Compact SUVs must count among the most successful and desirable vehicles in South Africa. While European motorists prefer estates (aka station wagons in the local vernacular), gung-ho SA drivers prefer the taller stance and off-road talents that SUVs epitomise. Ford’s new-generation Kuga is the latest arrival in this segment, and despite that silly name, it’s a worthy contender. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
Except for the fact that it reached South African roads a little late, there wasn’t too much wrong with the previous-generation Kuga. It was everything SA compact SUV buyers wanted: wieldy, well-specced, spacious and competitively priced.
The new model retains many of those traits, while placing a particular emphasis on state-of-the-art technology and frugality – hardly surprising, given that it’s targeting an increasingly eco-conscious customer intent not only on saving the planet, but also saving money at the fuel pump.
As is almost de rigeur for new models, the second-generation Kuga is larger than its predecessor, and features a long and impressive list of features, even if some of those are offered on the top-line models only.
The model line-up consists of six variants, offering a choice of two petrol engines and a turbodiesel unit. Depending on model, the gearbox is either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic, while both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive options are available.
Three equipment levels – Ambiente, Trend and range-topping Titanium – complete the picture. However even the so-called Ambiente execution isn’t short on comfort and convenience features.
While the previous Kuga was compact and chunky, the new version is bolder and more extrovert, reflecting the styling cues we’ve already seen on the latest-generation Focus. The stance is tall, and the strong waistline adds a sense of dynamic intent. It looks more streetwise than dirt rider, despite is SUV positioning.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing: soft-roaders such as the Kuga are unlikely to be challenged by anything worse than the rutted gravel road of a game reserve, and most will probably encounter nothing wilder than the urban jungle. In fact, one could argue that the potholes and jagged kerbs of suburbia pose a sterner challenge than any dirt route ever would …
So, if heading off the beaten track is not a primary requirement, what’s the real reason behind the popularity of vehicles like the Kuga? Well, that raised stance, and the enhanced visibility it affords, is a definite drawcard.
Then there is the practicality of an interior that provides both decent front and rear legroom, and ample cargo space. The split rear bench seat allows the luggage compartment to be extended further.
The Kuga’s cabin may be focussed on space and practicality, but there’s a strong high-tech flavour to the execution, too. The finishes are smart, and even so-called baseline models are well equipped. But the plethora of switches and controls could be more intuitive.
Deep-set analogue dials ahead of the driver provide primary information on speed, rev count, fuel tank level and engine temperature. A colour LCD display between the main dials provides trip computer information – fuel consumption, range, and so on.
The multimedia system’s switchgear lives in the centre of the dashboard, below another, dedicated display. The Sony-branded system looks more complicated to operate than it actually is, but the initial impression is daunting.
The air-con controls are located in the centre console, just behind the gearshift lever, creating a third zone of switches and buttons. And then there are the multifunction controls on the steering wheel. It’s all a bit busy, and it takes some time become accustomed too.
But once you know where everything is, and how it works, the cockpit becomes a much friendlier place. And kudos to Ford for dressing it all up so smartly: there’s a sense of premium execution here that exceeds expectations.
Interestingly, the options list includes some of the high-tech kit normally reserved for premium brands. Blind spot assistance, active cruise control, lane deviation assistance and fatigue warning are among these, and while they up the asking price, they allow the Kuga to stray into the kind of territory normally occupied by Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi.
Even without those extras, the Kuga offers a comprehensive array of active and passive safety features, including stability control, ABS brakes with EBD and EBA, multiple airbags front and rear, hill launch assistance and trailer stability assistance.
As already mentioned, the Kuga comes in both turbo petrol and turbodiesel flavours. For those who still believe that diesels are smelly and noisy, there’s a latest-generation 1,6-litre Ecoboost petrol engine – a high-tech four-cylinder that comes in two states of tune, and lways feels more muscular than that limited capacity suggests.
Front-wheel drive models get the 110kW version, while some electronic tweaking ups the output to 134kW for the all-wheel drive models. However, the torque peak of 240Nm is the same across both powerplants.
The two-litre TDCI diesel is credited with 120kW, but it’s the 340Nm of torque that will be of interest to those Kuga owners intent on towing. Fuel economy and low emissions are a feature of both the petrol and the diesel engines, but those planning on regular long-distance travel with fairly heavy loads should seriously consider the diesel.
The six-speed manual gearboxes are reserved for the two front-wheel drive petrol versions, while the remaining four derivatives are all fitted with a six-speed automatic that also offers a sequential manual override.
I drove two versions – a 2.0 TDCI turbodiesel in top-flight Titanium execution, with all-wheel drive and six-speed auto ‘box, and a 1.6 Ecoboost petrol, also with AWD and auto gearbox. The diesel always felt the stronger of the two, with better in-gear tractability and overall response – and arguably a better match of gear ratios to power characteristics.
By comparison, the petrol felt smoother and more refined, but lacked the low-down grunt of the diesel. Load the Kuga with family members, luggage and weekend paraphernalia, and the diesel will win the straight-line dynamics battle hands down.
For the record, the 134kW 1.6 Ecoboost gets from zero to 100km/h in 9.7sec, and is credited with a 200km/h top speed. On paper, the 2.0 TDCI is the slower vehicle, with a 10.4 sec 0-100km/h sprint time, and a maximum speed of 196 km/h.
Both Kugas share the same platform – and it’s probably the most impressive aspect of the vehicle. Despite its taller stance, the handling of this SUV is more car-like than expected.
There’s no excessive body lean when tackling some twisties, and there’s a sense of confidence and composure that quickly creates a close rapport between the Kuga and its driver. The electrically assisted steering is way too light, and numb, but in the SUV context, that’s perhaps less of a negative than it would be with a sporty hatch.
Vitally, the Kuga feels nimble and easy to pilot, and linked to the great view from the elevated seating position, you always feel in control.
But what about the off-road stuff? After all, four of the Kugas in the range offer all-wheel drive, albeit not a permanent version, but one of those intelligent systems that feed power to the rear wheels when the conditions demand it.
Frankly, I didn’t expect too much of the little Ford on this front: the Kuga is a soft-roader at best, and I expected the first bit of rough-surfaced gravel to show up its shortcomings. But I was about to be surprised.
There’s a nice bit of twisty gravel that winds its way past the apples and grapes of Elgin and across the mountain before plunging down to the coast, eventually ending up near the posh Arabella Golf Estate. The road is rutted in parts, rocky in others, and on the downhill sections, the loose stuff can make braking a challenging affair.
I expected the Kuga to feel nervous, but the harder I drove it, the more settled and composed it felt. Using the sequential shift to keep it in the required gear, the SUV always felt plucky and up to the task, while the suspension did a sterling job of soaking up some of the bumpier sections.
The all-wheel drive system operates seamlessly but definitely keeps the Kuga in check, and it managed to maintain the chosen line, even when driven with vigour – and that on conventional road tyres. Impressively, it stood up to the challenge without a rattle or squeak, which says a lot for the Ford’s build quality.