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The second-generation Ford Kuga sports an American facelift, new trims and added equipment, doesn't detract it from still being one of the more athletic SUVs on sale

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The grand ‘One Ford’ globalisation strategy has provided yet another object for road test assessment: the Ford Kuga SUV, having already transformed the Ford Fiesta and Ford Focus.

Dead and buried is the quirky 2008-2013 Ford Kuga of old. It was highly rated by us but it proved popular on too few continents, and catered for too narrow a spread of tastes, to be worthy of a place among the Alan Mulally model generation

The first-gen Ford Kuga was a more compact SUV

Its replacement has in effect moved up a class. Measuring over 4.5m long, it’s now a closer match for a Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe than a Nissan Qashqai or Mazda CX-5, and has kept pace with a facelifted version released late in 2016, which saw further inspiration drawn from the US market, the inclusion of a new Ford SUV corporate grille - seen formerly on the Ford Edge - and the addition of new trims including the sporty Ford Kuga ST-Line and the luxury-focussed Ford Kuga Vignale.

The repositioning of the Kuga is a crucial part of Ford of Europe’s growth strategy; Ford is aiming to displace the more traditional ‘sports utility’ brands and lead the 4x4 market, and with the emergence of the new and very large Edge - it is well-placed to do so.

Ford's new Kuga caters for many tastes too, as it's offered with a range of frugal turbocharged petrol and diesel engines and the option of automatic transmissions on some models. There's even less costly two-wheel drive models, which are notably more efficient, ideal for those who want something the size and shape of the Kuga but without the need for additional traction.

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Little by little, the Ford Motor Company is becoming the model of a streamlined, right-size international car maker. But this Kuga will need to sell every bit as well as many of Ford’s more traditional models if that’s going to happen. Is it up to the task?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Ford Kuga rear

Two models have been replaced with one here; what we know as the Ford Kuga will also be sold in North America as the Escape.

That’s one of the reasons behind the growth spurt (up 81mm in overall length) and also explains the more ‘traditional’ proportions, as Americans would never have taken to an SUV as petite as the original Ford Kuga. 

Plastic exterior trim protects against chips

To our eyes, it’s a shame that Ford hasn’t kept more of the old Kuga’s crossover stylingRelative to it, this one looks short of snout, straight of bodyside and slightly top-heavy. 

The good news is that the Kuga uses Ford’s ‘Global C’ platform as its basis, the same as the third-gen Ford Focus’, which means its mechanicals come not from a US-market SUV but one of Europe’s best-handling hatchbacks. 

As you’d therefore expect, the Kuga has got a steel monocoque body (reinforced with ultra-high-strength boron around the roof and pillars), a choice of four-cylinder turbocharged petrol and diesel engines, six-speed manual or dual-clutch automatic gearboxes and front- or four-wheel drive. 

Ford has replaced the old four-wheel drive system’s Haldex hydraulic coupling with its own hardware, which works via an electronically controlled clutch. It can move up to 100 percent of power to the rear and, while it’s still primarily passive, can react within one-seventh of a turn of a slipping front wheel.

The system is aided by Ford’s torque vectoring system, developed on the Focus RS, which brakes a spinning inside wheel to force drive to a loaded outer one.

INTERIOR

Ford Kuga interior

The Ford Kuga’s wheelbase survives unaltered. Better packaging must explain the cabin space that Ford has found, because the car is also slightly lower and narrower than it was. The driving position is quite recumbent for an SUV, while the fascia swells to eat into front-row knee space slightly, in the current Ford design idiom. 

Rear passenger space is decent; it’s still a way off the most practical cars in the class, but generous enough even for large adults. A Honda CR-V or a Kia Sorento would beat the Ford on second-row legroom, but only just, while the CR-V is bested by the Ford on rear headroom.

I always prefer a conventional handbrake

Boot space, too, is significantly improved. It’s not outstanding, but a minimum 800mm of load length with the second row in place, and 1080mm of usable width, is close enough to the 4x4 norm. 

On quality and appearance, the Kuga’s cabin meets Ford’s usual high standards. The fascia is designed in the now-familiar Ford style and is made out of a mix of grained plastics, inlay trims in dark grey and matt chrome detailing.

