Taut and toned Kuga late for SUV party

KUGA: Badge
KUGA: Badge
KUGA: Looks good from many an angle, especially on its big wheels
KUGA: Looks good from many an angle, especially on its big wheels
KUGA: A mix of Mondeo and Focus bits going on in the cabin, but it seems posh enough
KUGA: A mix of Mondeo and Focus bits going on in the cabin, but it seems posh enough
KUGA: In action
KUGA: In action
KUGA: In action
KUGA: In action

Usually it was a snigger, the odd time raised eyebrows, but whatever the case, every person who asked me what the new Ford SUV was called responded with a negative reaction.

I cannot recall another vehicle's badge ever copping such a battering from the general public.

I can see why: 'Kuga', when spoken, sounds like 'Cougar'. Throw into the mix the fact that Ford's new entry to the New Zealand market is a mature sort of vehicle with a lean, sporty image, and well, the name sort of fits.

One can only speculate that Ford did thoroughly debate the name prior to slapping the badge on the long-overdue off-road version of the Focus. And it needs to be remembered that this car first went on sale in 2008 - a year before the TV show made the slang term for an older women who hunts for younger men general knowledge.

In Norway, though, there's a slightly more X-rated issue, because the badge is slang for, well, Courtney's surname. Eastern Europe is also problematic, as Kuga is the Slavic word for plague. Ford reportedly considered changing it, but I guess decided the new name would catch on. Thankfully, the company ceased building the Puma, which in street slang defines a slightly younger Cougar. Now that would have been a line-up to rival Demi Moore and Cameron Diaz.

Enough of the prowling dames. While the badge may be quite the conversation starter, there are many worthy things to discuss about this vehicle.

It's not the first time Ford has been slow to land European-sourced products to our shores; the original Focus was several years late, and the Mondeo has often seemed like an afterthought (or was it a strategic way of protecting the Falcon's status as the Blue Oval's number-one sedan?).

That the Kuga arrives in New Zealand five years after the Iosis X Concept was unveiled at the Paris Motor Show - let alone months after the 2013 replacement model was revealed - is probably as frustrating for Ford's Kiwi bosses as is the pricing for the vehicle. As well specified as the Kuga is, there is no avoiding that price tag: $53,990 puts the baby in the same league as the Territory. Handling prowess and German build quality are bound to take second place to seven seats, diesel economy and that key SUV perception, that bigger is better.

Leave space and running costs aside for a moment, and the Kuga is quite simply stunning. There is no SUV under $100k that can beat its handling. All the traits that made the Focus such a peach on the twisty stuff are at work under the Kuga. There is some blunting of abilities due to an 80mm increase in ride height, but despite this, there's none of that 'cross-dresser in six-inch heels' kind of wobbliness; instead, the Kuga is sure-footed and beautifully composed.

The Kuga is just quick enough, its power coming from a detuned version of the Focus XR5 engine, developing 147kW and 320Nm. Its downside is thirst, especially if you look to savour some of the urge produced by the 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo. While it makes a lovely sound, any sort of enthusiastic driving can see the fuel use quickly climb past 14L/100km. Our average around town was 13.1 - not bad, but up against the diesel-powered competition, not that flash either.

Apart from this, it's a beautifully sorted package with impressive on-road manners, in part due to the 235/45 rubber that coats its 19-inch wheels. Although it has the ability to go four-by-four - thank the Haldex 4 system and 21-degree approach and 25-degree departure angle clearance for this - the Kuga is a 100 per cent tarmac-focused vehicle. The body roll is minimal, despite all that extra wheel travel on offer, and the steering precise, with virtually none of the wallow usually found in an SUV.

Unfortunately, the interior space usually expected with the genre is also at a premium. The Focus-like handling isn't the only family resemblance: the cabin, too, looks and feels like a well appointed Focus. Access to the rear is courtesy of a two-piece tailgate that reveals a 360-litre storage space, which when compared to the 470 litres provided by the Tiguan, starts to look a bit tight - more 'SuV' than 'SUV', perhaps.

Up against the four-speed auto featured in the previous Focus, the Kuga's five gears are a touch more generous, but contrasted against the six-speed transmissions in some of the key rivals, the Ford does feel a mite short changed. Everywhere else, the specification list is a box of ticks. In Titanium guise the Kuga wants for little; everything is heated, lit and linked up. Usually, it's the tech tricks that impress me, but this time my favourite touch was the soft indents on the tops of the front door linings. Hardly a unique selling point, but it was nice to have my right elbow so well catered for.

Less impressive was the starter button, which is about the size of a 20 cent piece (the new one) and almost camouflaged under the hazard light switch. That the cheap and nasty blanking plate on the steering column was twice as conspicuous and three times the size further made the whole thing seem like an afterthought. Even worse was that it usually needed two pushes to start.

That, though, was the only real niggle in my time with the Kuga. The German build quality was impressive, and only some of the background plastics seemed a touch cheap. While not cheap to run, it's worth the cost for sheer driving enjoyment. I can't help but think that badge snobbery is going to be the Kuga's biggest enemy - and this time I'm not referring to the toy-boy hunting plague, as the Blue Oval itself could prove the turn-off. With the equally German, similarly specced, more spacious and cheaper-to-run VW Tiguan priced just below the Kuga, the Ford could be a tough sell. There's no doubting that the Kuga is the better drive, and from my point of view, the better looking of the pair. But how well can Ford do when, essentially, it is pitting a big Focus against a little Touareg? And the Kuga isn't just late to the mini-SUV party, it's almost time for a nightcap.

A new model is already being readied for market, meaning the Kuga, despite looking taut and toned, is landing locally at automotive middle age. It still knows how to party, better than most if truth be told... Maybe that badge does ring true after all. 

MODEL: Ford Kuga Titanium.
PRICE: $53,990.
ON SALE IN NZ: Nov 2011.
ENGINE: 2522cc, IL5, 147kW @ 6000rpm, 320Nm @ 1600-4000rpm.
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed auto, AWD on-demand.
VITALS: 9.38sec 0-100 km/h, 10.3L/100km, 244g/km, 1684kg.

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