Kuga silly name, great drive

Last updated 13:43 05/06/2012
Ford Kuga.
Fairfax NZ

FORD KUGA: Four years late to the SUV party in New Zealand, but goes to top of the tree in so many areas.

Ford Kuga.
Fairfax NZ
DRIVING ENVIRONMENT: Luxurious and well-equipped.
Ford Kuga.
Fairfax NZ
LOAD ACCESS: The glass can be open on its own.

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No it's not named after some harridan with an appetite for young chaps. It's K-U-G-A, not Cougar, though Ford's empire has indeed used the name with the proper spelling over the years.

The Kuga has been around on luckier markets for more than four years and New Zealand Ford fans know that, for many dozens over the years have emailed me their dismay at not being able to buy one here, having to make do with the ageing Escape instead.

With a range of petrol and diesel engines and two and all- wheel-drive versions, the Kuga has sold exceptionally well in Europe. Ford will be expecting the same of Kuga II which will be made available across the globe, unlike the original which really only trickled on to export markets.

So fed-up were some New Zealand Ford dealers at not being able to list the Kuga, that they went ahead and sourced their own independent of the distributors, which is what they did just a few years earlier with the Focus RS that was also unlisted at first on Ford New Zealand's official manifests.

Ford eventually came to the party with the Kuga, but by the time they got around to it, the right-hand-drive diesel-powered models which looked the most likely types for our market were in too strong demand in Britain. Thus the Kuga could only be had with a five-cylinder 2.5-litre turbocharged engine coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive. The turbo five with auto was ironically exactly the drivetrain that was never made available in the current Mondeo model, so the Mondeo five lasted a very short time on our market. With that car, if you wanted a five, it had to be a manual, so few were sold.

While a turbocharged petrol five will never be as frugal as the diesels in the Kuga's lineup in Europe, it's one of the most charismatic powertrains available in a mass-produced car. The unit was developed as part of Volvo's modular engine series developed in conjunction with Porsche, at its Weissach technical centre. It started as the B6304 six in the rear- drive 960 model in 1990, before being made into a transverse five for the Swedish company's 850 series models, which used the fives in various sizes from 2.0-litres right up to 2.5-litres, with and without turbochargers.

Ford was able to have access to Volvo hardware, having bought the Gothenburg based concern in the late 90s, whereupon Ford, Volvo and Mazda did all manner of platform and drivetrain amortisation - moves at the time that did much to help Ford avoid the bankruptcy abyss from which General Motors and Chrysler had to be rescued. As Volvo is now owned by Chinese concern Geely, its relationship with Ford is not as close as it was, though there are still Volvos using engines traceable to Ford, and vice-versa.

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I'm glad we have access to it, for nearly five years old the Kuga's design may be, its five-pot engine is an absolute honey to drive, while it has been well- known over the years that no-one has quite yet produced an all- round light SUV chassis to match this Ford's.

The Kuga was Ford Europe's first SUV foray. and styled using the company's now dominant so- called "Kinetic" design language it entered the market in 2007, introducing Ford's now tell-tale trapezoid under-grille and its maker has sensibly decided to stay quite close to this look for next year's Kuga II, even though it's an all-new Focus III-based car.

Similarly, our Kuga is based on the Focus II, which explains why its ride and handling is so good.

The 2.5-litre 147kW/320Nm turbocharged five is a lightly- stressed power unit, it can be made to supply more than 230kW in some versions, so for its Kuga application it's a pleasingly flexible and lovely soundiing power unit.

The Kuga uses a central starter button in the upper centre of the dash, and the power unit quickly settles into its slightly uneven five-cylinder idle. Working up through the transmission's five ratios the engine is one of the most musical in the business, woofling distinctively to the red-line and providing the Kuga with the ability to sprint to 100kmh in about eight seconds or so.

This flexibly refined power unit all helps to enhance the solid overall quietness of the car on the road, and with the Focus II underpinnings being afforded more suspension travel in this application, the vehicle is even better insulated from the road surface changes than the hatch on which it is based.

