First Drive: Ford Kuga image

With the larger Ford Edge already launched in Europe and the smaller EcoSport already presented in the Americas, Ford is painting a fresh image on its SUV family, especially thanks to the newly updated compact offering – the Kuga.

We already know the crossover/SUV segment, alongside with the pickup truck brethren in America is the fastest growing across the world – which is no surprise given the ample interest showcased by the automakers towards it. The same applies in Europe, where Ford was actually lacking in this department in recent years – as they were riding the popularity of their more classic offerings – Fiesta, Focus and Mondeo. But the trends can’t be ignored and Ford doesn’t even want to – instead they decided to unify their SUV family according to a global pattern. So, the small EcoSport, thoroughly revised and presented at the Los Angeles Auto Show (US trim, the European specification will follow in Geneva and should be very close) will go head to head against best sellers such as the Renault Captur, Nissan Juke or Peugeot 2008. It’s also going to be produced at the Romanian plant in Craiova for the Old Continent market – so no more third-country build critics. The bigger Edge is playing in the large SUV segment, where it has its tough opponents – such as the Kia Sorento, Land Rover Discovery Sport or even BMW X3. It’s also a straight choice there – even though it’s a global model, the Edge breaths and talks like an American SUV, so if you like the US of A flavor this is the right choice.

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Meanwhile, fresh now in showrooms is the compact choice – the refreshed Kuga. We recently took a short launch drive in the compact dweller – which is actually Ford’s oldest available SUV model in Europe. It’s also the one model primarily designed by Ford of Europe – the EcoSport has been a South American job, the Edge a North American investment. So it’s naturally the one looking to cater best to the needs of the European consumer – and has been doing so since back in 2012. Showing its age today is no problem thanks to the recent facelift – which is making the SUV family complete. This is because if you look at the three choices you’ll instantly recognize them today as a Ford option – all three sharing the same grille design as corporate entity. Talking about the Kuga we can say the new front end is a huge departure from the predecessor. At the back, we have different taillight design and a slightly modified liftgate and back bumper, but here the changes are on the subtle side. The front meanwhile establishes the new corporate identity of the SUV family and it’s a welcome departure from the rather odd front of the pre-facelift Kuga. Just like any new SUV on the market it’s also pretty busy, with numerous lines and elements – another example in that direction is the new Peugeot 3008, which we also briefly tested recently. The side remains just about on par with the predecessor, which is not really bad – considering they kept the doors that spread over the apron to protect the occupants from getting dirty after an off-road session. An interesting addition to the Kuga line is not only the Vignale, but also the more dynamic ST Line, which is going against what the competitors are offering – such as the Tiguan R Line and the 3008 GT Line. But more on those later when we have the chance to review them thoroughly in separate, dedicated drives.

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The Ford Kuga is fresh when looking at the exterior, as the facelift is substantial at the front and easily observable at the back – and it needs to be as there are numerous choices in the segment and even more will become available in the near future (such as Opel’s new SUVs). Indeed, the Kuga is fighting in easily the most disputed SUV segment in Europe, so there’s no room for error. Moving inside, the Blue Oval company is this time around showing the limits of a mid life cycle refresh – as we can clearly see the interior hasn’t been modified just as thoroughly as the exterior. First let’s get the bad things out of the way – the busy layout has remained almost unchanged: you have lots of dials in the instrument cluster, lots of buttons on the new steering wheel and a modestly revised center stack. The designers and engineers seem to have worked on improvements rather than deeper changes – for example the new steering wheel feels better in hand and while still full of buttons there are actually fewer of them. The center stack follows a similar trend – it feels familiar but it has been improved – both in terms of design and controls. For example, the climate area has the same general layout but it has been again simplified for easier and more intuitive operation. The infotainment system – much criticized before – has been changed entirely – as Ford offers the SYNC 3 version (the SYNC 1 remains on the most affordable versions) which has an entirely new underlying operating system. It comes with a much larger touchscreen display – 8 inch instead of 4.2 inch – that features everything you need today in the world of everything connected, from applications to Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Ford has been subtle in its cabin layout improvements, but all of them do stack up to offer a more entertaining, comfortable and arguably better driving experience. For example, the seats are now more comfortable and offer enhanced lateral support – while offering a rather high point of view even in their lowest setting, which contributes to the overall SUV feeling. While some may point out the interior lacks in complete innovation – as for example the 3008 has gone from a quirky MPV to a space age crossover when it comes to its cockpit design, the Kuga is still a facelift. It’s better to judge here the overall capabilities – anyone who previously owned a Ford knows how to handle the myriad of commands and the enhancements do bring a better driving experience.