It is much the same dashboard as you’ll find in the Focus and C-Max, and there are no special 4x4 touches such as pillar-mounted handles or Neoprene seat covers. The ambience is simpler than that – one of a modern, normal, substantial, quality car for everyday family use.

Ford's quite generous with the Kuga's kit levels as well, with buyers having six trims to choose from, not to mention the numerous options to peruse and select. Entry-level Zetec models get 17in alloys, a twin exhaust system, DAB radio, manual air conditioning, USB and Bluetooth connectivity, electric windows, keyless start, cruise control and Ford's Quickclear windscreen as standard.

Mid-range Titanium models get an a part leather upholstery, auto lights and wipers, auto-dimming rear view mirror, dual-zone climate zone, rear parking sensors, and Ford's Sync3 infotainment system complete with an 8.0in touchscreen display, sat nav and DAB radio. Upgrade to Titanium X and you'll find additions such as 18in alloy wheels, a full leather upholstery, a panoramic roof, powered tailgate, bi-xenon headlights and heated front seats included on an already generous package.

Those wanting their Kuga to adorn more sporty attire can opt for the ST-Line or ST-Line X models, which come with 18in dark alloy wheels, an aggressively-styled bodykit, active parking assist, front and rear parking sensors, sports seats, firmer suspension and black roof rails, while the latter adds a panoramic roof, keyless entry, 19in alloy wheels, an electrically adjustable driver's seat, manually adjustable front passenger seat with both heated too.

Topping the range for the facelifted Kuga is Ford's luxury trim - the Vignale - which includes all the equipment on the Titanium plus a unique bodykit, LED rear lights, premium floor mats, a unique leather upholstery, a reversing camera and a nine-speaker Sony audio system.

As with the exterior, we’d argue it could be a bit more characterful – but that’s our only criticism, and it’s minor one.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Ford Kuga side profile

The Ford Kuga is offered with either a 1.5-litre EcoBoost petrol in 118bhp, 148bhp and 180bhp outputs, a 118bhp 1.5-litre TDCi or a 2.0-litre diesel in 148bhp or 178bhp flavours. All are capable of 0-62mph in less than 11.2sec and capable of over 116mph.

If you choose the smooth 118bhp or 148bhp EcoBoost you'll get a front-drive Kuga with Ford's slick six-speed manual gearbox. Pick the 180bhp version and it'll come with a conventional six-speed automatic gearbox, and in all-wheel drive configuration.

The automatic Ford Kuga really needs paddle shifters

The entry-level diesels are only available in front-wheel drive drive configuration, while the most powerful diesel is only available in four-wheel drive form, with either a decent six-speed manual gearbox or Ford's six-speed PowerShift automatic. Having jumped on the dual-clutch automatic gearbox bandwagon much later than European market leader Volkswagen, Ford gave itself ground to catch up with its Getrag Powershift transmission. 

Many may be tempted to choose the PowerShift automatic version as the best dual-clutch ’boxes – or even torque-converter autos – now tend to offer better performance and economy than the equivalent manual. It could still benefit from some improvement, however, which is shame because it takes the edge off an otherwise strong showing on everyday flexibility, mechanical refinement and sheer get up and go.

A slightly hesitant full-throttle upshift makes maximum thrust feel a bit restricted, and the fiddly stick-mounted selector buttons are little help. But it’s a shortcoming that would seldom present during normal driving. Select D on the gearbox and usher the car away in no particular hurry and you’ll find everything works smoothly.

There’s a polished efficiency to town driving and a decisiveness and willingness to work on cross-country roads and on motorways. When you want the powertrain to hold a gear, invariably it does so; likewise with kickdown. Consequently the Kuga always feels fleet and responsive.

The PowerShift is less efficient than the equivalent manual, however, so those seeking maximum efficiency or low company car tax costs should still go for the manual option.

Elsewhere, Ford’s efforts to improve rolling refinement (stiffer body structure, better insulation, thicker glazing) have paid off. Wind noise is controlled well, and the engines are mechanically refined by 4x4 standards.

RIDE & HANDLING

Ford Kuga cornering

Poise without harshness. Oily, harmonious control weights. Effortless, incisive steering response. Athleticism so easily won. These are the dynamic hallmarks of a modern Ford, just as they are of the Ford Kuga. And in a class that still harbours one or two dinosaurs, that makes the Ford stand out all the prouder.

