The US automaker is on the offensive in the European SUV segment – the American-flavored Edge is bringing some much-needed savoir faire in the midsize compartment, while the subcompact EcoSport is getting ready for Old Continent production.
And let’s not forget about the Kuga – once the only offering in the sprawling crossover segment, the compact SUV has been refreshed as it came mid-way through its generational life cycle. Now the Kuga has been joined by a true SUV family with the “Henry Ford signature” on, but we can be sure the hard work still lies on its shoulders. This is partly because of the way Ford position its two other options – the EcoSport is for active urbanites and the Edge is not a big volume maker. The EcoSport has what it takes to become the most popular SUV option in the Ford lineup, but it still needs to come to the Old Continent with its new facelift credentials and European factory passport. On the other hand, the Edge is not a true volume maker – its American style will certainly appeal to people looking for something else in the large SUV segment. So we’re back to the compact Kuga – a fighter on a monstrous battlefield, the compact crossover segment. Fortunately Ford has decided to infuse it with a new SUV-corporate styling that will make it much more adept at repelling competition such as the new Hyundai Tucson, Land Rover Discovery Sport, Mazda CX-5 or the ubiquitous star of the segment – Volkswagen’s Tiguan, not to mention models that didn’t qualify here simply because they lack the tour de force of the flagship ST Line model (such as segment leader Nissan Qashqai that tops out at 130 hp).
The compact SUV segment has been a powder keg long before everyone around the world saw the practicality of getting a crossover instead of a sedan, a minivan or a station wagon. Since its inception, the compact SUV segment has actually seen just about the same amount of drama as the truck or hatchback segments in America and Europe, respectively. And although the modern compact segment has been around for some time, the Ford brand has only been relevant in the field in Europe since it introduced the Kuga nameplate back in 2008 when its first generation arrived – just think back, when was the last time you saw a Euro-spec Maverick on the street (or its predecessor, a rebadged Nissan Terrano II)?! Exactly, the story of the compact SUV success for Ford kicks off with the Kuga and will be related to the Kuga for years to come – as there’s no reason to call for a name change when future generations arrive. This is all in good measure, because after just two generations on the market, the Kuga is an established household name for Ford, capable of holding off the onslaught coming from the fearsome competitors. Everyone actually wants a piece of the compact SUV segment, but not anyone is also capable of chewing it.
Design, Interior and Gadgets
The second-generation Kuga was primarily developed by the Old Continent division – Ford of Europe – but with respect towards the “One Ford”, which is why it’s virtually identical to the Ford Escape nameplate used in North America. And while the initial design is what you may call quirky – especially the front end – even by European standards, the facelift has been thorough enough to accommodate all tastes. It’s in fact in line with the Edge and the refreshed EcoSport, so Ford not only has a complete family of SUVs to use as global assets, they’re also easy to recognize as an overall corporate image. By the way, here’s an example of how styling works better here than with others. Check out the Edge, check out the EcoSport and the Kuga – they all have common traits that link up: a trapezoidal grille with horizontal slats, angular headlights and a geometrical design for the fog lamp surrounds. So, the corporate identity is easily observable, Yet none of them can be mistake for the other, thanks to obvious details – the Edge has the largest grille, the fog lamps adopt a different styling, etc. While Ford’s design is – like any other – open to personal interpretation, I can point out that it’s an example on how to make your different models part of the same family without making them Siamese twins like other competitors. Granted, the SUVs offer more styling lines (because of the sheer metal surface) to designers to work with – but somehow brands still manage to screw this up (no need to call names, they’re pretty obvious).
As far as the actual design is concerned, the Kuga has brought ample changes to the front end – new headlights, new grille, new bumper and even new bonnet. The profile looks virtually the same, while the back has new taillights and a subtle rework of the liftgate as a consequence. All in all, the stylistic choices are completely different today when looking at the Kuga – even on the outside, where most of its competitors usually bring only cosmetic – almost untraceable – tweaks. We also received the flagship ST Line version, which drops some of the crossover characteristics in terms of design – the front and back faux skid plates become part of the assembly. The front one is now integrated back in the bumper, while the grille eschews the aluminum appearance in favor of a black treatment. At the back the skid plate becomes an artificial diffuser and all around the bodywork the rugged plastic protection bits have now become color-coordinated. It’s a serious, understated tone – it’s elegant sportiness, not get your sneakers on the treadplate kind – emphasized by the dual-tone alloys, which act as the final touch of the ST Line on the outside.
