Hogsback, Eastern Cape – The South African launch of the facelifted 2018 Kuga line-up was the first time I had driven Ford’s C-segment SUV, so these driving impressions may be somewhat different from those of journalists more familiar with the breed.
It's bigger than I expected, especially vertically, requiring a distinct step up into the cabin – and that is not a criticism. The view from the driver’s seat is commanding; heading out of East London in early morning traffic at the start of the launch drive, I could see why soccer moms love SUVs.
The chunky styling of the revised Kuga lends visual heft to its size and stance on the road. Seen against photos of its predecessor, it’s also a little more polarising; either you like it or you don’t. While the chromed trapezoidal grille gets most of the attention, the squared-off lines of the tailgate give it a capable air, as if it’s not shy to be seen as a practical family wagon.
The only time the Kuga’s perceived size and high waistline can be an issue is when reverse parking – which may be why a reversing camera is standard across the range.
The interior design has apparently changed very little; the dashboard layout shows a marked family resemblance to the 2010 Fiesta of She Who Must Be Obeyed. It’s perhaps a little dated in concept, but exudes a comforting air of quality, with chunky switches and buttons, firm and positive in operation, framed by a soft-touch fascia above and metal-look buttresses below.
The standard leather seats feature 10-way power adjustment for the driver and eight-way manual tuning for the front passenger.
Deeply recessed - perhaps a little too deeply for intuitive operation - in the middle of the fascia is the 20cm touchscreen display for the new Sync 3 infotainment system. All the Kugas on the launch drive were fitted with embedded navigation – which came in very handy when I got us lost.
Thus I can vouch that it is straightforward and intuitive to programme, but not something you can safely do on the move if you’re driving (I think that applies to all satnav systems, although apparently many drivers disagree with me, judging by how many of them I see concentrating on the centre stack while driving).
On the road
The first variant I drove was a 1.5-litre EcoBoost automatic in Trend trim (all the derivatives, prices and trim specifications are detailed in our launch story) which is rated at 132kW and 240Nm. While this is not a fireball of an SUV, the 1498cc turbopetrol four is quietly capable around town and the six-speed conventional self-shifter was never guilty of hunting, even on long uphills, only shifting down for acceleration when I asked it to.
In typical Ford fashion the steering was sharp and predictable, the ride firm and stable - perhaps a little too firm for comfort on the deplorably unkempt gravel road between Hogsback and our lunch stop at The Edge, but its excellent road manners on tar made up for that.
The entry-level 1.5 is, after all, front-wheel drive only; few will be expected to brave roads this badly rutted - but it’s nice to know they can.
Four-footed Kuga always went exactly where it was pointed
After lunch we moved up to a two-litre TDCi AWD turbodiesel with six-speed Powershift dual-clutch transmission (there’s no manual option). The improvement in ride, with torque-vectored all-wheel drive and roll stability control, was immediately apparent.
The steering was also a little firmer, once we got back onto a tar road good enough for that to matter, and the four-footed Kuga always went exactly where it was pointed.
What was not apparent, however, was diesel clatter – there wasn’t any. Sceptical though motoring journalists are about carmakers’ claims of vast improvements in NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) damping, Ford seems it have got it right this time.
The 132kW turbodiesel was a heartbeat slower than its petrol sibling on initial response but as soon as the revs picked up its 400Nm came to the party and it wasn't necessary to rev it to its power peak at 3500, other than when overtaking heavy vehicles at highway speeds.
The transmission provided seamless upshifts, downshifts nearly so, except under duress, when the slightly scary hesitation common to most dual-clutch ‘boxes became noticeable.
According to Ford’s spec sheet, the diesel Kuga is 130kg heavier than the FWD petrol variants, and you can actually feel a not unpleasant difference in their road manners. In a sporty sedan or hatch, that would be commendable; in an SUV, it’s remarkable.
|2017 Ford Kuga||New Price||Old price|
|1.5 EcoBoost Ambiente FWD manual||R368 800||R383 900|
|1.5 EcoBoost Ambiente FWD auto||R381 900||R399 900|
|1.5 EcoBoost Trend FWD manual||R406 400||R421 900|
|1.5 EcoBoost Trend FWD auto||R427 900||R437 900|
|2.0 EcoBoost Titanium AWD auto||R497 900||R516 900|
|2.0 TDCi Trend AWD auto||R483 900||R499 900|
|2.0 TDCi Titanium AWD auto||R506 900||R543 900|