With four-wheel drive (some Euro Kugas can be had with 2WD) the Ford's handling is superb, as its maker appears to have put a lot of work into setting-up the suspension to cater for its taller stance and centre of gravity.

Using a Haldex torque distributor to direct torque to which of the front and rear axles its sensors judge can best use it, the Kuga can go from a front-drive bias to a maximum 50:50 front- rear distribution. The chassis works with an electronic stability programme, and a rollover mitigation set-up, and imparts all the right signals through the steering.

The combination of delightful power characteristics and the best soft-roader chassis in the business, makes the Kuga a rare beast, a light SUV you'd actually take out and drive just for the heck of it. I can't think of a similar beast this side of an $80,000 Range Rover Evoque offering similar charm on the road - and the Ford slams that vehicle for space.

Taken off road - and New Zealanders are more likely to do this than their European counterparts, the Kuga is surprisingly surefooted. With the wheels are the four corners and not much in the way of overhangs at either end, you're unlikely to snag the car on much when mucking about. The car's lack of a low-range and its limited clearance are obvious and as long as you take these aspects into consideration, it will go as far as most light family SUVs will go without fuss.

Inside, the Kuga is a treat. True, that busy stereo set-up is a mess, but it sounds brilliant and though there's a bit too much shiny plastic about, everything works well, with nicely weighted switches and levers, and seating, front and back for a maximum of five occupants that supports its human cargo well, though the middle centre row seat is not going to be popular for larger people. Still, rear legroom is good though the long seat squabs tend to obfuscate this a little.

The car's wide tailgate opened in full or just as the rear window, for large and small objects respectively and though the flat- floored load area is only of average size, the rear seatbacks fold flat together or as a 60:40 split, creating plenty of volume for amateur antique furniture collectors.

The cabin and luggage area finish in Titanium trim is superb, with lots of dark leather to contrast with that shiny stuff, and though there's a Titianium X model in Europe, which adds a glass roof and powered shade, my test car was pretty loaded all up. Lovely 18-inch alloy rims are part of the package as well as cruise control and automatic headlights and wipers and a self-dimming rear view mirror. Safety's good too. All Kugas get a Euro NCAP five-star rating, with twin front, side and curtain airbags as well as a steering column that moves sideways away from the driver in serious frontal impacts. You also get full connectivity of course in terms of music playing and communication devices of course.

So, the Kuga is an impressive package, and I guess it should be at $53,990, but when you realise that the car is right up there with the Land Rover Freelander in Britain, price wise, it doesn't seem so bad. Also for the period of the farmers' fieldays the Kuga has a sticker of just under $50k.

This is great value indeed, and while most readers will know there's a new model on the way from next year, this gorgeous five- cylinder version of the original Kuga is a hugely talented car and probably the most charismatic new Ford you can buy in New Zealand right now.

FORD KUGA TITANIUM

Drivetrain: Transverse AWD 2522cc DOHC turbocharged 20v petrol in-line five. 5-speed automatic.

Performance: Max 147kW at 6000rpm; 320Nm at 1600-4000rpm; Max 205kmh, 0-100kmh 8.8sec, 10.3L/100km, 244g/km CO2.

Chassis: Front MacPherson struts; rear control blades, electro-hydraulic power steer, 19-inch alloys.

Safety: Dynamic stability control, ABS, traction control, six airbags, 5-star EuroNCAP, reverse sensors.

Dimensions: L 1580mm, W 2128mm, H 1710mm, W/base 2690mm, F/track 1580mm, R/track 1590mm, Weight 1653kg, Fuel 66L.

Pricing: Ford Kuga Titanium $53,990, Fieldays price $49,990.

Hot: Balance, ride, handling, performance; quality interior; great looks, even after 5 years.

Not: High price; model's delay; fiddly stereo; no diesels to choose from, or petrol fours.

Verdict: Latecomer Ford is a segment changer and still worth buying with that Volvo five.

- The Press

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