While SUV handling standards have improved out of sight over the past 15 years, it’s still rare to drive one of this size with the Kuga’s body control and agility. It rides and steers with a precision closer to that of a Ford Focus hatchback than anything else, and corners flatter than plenty of large estates.

The steel monocoque is reinforced in important areas

To those used to the stodgy, inert handling of more traditionally configured, less road-biased 4x4s, the Kuga will be little short of a revelation, feeling as it does more like a warm hatchback than a large, tall family car.

Assuming that taut, responsive handling is to your liking and road driving is all you’re likely to do, that may be all you need to know. The steering could offer a bit more feedback just off centre, but even acknowledging that, the handling is an outstanding selling point.

The caveats, as some might see them, will concern its fitness for purpose as a mid-size SUV. Should a car like this strike such a sporting compromise between compliance and control? Should it not be comfortable first and fun to drive second? And should it not have the long-travel suspension to deal with bumpy tracks and fields with similar comfort?

Buyers for whom those sound like appropriate priorities for a family 4x4 are less likely to approve of what they find in the Kuga. For them, consolation lies in the abundance of softer rivals on the market that they’ll judge as more sensibly configured. 

We’d urge those buyers, however, to bear in mind that handling poise – particularly as Ford tends to offer it – can be seen as a corollary of directional manageability in cars of this size. All the things that make this Kuga dynamically engaging also make it easy and instinctive to thread along any given path.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ford Kuga

If nothing else, the US-size Ford Kuga has made it look like rather good value next to its rivals. None of the car’s competitors start as low as the entry-level, front-drive Kuga Zetec with a 118bhp 1.5-litre Ecoboost engine, with the cheapest Nissan X-Trail coming in £1000 more expensive, while an entry-level Hyundai Santa Fe is more than £10,000 dearer.

However, most buyers are expected to shun both the lower trim level and the petrol line-up for the 2.0 TDCi. Available in 148bhp and 178bhp outputs, the four-cylinder diesel is capable of a claimed 53.3mpg combined with CO2 emissions of 139g/km if taken with the six-speed manual ’box and without 4x4.

Go for a Titanium trim Ford Kuga if you want decent kit

As competitive as that is (only the new Toyota RAV4 shades it), it still doesn’t seem like the sweet spot.

For our money, we'd opt for the 178bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine, all-wheel drive and mid-spec Titanium trim. Taken with the more efficient manual gearbox, it offers 47.9mpg and 154g/km of CO2 in claimed figures, all for less than a new five-seat Hyundai Santa Fe starts.

Ford has also addressed the issues that irked some prior to the facelift with rear parking sensors, sat nav and dual-zone climate control all present on a Titanium trimmed Kuga, whereas they used to remain the reserve of the now defunct Titanium Sport and Titanium X Sport trims. 

Adding those previous options as standard further distances the Kuga from the Santa Fe it previously lost ground too with those boxes ticked.

 

VERDICT

4 star Ford Kuga

Whether you want a comfortable and easy drive, a big towing capacity, serious off-road ability or a cavernous cabin, the sub-£30k 4x4 class already caters for you.

But if you want genuinely athletic, absorbing handling, it doesn’t. Or it didn’t, until the Ford Ford Kuga arrived.

The Kuga plays Ford's familiar handling trump card

Crossovers like the Qashqai arguably offered something for keener drivers in need of added ‘utility’. But now the Kuga has become a fully fledged SUV, it has not only come of age but has also brought typical Ford-brand dynamism and poise to a segment that badly needs it. 

A Nissan X-Trail offers considerably more space, the possibility of seven seats and isn't much pricier, while if you have genuine need of a dual-purpose 4x4 for regular off-road use, you could spend your cash better elsewhere.

But we like the Ford Kuga’s blend of the abilities, those which you might look for in an SUV. And since the facelift in 2016 the equipment levels have been given a much needed boost making the Kuga a truly compelling choice amongst its closest rivals.

More importantly, we rate it. And if you’re a regular reader of this website, we expect you will too. 

 

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Ford Kuga 2014-2019 First drives