A few years ago, if you wanted an SUV with tidy handling but hadn't the budget for a Porsche Macan, then the Kuga, along with the Skoda Yeti, were your main considerations. But not any more; 2016 hatched yet more SUVs, and the Seat Ateca proved it is the sportiest of the lot at this money.
The Kuga still has it, though. Grip that snazzier ST-Line steering wheel and give it a turn, and the Kuga darts towards an apex. That’s down to the well-geared rack with 2.6 turns lock-to-lock, and some decent steering weight. So while Ford's chronic condition of too much self-centring is present, it’s not an acute affliction in the Kuga, so you have the means to choose a clipping point, take aim, and mostly hit the spot.
Better body control helps the cause, too. With the ST-Line’s stiffer suspension, coupled with the fact that all four-wheel-drive Kugas come with a 9mm drop in ride height, the consequence is less body lean and neater control through curves, even ones strewn with troublesome bumps. That said, we have little doubt that in a back-to-back run an Ateca would grip harder and turn with even more alacrity.
Yet the Kuga, even with these tighter springs and dampers, arguably rides better than an Ateca, which we know has an underlying firmness. But while the ST-Line is mostly cosseting, at times you do notice more harshness than you'd feel in a standard Kuga.
The 2.0-litre TDCi engine and gearbox unite to produce an admirably smooth powertrain. On start-up there’s some background diesel clatter, but once the engine's warm that mostly quietens down, and the dual-clutch ‘box flits without fuss between its ratios. In isolation it doesn't feel slow, but the Kuga isn’t isolated. For less than £35,000 there are a host of automatic, four-wheel-drive SUV rivals that’ll whisk you up to 70mph or past a dawdling truck much quicker.
Many offer smarter cabins, as well. There’s been some tidying, sure, so now you get fewer buttons on the dashboard and more centre console storage space thanks to the ditching of the handbrake lever, but this doesn’t hide what’s still an old design, or mask the use of some decidedly low-rent materials. Compare it with the interior of a new Peugeot 3008, for example, and it feels a generation apart in its design and execution.
And although Ford’s Sync3 8.0in touchscreen now has larger icons that are easier to press, and it's laden with additional features such as pinch-to-zoom maps, improved voice activation and Apple CarPlay, we still rank it behind the systems you get in an Ateca, Skoda Kodiaq or Kia Sportage, all of which you can pick up for similar money.