Moving inside, Ford almost has a reason to call this a new Kuga (automakers have an adversity towards officially naming facelifts), because there’s an almost generational gap feel. The general layout has remained the same though, so no one can mistake this is a refresh, not a complete new generation. But the changes are substantial – and most of all critical. Let’s start with the things that didn’t change – the instrument cluster is almost unchanged and still brings you the comfy “Wall-E” feel, though you do get more modern dials and graphics. The quirky climate vents blowing fresh air from beneath the infotainment area are still there and so is the general dashboard and center stack design. But aspects that were derided by specialists and customers alike have fortunately disappeared. Ford has a new steering wheel which is not only better looking and brings better materials, but it’s also vastly improved in terms of controls – here less is always more (so we now have three command clusters instead of four, with even fewer buttons). Even the area around the gear shift lever has been slightly redesigned, and most importantly we now have steering paddles for the manual control of the Powershift transmission instead of an ill-placed button setup. The climate control stack looks almost the same, but it’s just an illusion, everything is changed, with larger buttons that are easier to spot and activate. And on to the piece de résistance, the infotainment system is the new Sync 3, which is not a big departure from the previous one – it’s like switching from the industrial era to the space ship age with the blink of an eye. The new infotainment system is Ford’s best to date – it enables a simpler, more intuitive operation, with audio and navigation functions plus connected smartphone control using voice commands – it even understands conversational commands such as “I need to park.” This one also links to one of the on-board gadgets, Ford’s Perpendicular Parking technology that allows hands free parking. The active safety suite is also top notch – the Active City Stop collision avoidance system has been upgraded, there’s an Adaptive Front Lighting System, Cross Traffic Alert, Park-Out Assist, as well as others (blind spot warning, adaptive cruise control, or lane keep assist function). And then there are the connected features – Sync 3 has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as Ford’s own AppLink which includes voice-activation for certain applications – such as Glympse, Aupeo, Spotify, MyBoxMan, HearMeOut, AccuWeather, and Los 40 Principales.
The facelifted Kuga retains its habitable credentials, which is a tad unfortunate, because design choices have led to less available space than actually possible. The Kuga is 4,54 meters long and stretching on a 2,69 meters’ wheelbase (Tiguan 4,48 long and 2,68 wheelbase, LR Disco Sport 4,58 long and 2,74 wheelbase but can have up to seven places, Mazda CX-5 is 4,55 long and 2,7 wheelbase while the Hyundai Tucson is 4,47/2,67). But it pays tribute to Ford’s love of the cab forward architecture borrowed from minivans – the available space is actually a bit cut short compared to similar competitors that opted to use a classic cabin architecture. Fortunately, the Kuga has a few tricks up its sleeve – especially at the back where it’s most needed. The ST Line seats are great – complete with lateral support, and have been designed to eschew a bulky build. The backseat is also treated to the same leather/alcantara combination, but hasn’t been profiled for added sportiness. This, combined with the fact that its backrest can be angled according to needs, makes the Kuga a family-oriented crossover – no problem getting the ST Line if you have two kids that need their child seats in the back (profiled benches are a pain in the… fitting room for people with small children). In addition, the same cabin forward architecture made the Kuga some of its centimeters of trunk space – it can hold 456/1603 liters as opposed to the Tiguan (520/615/1510), Discovery (454/541/1698), CX-5 (463/1620) and Tucson (488/1478).
