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The Ford Kuga provides everything you’d expect of a soft-roader, but some crossovers are cheaper

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The Ford Kuga was born out of the Iosis X concept car, first unveiled at the Paris motor show in 2006. This was a very aggressive and sharply styled piece of work from a team led by Ford design chief Martin Smith. The brand called the Ford Iosis X a ‘crossover’ vehicle and would like to see the same qualities in the Kuga, but, to us at least, it seems hard to separate the concepts of recreational SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Land Rover Freelander 2 with that which inspired the Kuga. So it’s just another soft-roader.

It is a matter of on-going astonishment in the Autocar office that while Ford’s European operation seems unable to produce a car that doesn’t automatically assume a position at or near the top of its class, over in the US its mainstream cars struggle. Happily, the Fords we buy are almost entirely born on this side of the Atlantic, and you have only to look at its most recent efforts to know that Ford could scarcely be more on top of its game.

You have only to look at its most recent efforts to know that Ford could scarcely be more on top of its game

The Ford Kuga’s positioning within that niche could not be clearer and is to serious off-roading what Celine Dion is to thrash metal. Like its rivals, the Kuga is more about perception and image than harsh reality and like so many of its rivals, the Kuga is available in two- or four-wheel drive, with most sales going to the two-wheel drive model (a clear indication of the usage of these cars).

Engine options include a sole 197bhp 2.5-litre petrol, and 138bhp and 165bhp diesels. The Kuga is available in Zetec and Titanium trims.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Ford Kuga front grille

Whenever you read that a new car is based on the platform of an existing model, there is a temptation to believe that the two are one and the same in all bar cosmetic detail.

And, on occasion, that is a fair enough conclusion to reach. But not this time. Yes, the Kuga owes some of its basic architecture to the previous generation of Focus, but to regard the Kuga as a Focus in plus fours is to underestimate entirely how much work Ford had to do to create the Kuga. For a start, it shares not a single significant dimension with the Focus, being longer, wider and higher. 

The Kuga shares not a single significant dimension with the Focus, being longer, wider and higher

But perhaps the most significant difference is their weight, especially on the four-wheel drive models. Next to a five-door Focus hatch equipped with the same engine, Ford’s own figures show the Kuga to weigh around 250kg more than the old Focus. That's understandable, but in our view the four-wheel drive system will spend the vast majority of its working life driving the front wheels alone, pulling the rest of its hardware along as redundant weight. While the two-wheel drive car will save you a few pounds (and lbs) it doesn’t massively affect the performance or economy.

One of the Ford Kuga's design highlights is that it carries big power bulges in the bonnet, but don't be fooled - the engine itself is buried beneath a plastic shroud deep within the car. The Kuga's sporty styling is further highlighted by twin rear pipes — and they don’t even face down, despite most Kugas being diesel-powered. 

Conveniently, the rear hatch has two-piece operation, allowing small and light items to be loaded through the rear window without opening the entire gate.

 

INTERIOR

Ford Kuga dashboard

Front three-quarter visibility in the Ford Kuga is a little restricted by the thick A-pillars, but otherwise there are no complaints about the way Ford has chosen to site you as the driver, or the simple logic with which it has positioned the major controls around you. Taller drivers might like a shade more reach adjustment on the steering wheel, but that’s about as close to a criticism of the driving position as we can come.

The relationship between the pedals, wheel, gear lever and your outer extremities is otherwise flawless. Additionally, the gauges are easy to read and the steering column stalks logical enough in their operation.

Rear-seat legroom is particularly tight, while even headroom is hardly generous for a car with such a high roofline

However, the optional navigation/entertainment system is not as easy to programme and operate as its touch-sensitive screen should have allowed it to be. The graphics seem a little last generation and the further you delve into its operation, the less intuitive it becomes. A perhaps more serious issue lies behind you, where you’ll discover that, for all the Kuga’s presence and perceived size, there’s not much space for your children or chums. Legroom is particularly tight, while even headroom is hardly generous for a car with such a high roofline.

The boot is more generous, though, and accessed through a tailgate that allows you to life the glass separately rather than the whole boot door.

The cabin ambience is dictated by the trim level. Climb up into a well optioned Titanium spec Ford Kuga (and we use the word ‘up’ advisedly) and you will behold a land of polished metal surfaces and shiny chrome finishes complete with touch-screen navigation and a selection of knobs, buttons, dials and switches to keep the most technophile of fans happy. However, while more basic cabins are still decent places to be in, they are not nearly as enthralling.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Ford Kuga front quarter

By the standards of its classmates, Ford has been able to retain a reasonably trim waistline for the Kuga, keeping weight down among the class average even on cars carrying the heavy four-wheel drive kit.

