-going eight-speed auto, but a mild-hybrid petrol Ford Kuga assisted by a 48V electric system and the full Ford Kuga plug-in hybrid tested here are both new to the line-up.

Ford expects roughly a third of buyers to opt for the PHEV, with petrol and diesel sales split roughly evenly elsewhere.


Ford Kuga 2020 road test review - hero side

The Kuga’s new grille might be larger than on the outgoing version of the car, but the car's hard-edged scowl has clearly diminished, Ford having sculpted a more friendly and curvaceous demeanour in response to owner feedback. In the metal, it’s an attractive car, and in this hue you could even claim it bears a faint resemblance to the Aston Martin DBX – if you squint a little.

The bodywork is underpinned by the same excellent and usefully stiff C2 platform used by the Ford Focus and this has allowed the Kuga to grow 89mm in length and 44mm in width, Ford claiming it offers class-leading rear leg room. The roofline also now sits 20mm closer to the ground.

Full-LED Quad Projector headlights are optional and, being adaptive, can swivel on the way into bends as well as auto dimming. The system uses a camera to recognise traffic signs, bends in the road and other cars.

However, more significant changes are hidden from sight. The previous generation was limited to traditional four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, and although it’s still possible to have your Kuga with Ford’s 1.5-litre Ecoboost petrol engine (tuned to either 118bhp or 148bhp), its 118bhp 1.5-litre EcoBlue diesel or the 187bhp 2.0-litre EcoBlue, there are new choices in the form of a 148bhp mild-hybrid diesel and a range-topping 222bhp plug-in hybrid petrol. Diesel models are available with an eight-speed automatic transmission while the petrols are limited to a six-speed manual – except, that is, for the plug-in hybrid.

And it’s the plug-in hybrid model we’re testing here. Using a 133bhp 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle petrol engine and a CVT automatic boosted by a 109bhp electric motor, the set-up is similar to that used by Toyota, and with a 14.4kWh battery pack housed along the floor of the car’s midriff, the Kuga PHEV offers an electric driving range of 35 miles.

Predictably, the 90kg Ford says the C2 platform saves compared with the previous Kuga is swamped by the weight of this hybrid equipment and the most efficient Kuga is therefore easily the heaviest, at 1844kg – enough to give its suspension (MacPherson struts at the front, multi-link at the rear) plenty to think about.

Ford Kuga 2020 road test review - front seats

From the outside, the Ford Kuga may lightly mimic the look of a car from one of the world’s most enduringly stylish car companies but this illusion does not survive entry into the cabin.

Nothing about the monochrome materials or foolproof architecture is immediately disappointing, and the propped-up driving position and supportive ST-Line sports seats of this model strike a good balance between making you feel connected to the road and sitting high above it.

Rotary control is used as a gear selector and includes an ‘L’ setting that increases the level of regenerative braking force when the driver lifts off the throttle.

However, closer acquaintance throws the cheaper interior plastics into sharp relief, and it’s clear some corners have been cut. The upper door cards, for example, are trimmed in soft-touch artificial leather in the front but brittle-feeling plastic in the back, despite sharing the exact same design. Rivals from Mazda and Peugeot in particular are warmer, more interesting to behold and more pleasant to spend time in, although the Kuga does at least have the measure of older alternatives such as the Nissan Qashqai. There are also some interesting plastic textures, such as the brushed finish on the transmission tunnel, and the touch points in our mid-ranking ST-Line example are of decent quality.

The Kuga does better in terms of occupant comfort and space. Despite the hefty A-pillars, this is an airy cabin, with plenty of leg and head room whichever part of the cabin you’re sitting in. This is particularly true in the rear, because the bench can slide 150mm fore and aft, although as such you’ll sacrifice some boot space to maximise leg room.

That boot space is reduced somewhat for the plug-in hybrid from the get-go, falling from 645 litres in the regular models to 581 litres with the seats slid fully forward, but the boot floor does at least conveniently sit flush with the broad boot lip.

Storage space elsewhere is good, although not quite up to the cavernous standards of the Skoda Kodiaq. Larger door bins would be helpful, but there is at least plentiful storage for keys, phones and so on.

Ford Kuga infotainment and sat-nav

The Kuga uses Ford’s latest Sync 3 infotainment software, which will seem faintly futuristic to anybody familiar with the Sync 2 software of older Ford models, especially because it’s paired alongside a 12.3in digital instrument display for cars with ST-Line trim and above. It uses an 8.0in touchscreen that sits proud atop the dashboard (too proud, perhaps), although usefully there’s still some physical switchgear mounted just below, which makes quick adjustments easy.

Among the ranks of non-premium SUVs, the set-up is slick but still not of the best resolution, and neither are the menus as streamlined as we’d like. A rotary controller like the one in the Mazda CX-5 may have helped in this respect, but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto can at least be used through the display. A premium Bang & Olufsen sound system comes with Titanium trim and above.

Ford Kuga 2020 road test review - engine

For an illustration of how effectively weight blunts performance, consider the fact that this plug-in hybrid Ford Kuga takes more than nine seconds to reach 62mph whereas the Fiesta ST, which touts less than 200bhp but treads 582kg more lightly than its range-mate, takes barely more than six.