Engine, Transmission and Handling
First off, given that Kuga ST Line now joins the growing performance-inspired family comprised of the Fiesta ST-Line, Focus ST-Line and Mondeo ST-Line it includes a series of driving dynamics enhancements – chassis optimizations, revised suspension settings and better steering input. This bodes well with Kuga’s Intelligent All Wheel Drive, which is working in the background without actually anyone “noticing” it (you have a visual cue in the on-board computer, if needed) – which works alongside the Curve Control and Torque Vectoring Control systems. It’s safe to say, the Kuga is one of the best handling SUVs in the compact segment in this flagship configuration – with noticeable, but reduced body roll and a sharp steering input (although a tad muffled due to the electric assistance). With a quick to react dual clutch transmission in sport mode, the Kuga is a delight if you’re on your way to the mountains with the family for a weekend escape – it’s going to give you enough thrills thanks to its precise handling that makes you forget you’re in a 1.7 ton SUV with 197 mm ride height (and good angles: 21, 28 and 19 degrees, entry, exit and ventral, respectively). Just don’t take your Kuga ST Line too far out in the wilderness – it’s quite capable to go anywhere the regular goes (check our first impressions here) but it’s less protected body might suffer. All in all, the Kuga is at the top of its segment in terms of handling – but getting the ST Line is going to be a costly affair. With such a dynamic trait you might be tempted to exaggerate – but the safety suite is again at work. For example, the AWD system can make adjustments in less than 20 milliseconds – 20 times faster than a blink of an eye. The Torque Vectoring Control is also a neat way to improve driver prowess without the owner even noticing it – the system will brake the inside wheel slightly when cornering to help traction and stability.
Of course, the sporty experience wouldn’t be complete without a powertrain to match. The Kuga has a wide range of engine choices – starting with a 1.5 liter EcoBoost gasoline or TDCi engine option packing 120 hp and finishing strong with the 1.5 EcoBoost with 182 hp or the tested 2.0 TDCi 180 hp, complete with Powershift dual clutch automatic gearbox. The ST Line is also quite large – 2WD and AWD, the high-spec gasoline engine and all diesel versions with manual and Powershift transmissions. The flagship Kuga ST Line packs 180 hp and 400 Nm, which is enough for a 200 km/h top speed and a 10 seconds flat sprint to 100 km/h (62 mph). But this is again not the most solid performance among its competitors – Tiguan (180 hp, 208 km/h and 7,7 seconds), Disco Sport (180 hp, 188 km/h and 8,9 seconds), CX-5 (175 hp, 204 km/h and 9,4 seconds) or Tucson (184 hp, 201 km/h and 9,5 seconds). The Kuga does feel every bit of sporty or elegant, depending on the situation – the Powershift in drive will change gears fast to enable low rpms for added NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) and fuel economy comfort or keep the engine in optimal revs in Sport mode. You can also override both with the manual paddles, but unless you’re driving fast on a mountain course the Sport setting will suffice in most cases. Ford does put the Kuga as the fuel economy champion among its selected crop of rivals we’re comparing it (we chose them with approximately the same dimensions and power figure, as well as auto transmission). Average fuel economy stands at 5,2 liters compared to 7,4 / 5,3 / 5,5 and 6,5 for the Tiguan, Disco Sport, CX-5 and Tucson, respectively. Go for a relaxed drive and you’re not far off, especially if you let the start/stop system work its magic in urban areas. But go for the Sport mode and you’ll eat up the gas tank way faster than you anticipated.
Pro: New design falls in line with the EcoSport and Edge to form a true SUV range, and the best is there’s still a high degree of personality for each of them. The dashboard has changed for the best – especially if you go for the higher trims (Trend features Sync 1) and have the complete connected experience of the Sync 3 infotainment system. Handling and stability, as well as active safety and assistance suite is among the best in the segment. NVH levels continue to fall, there’s no more gap between mainstream and luxury models anymore. The ST Line doesn’t mean the Kuga isn’t capable of going out on unpaved roads.
Against: Cab forward architecture impacts cabin and trunk space. The engine is quite thirsty if you get the sporty attitude to go with the ST Line enhancements.
Starting Price – Ford Kuga Trend 1.5 EcoBoost 2WD – 20,900 EUR
Tested Version Starting Price – Ford Kuga ST Line 1.5 TDCi M6 2WD – 27,800 EUR
Tested Version – Ford Kuga ST Line 2.0 TDCi Powershift 4WD – 32,300 EUR
Engine: 2.0L four cylinder, diesel, turbo, VGT, S/S (1997 cc)
Power: 179 HP (132 kW) / 3500 rpm
Torque: 400 Nm / 2000 – 2500 rpm
Transmission: 6 dual-clutch automatic
Dimensions: length – 4,541 mm, width – 1,856 mm, height – 1,694 mm, wheelbase – 2,690 mm
Fuel Tank Capacity: 60L
Trunk Capacity: 456/ 1603 liters
0 – 100 km/h: 10 s
Top Speed: 200 km/h
Fuel consumption: urban – 5,5L/100 km, highway – 4,9L/100 km, average – 5,2L/100 km
Rating: 4.4 / 5