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After the brief encounter with the Kuga, I can safely say that one of its biggest assets – and one that we’ll discuss much more in detail when we have a regular review – is the interior space. While not going out of its segment confines in any way, the Kuga is easily one of the most spacious offerings – and I can compare it to the Tiguan or the 3008 on the fly, as these cars were the most recent I tried in the segment. The Tiguan, as always, because VW is not an adept of the cab-forward layout like Ford, is great at offering lots of interior space to its occupants, but the Kuga is a matching rival. Meanwhile, the 3008 has to give up some roominess to the design choices – so the model feels much more cramped, especially in the back when discussing lateral space. In addition, the Kuga keeps the large boot and the very useful “hands-free” liftgate opening system. When talking about Ford’s newest models we can’t skip the safety element – as the Kuga SUV is brimming with advanced driver assistance technologies, from the latest version of the parking system (complete with Cross Traffic Alert and Park-Out Assist) that can also automatically park the car in perpendicular spaces to an updated version of the Active City Stop collision avoidance system. More so, the Ford Kuga is setting itself apart in the segment by remaining one of the vehicles that can also be used as a proper SUV – thanks to the Intelligent All Wheel Drive system. Unlike off-roaders of old, the Kuga puts no responsibility in the hands of the driver, instead working out when and when it needs to send torque automatically. In regular cases – as it can be seen on the computer screen where it shows how much traction has each wheel – front wheel drive will be the norm. But go out of the beaten path – as we did during the test – and any slippery surface will cause an almost instant remodeling of the torque. This is because the system is not only bale to vary the distribution between axles, but it can also adjust every wheel for maximum traction. In case of mild off-roading, there’s no issue passing even without relying on the traditional traction control deactivation – which is actually only needed in case of too much mud or snow gathering on the wheels. Taking into account the model’s ride height, you can even embark on tighter adventures – though we recommend doing so only in case you need to get out of trouble, not actively searching it. In addition, the intelligent AWD will also be of use on the road – enhancing the driving dynamics whenever needed. For example, cornering hard is safer because initially the traction system will adjust to help the driver – and only afterwards the ESP might come into play. Again, if the surface is slippery and even more dangerous uneven – as it happens so often during winter, it can again help the driver navigate safely trickier road portions.

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The refreshed Kuga is also arriving in a new, more affordable guise, because the 4×2 setup can now be optioned with a new 1.5 TDCi diesel engine packing 120 horsepower. The engine family also incorporates EcoBoost options, the 1.5 liter being available in three power versions: 120, 150 and 182 hp with 2WD and AWD as well as a manual or automatic six speed gearbox. We haven’t tried any of those yet, and instead given the choice of the flagship diesel engine, the 2.0 TDCi packing 180 hp with either the manual or dual clutch Powershift auto transmission, both with all wheel drive. This is the most expensive option and as such it’s also the most powerful at 180 hp and will reach up to 200 km/h – with an average consumption of just 5.2 liters per 100 km. The Kuga has grown accordingly with its class, offering a comfortable ride – on and off-road – and seemingly working extensively on one important aspect: interior noise. Even during kickdown the engine remains a whisper and the wind noise is more present during the highway cruising. This is something many of us tend to overlook these days – save for the instances when you get a poorly insulated cabin. But as always, Ford excels at offering a sound-free driving experience, and we’re discussing here about the entire package – there are no odd sounds coming from the suspension even in off-road, no loud engine noise during acceleration and no vibrations all round. Otherwise, the Kuga offers a rather detached experience – the steering input is rather secluded from what is actually happening on the road and the lack of engine noise could fool some people into thinking they have a lower speed than in reality. But having an SUV as your first car surely isn’t about driving fast – the Kuga can do it, especially with 180 ponies under the hood – and it’s more about the entire experience. Indeed, the whole package seems directed at comfortable travel – whether with the family or friends, for business or leisure.