That said, the lower-powered diesel Kuga’s performance never even approaches the engagingly sprightly, let alone anything that might honestly be described as quick. Thanks to the reasonably wide torque band of the engine and the sensible spacing of its six gears, you can make fair progress through traffic and overtake quite effectively. But despite its sporting looks and a name that seeks comparison with a wild beast, anyone hoping that the Kuga will somehow break out of the terminally dull performance ditch in which all these cod-off-roaders wallow is in for a disappointment.

Manual gear change quality is acceptable but a little slow

The 165bhp turbodiesel (only available with four-wheel drive) will drop the 0-62mph time by the best part of a second, but that’s not really enough to warrant spending another couple of grand in our estimation.

Similarly, the 2.5-litre, five-cylinder petrol car offers hot hatch performance, but a lofty price tag and loftier fuel bills. Unless you opt for an auto Kuga, the gear change quality is acceptable but a little slow and heavy in its action – not unlike the car to which it is attached.

Braking performance, be it measured by feel, fade or outright retardation, was beyond serious criticism in our tests.

RIDE & HANDLING

Ford Kuga cornering

From Focus to Ford Galaxy, Mondeo to S-Max, and now the Kuga, every time Ford launches a new car these days its position at or near the very top of its class for dynamic excellence seems assured. The Kuga provides handling as superior to the class norm as any of its stablemates do in their classes. The only difference is that with the high centre of gravity and excess weight that so characterises cars of this sort, the overall level of achievement is inevitably going to be lower than among more conventional machinery.

So, by the standards of those with which it must compete, the Kuga is indeed a fine-handling machine. But not even Ford can defy the laws of physics, and the fact that it’s a quarter of a metre higher and nearly a quarter of a tonne heavier than a Focus is apparent at every turn. Even so, its steering is linear and direct, and has much of the weighty precision that has helped Ford earn its name as the company that understands better than any other how to make wheels that are both steered and driven feel right.

Its steering is linear and direct

Body roll is also well controlled, but that is an attribute that has not been achieved without penalty. The price paid, indeed, comes in the form of compromised ride quality. Again, the Kuga disappoints not because it’s bad but because experience shows us that new cars wearing the Blue Oval usually tend towards brilliance in this area. 
In fact, it’s quite a comfortable conveyance once you’ve ascertained that the firmness of its suspension does not translate into harshness 
in the cabin. What it lacks is that almost liquid feeling of fluency, where the car flows down the road with so little apparent effort that it’s hard to imagine how something with simple steel springs can exhibit such suppleness.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ford Kuga 2008-2013

With the Kuga it's easy to let the options sheet enthusiasm carry you away to a bigger bill than you’d ever imagined. But if you resist the urge to play fast and loose with the spec, you’d find the Kuga has been priced quite aggressively against its competitors by Ford and some distance from the likes of the Land Rover Freelander 2, which is substantially more expensive, model for model.

The bigger problem for the Kuga is the plethora of crossovers that are attacking it from beneath – the likes of a Peugeot 5008, Nissan Qashqai or Skoda Yeti are considerably cheaper, offer broadly similar space and pace, and, with the current exception of the Peugeot, can be had with four-wheel drive. Then there’s the likes of the handsome Kia Sportage or Hyundai ix35 – cars that are close to the Ford in terms of spirit and ability, but some way short of the Kuga on price. They’re better equipped than the Kuga, too – especially when it comes to the warranty.

If you resist the urge to play fast and loose with the spec, you’d find the Kuga has been priced quite aggressively

No one runs a car like this expecting world-leading economy or saintly emissions levels, but the 31.6mpg we achieved with the 2.0 TDCi in testing would most likely translate into a 40-42mpg real-world consumption for a sensibly driven car living out of town.

The official claimed economy figure for the two-wheel drive car is 47.9mpg, with the four-wheel drive model very close behind. That’s pretty much on a par with rivals. As are the emissions – although (the much pricier) BMW X3 can beat that by some margin.

VERDICT

4 star Ford Kuga

Let’s be clear about this: the Ford Kuga is one of the most appealing mid-sized SUVs yet to come to market, and if you are in the mood to shop for such a car, you’d be unwise not to place it at or near the top of your list. It offers the usual class attributes such as distinctive looks, a high driving position and the provision of all-wheel drive, but at the same time a driving experience some streets ahead of the class norm.

Rear space is a disappointment, though. But, and it’s a big but, while the Kuga stacks up well against rival SUVs like the Land Rover Freelander and Honda CR-V, there are cars that, well, cross over into the SUV sector without offering quite the faux four-by-four appeal of a full-blown SUV.

The Kuga is one of the most appealing mid-sized SUVs

Yes, these crossovers, like the Nissan Qashqai. Skoda Yeti, Kia Sportage and Hyundai iX35, offer much of the appeal of the Kuga, but at a lower price They may well make Ford think again about the Kuga’s positioning.

While the Kuga is a good SUV, it’s a long way from being a great car, especially by Ford's own high standards. Ford has addressed the dynamic limitations that dog all cars in this class better than most, but the result is still a machine that promises more than it delivers.

Ford Kuga 2008-2013 First drives