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

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It has been several years since the third-generation Ford Kuga arrived, and it’s fair to say it has been a big success for the brand’s European exploits. Back in 2019, it arrived as part of the brand's belated multi-pronged attack on the ever-growing SUV sector. 

With there having been a Kuga on the Blue Oval’s books since 2008, it was effectively the brand’s only credible crossover offering if you exclude the rather undercooked Ford Ecosport.

Following the demise of the diesel, all Kuga variants are front-wheel-drive – not ideal if you need to scrabble up dirt driveways and the like.

The second-generation car arrived in 2013 and was a product of the global One Ford policy that meant it had to work as well in New York as it did Neasden.

It has since grown in size yet retained its predecessor’s ability to entertain its driver. After a slow start, sales finally took off, and in its past couple of years on sale, it finally hit its stride, becoming Ford’s biggest-selling SUV.

The new Kuga still wins people over from the Nissan QashqaiVolkswagen Tiguan and Peugeot 3008, all of which have outsold it in the past, and Ford has since softened the car’s exterior design, made the interior more spacious and added economical mild- and plug-in hybrid powertrains to the range. 

But is it enough for it to fire it up the rankings? We’ve put it through its paces in our in-depth road test to find out. 

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Ford Kuga range at a glance 

The Kuga has a versatile powertrain line-up, including conventional combustion engines and hybrid systems.

The range opens with a 1.5-litre Ecoboost turbo petrol engine mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox.

This version produces 147bhp and 177lb ft, with a 0-62mph sprint of 9.7sec. 

Drivers who want a bit of electrification can choose the 2.5-litre Duratec full hybrid, which sends 187bhp and 147lb ft through a CVT. It’s a touch faster than the Ecoboost, hitting 0-62mph in 9.1sec. 

At the top of the range is a 2.5-litre Duratec plug-in hybrid, with 221bhp, 147lb ft and up to 40 miles of range on electric-only power.

The PHEV version is the most popular, accounting for a third of all sales, which is likely down to its favourable benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax rating and perceived savings on the road.  There was also a diesel available at launch, but Ford axed it by the end of 2021, due to slow sales. 

2.0L ECOBLUE 187bhp
2.0L ECOBLUE MHEV 148bhp
2.5L DURATECH PHEV *221bhp

†Discontinued *Version tested


Ford Kuga side view

The Kuga’s front grille may be larger than on the old car, but its 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.

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.

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, with Ford claiming it offers class-leading rear leg room. The roofline also sits 20mm closer to the ground than before.

More significant changes are hidden from sight. The previous generation was limited to traditional four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, and now of course there are also the hybrids. 

It’s the PHEV we’re testing here. Using a 187bhp 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle petrol engine, a 109bhp electric motor and a CVT, the system is similar to that used by Toyota, and with a 14.4kWh battery pack housed along the floor of the car’s midriff, it offers an electric-only driving range of 39 miles.

Predictably, the 90kg that Ford says the C2 platform saves compared with the old 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 and multi-link at the rear) plenty to think about.


Ford Kuga full interior

The Ford Kuga may externally mimic the look of a car from one of the world’s most enduringly stylish car companies, but this illusion doesn't 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 our test car 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.

There are also some interesting plastic textures, such as the brushed finish on the transmission tunnel, and the touch points in our mid-ranking 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 will sacrifice some boot space to maximise leg room.

That boot space is reduced somewhat for the PHEV 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

The Kuga uses Ford's Sync3 infotainment software, which will seem faintly futuristic to anybody familiar with the Sync2 software of older 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 would 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.



Kuga PHEV engine

For an illustration of how effectively weight blunts performance, consider the fact that this Ford Kuga PHEV takes more than 9.0sec to reach 62mph, whereas the Ford Fiesta ST, which touts less than 200bhp but treads 582kg more lightly, takes barely more than 6.0sec.

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.

The PHEV's 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.

Note also that both the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and Honda CR-V Hybrid accelerate more briskly, despite their status as more junior hybrid SUVs, without large battery packs or the ability to plug in to recharge.

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 can 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.

However, as your average family wagon, it works well.


Ford Kuga rear

This PHEV is arguably not the most representative derivative when you aim 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, although in this case the mass of battery is handily positioned low and well between the axles, the Kuga’s chassis undoubtedly takes a moment longer than we would expect to settle after direction changes.

The 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 that Ford offers at additional cost.

There's also an unwelcome rigidity to how it absorbs poorer road surfaces – an issue likely to have been exacerbated by our test car’s sporty 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 that rougher roads often expose greater levels of both float and bump-thump than is typical of Ford.

Push on and you will then discover that neither does the fast-geared, somewhat elastic steering action that works so sweetly in the Focus translate especially effectively to the taller and heavier Kuga, whose more lumbering form can’t quite keep up.

We would 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 PHEV, 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 SUVs.

It’s just a shame, therefore, that the 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 front

Company car drivers will naturally gravitate towards the Kuga PHEV, because of its low BIK tax qualification, which significantly undercuts other members of the Kuga line-up.

With 39 miles of electric-only range, the average commuter might barely need to fill up with fuel during the week, assuming they can charge the car’s battery at work. (It takes three-and-a-half hours from a wallbox and six from a domestic three-pin plug.)

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

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

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 PHEV powertrain, you will need to upgrade to at least Titanium trim, which brings 18in wheels and dual-zone climate control.

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


Ford Kuga front

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

The PHEV 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.

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

This is also an attractive family car, and the third of British Kuga owners who opt for the PHEV will benefit from excellent electric-only range and competitive pricing.

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 PHEV rivals from a class in which it’s 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.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Ford Kuga First drives