2012 FORD KUGA REVIEW
Not many compact SUVs can manage to produce anything like the straight-line performance of Ford's new Kuga. Most - a bit slow, a bit woolly, and a lot conservative - would barely see where it went on a winding road.
It's not quite there as a compact 'sports truck', and it sits on the platform of the previous model Ford Focus - which dates it a bit - but it's cvertainly got some sporting dash.
We get it in two trim levels only, mid-spec Trend and top-spec Titanium, and we won't have it for long. Though new here, its all-new replacement is only 12 months away.
The slow-selling Escape will continue to occupy the lowest rung on the ladder as the entry to Ford's compact SUV range here (and it's sharply priced currently with driveaway deals of $26,890 through Discount New Cars) until the 2013 Kuga range, based on the recently-revealed all-new Escape, arrives.
With no Trend models yet available, we put the German-made Kuga Titanium through its paces around the byways and back-roads in the hills north of Auckland New Zealand for its Ford Australia launch.
It's been available there for a short while - Australia is among the last to get it. That's because it's been selling its buns off in Europe, leaving almost zero capacity to supply our market, until now.
Older model or no, its appeal is obvious. Ford Australia can only jag 200 a month, and it will sell those in a canter.
Certainly no complaints about this interior. The top-spec Titanium is very well trimmed in charcoal leather, smart graphite trim highlights, soft-touch plastics and Ford's familiar brushed alloy console and centre-stack.
But, at a mid-forties price, you'd expect it to be worthy.
The multi-function leather-trimmed wheel adjusts for tilt and reach, and the driver's seat has both electric and manual adjustment.
It's easy to get set at the wheel, although the driving position is too high for my liking and there's no adjustment to lower it.
The seats too, though comfortable enough, are a bit flat and a bit short in the squab. This heightens the sense of being 'perched on top' rather than sitting 'in' the seat.
But others I'm sure will be happy with the high outlook and clear vision from behind the wheel - useful especially in city carparks.
Plenty of room in the back too; there's quite surprising legroom and good headroom there.
The split-lift tailgate, also a feature of the Territory, is a useful touch. It allows access to the good-sized boot through the rear-glass, or, if loading up for a holiday, through the tailgate.
The mid-spec Kuga Trend, which we haven't yet seen, comes with a well-featured list for its $38,990 showroom price (plus those pesky on-road costs). It packages intelligent AWD, 17-inch alloys, Bluetooth and voice control, iPod and USB connectivity, keyless push-button starter, eight-speaker Sony CD/tuner, cloth seats, leather-trimmed steering wheel and cruise control.
Sitting over the Trend, the pricey $44,990 Titanium adds 18-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, heated windscreen, rear parking sensors, powered front seat adjustment, heated seats, auto-on headlights and a smart panoramic glass roof.
The Titanium we drove was shod in bigger 19-inch wheels.
For safety, across the range, all get the 5-Star nod from ANCAP. It comes with driver and front passenger beltminder, driver and passenger front and side airbags and thorax and pelvis airbags. Dynamic safety includes traction control, ABS with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), emergency brake assist (EBA) and DSC with anti-rollover technology.
This is the Kuga's strong-suit - its on-road performance and comfort. Despite a high body and appearing to sit high (although it doesn't have the clearance of the Forester or Sportage), it's pretty balanced on road.
With quite soft damper settings and spring rates (perhaps too soft in the front end), it provides a very compliant and comfortable ride. It's a bit surprising for a Euro product, where we'd normally expect a hard buttoned-down ride.
On the back roads we were on, and over a stretch of corrugated gravel, the Kuga easily ironed out bumps and corrugations - something a lot of family buyers will appreciate.
There is a long-travel feel to the suspension that will work very well on Australian back-roads.
The trade-off is a fair bit of body roll, a slight wooliness to the front end (the rebound settings are a bit slow) and a tendency to run wide when cornering quickly.
It's a trade-off most will accept in the name of comfort, and, like most front-drivers, a quick lift-off and light dab will tighten the line.
The transition from front to all-wheel-drive through the intelligent Haldex all-wheel-drive system is pretty transparent, though you can feel a slight change in the wheel when pushing on in tight turns.
The turbo-driven Duratec engine - always a cracker unit - is still a cracker. With 147kW at 6000rpm and 320Nm between 1600 and 4000rpm under the bonnet, the little Kuga will readily pick up its skirts and bolt when a quick turn of speed is needed.
It's paired to the older-gen five-speed automatic, the only transmission on offer, rather than Ford's crisp 'powershift' twin-clutch auto, but there is nothing wrong or outdated in the way it works.
On our drive, on a few occasions, we had to dive out and around slow moving log-trucks with only short stretches of clear road in front.
There is a slight pause as it kicks down and the turbo spools up, then it belts into action. The Kuga's rolling acceleration in particular is very brisk - it's very quick for an SUV, and rapid transport in any language.
It likes a drink though. Pushing it in the first half of the drive program, we averaged 10.9 l/100km.
Taking it easier on the return trip - mostly on the highway - that fell to 9.7 l/100km. This compares with Ford's claim of 10.3 l/100km, which is a bit off the pace these days.
It's also a bit noisy on the 19-inch rims on coarse bitumen; the 18-inch Aussie-spec will be the better bet.
First Drive Verdict
It's a very nice car, Ford's Kuga. Forget for one moment that it's a model with just 12 months left to run before a replacement arrives, and it feels like any other new release.
The five-speed auto and fuel economy is perhaps its most-noticeable Achilles heel, but it looks terrific, is beautifully appointed in Titanium spec, and its turbo engine is a beauty.
It offers the comfort of a much larger car, with the verve of a 'warmed' hatch. It's not in hot-hatch territory, but it's not far off. It will look great with a set of big wheels filling those arches and complemented with a sportier note at the exhaust.
It's pricey in Titanium Trim, but the Kuga is certainly one of the better ones. We'll give you a full rundown when we can sit at the wheel for a week.
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