In this sense, the Kuga’s 222bhp combined output sounds more potent than it ever feels, although the car will still dispatch overtakes without hesitation. Note also that both the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and Honda CR-V Hybrid accelerate more briskly, despite their status as more junior hybrids, without large battery packs or the ability to plug in to recharge.

The Kuga’s pure-electric driving mode is mostly convincing, although performance is unsurprisingly limited compared with the times when both power sources are on tap. Don’t expect to shoot about as though you’re driving a Tesla Model 3.

None of which is to say the Kuga PHEV ever feels slow. From a standing start and from intermediate speeds, throttle response is pin sharp by the standards of the class and, with plenty of torque, the car is able to sustain its initial, electricity-aided burst of acceleration for more than just a second or two. Bouts of full throttle throw the CVT into sharp relief, the engine labouring audibly and monotonously while the gear ‘ratio’ adjusts to increase road speed but, for the most part, this hybrid powertrain is reasonably well mannered.

With an entirely flat drive battery, our test car also returned 44mpg at a cruise, and with the battery fully charged, the theoretical economy of a 75-mile motorway jaunt would be almost 90mpg.

More disappointing is the finesse, or lack thereof, with which the Kuga PHEV conducts itself in town driving. Step-off is far too abrupt, with the electric motor kicking into action enthusiastically and with an unexpected jolt. This is mirrored in the brakes, which lack progression when the moment comes to hand over from the regenerative element of the process to action from the discs and calipers.

Ford Kuga 2020 road test review - on the road side

This plug-in hybrid is arguably not the most representative derivative when your aim is to discover how well the Kuga handles in terms of the broader model range. However, we can only judge what is put before us and, though in this case the mass of battery pack is handily positioned low and well between the axles, the Kuga’s chassis undoubtedly takes a moment longer than we’d expect to settle after direction changes. There is also an unwelcome rigidity to the manner in which it absorbs poorer road surfaces, an issue likely to have been exacerbated by our test car’s ST-Line suspension.

This SUV finds some solace on the motorway, where it will cruise with impressive ease and detachment when its suspension has relatively little to think about, but there’s no doubt rougher roads often expose greater levels of both float and bump-thump than is typical of Ford.

Charging port is on the same side as the fuel filler and replenishes a 14.4kWh battery that sits well within the axles. Allow three and a half hours to recharge from the Elvi+ wallbox Ford offers at additional cost, or from a public charger.

Push on and you’ll then discover that neither does the fast-geared, somewhat elastic steering action that works so sweetly in the Ford Focus translate especially effectively to the taller and heavier Kuga, whose more lumbering form can’t quite keep up. We’d also contend that the steering is too responsive off-centre, which can make it difficult to keep the car perfectly centre in its lane.

All that being said, the magnitude of these problems is slight. And even when driving this plug-in hybrid, it takes only three corners to discover that the third-generation Kuga shows traces of the neat, intuitive and quietly satisfying handling traits found in existing high-fliers of this class, such as the Mazda CX-5. Through third-gear corners, for example, our front-driven test car summoned a degree of balance and poise beyond most crossover-SUVs.

It’s just a shame, therefore, that the Kuga PHEV’s overall dynamic behaviour isn’t quite as well resolved and or finessed as it should have been, because underneath it all there would seem to be an SUV with ability somewhat above the class average.

Ford Kuga

Company car drivers will naturally gravitate towards the Kuga PHEV because of its low benefit-in-kind tax qualification, which significantly undercuts other members of the line-up. With 35 miles of electric range, the average commuter might barely need to fill up with fuel during the week, either, assuming they have the ability to charge the car’s battery at work. (It takes 3.3 hours from a wallbox and six from a domestic three-pin plug.)

Owners may rarely, if ever, achieve the claimed 201.8mpg, but over the course of a year, with frequent charging, they might be surprised how close they get.

Titanium trim offers the best blend of equipment and price and keeps the wheel size sensible. At £995, the panoramic roof is expensive but lifts the interior ambience

As for specification, the range opens with Zetec trim, although even this includes wireless smartphone charging, leather for the steering wheel, cruise control and sports seats. To get the plug-in hybrid powertrain, though, you’ll need to upgrade to at least Titanium trim, which brings 18in wheels and dual-zone climate control.

ST-Line and ST-Line X then add some sportier addition, including firmer suspension, which, as we’ve discovered, isn’t all that desirable.


Ford Kuga 2020 road test review - static

The third coming of the Ford Kuga sees the return of recognisable and welcome traits for Ford’s popular SUV.

This all-new plug-in hybrid version isn’t without compromise in terms of dynamics and ergonomics, but it is commendably comfortable and spacious, and there’s evidence to suggest that lighter, simpler Kuga derivatives will sit at or very near the top of the class for ride and handling. This is also an attractive family car, and the third of British Kuga owners who opt for the plug-in model will benefit from excellent electric range and competitive pricing.

Good value and potentially frugal but the Kuga has more to give

What we would have liked to see from such an engineering-led company is greater precision and finesse in the way this electrified powertrain conducts itself. As we’ve discovered, the car’s efficiency and performance are good, but details concerning the driving experience highlight Ford’s relative inexperience when it comes to hybrid cars.

With the caveat that Autocar has yet to test several high-profile plug-in rivals from a class in which it’s evidently difficult to get the product just right, overall the Kuga fails to deliver the same knockout blow that Ford has achieved with its lower-riding hatchbacks.


Ford Kuga First drives