The R103 tightens up nicely after Nottingham Road in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, into something that’s potentially a lot more than just a ‘Meander’ for enthusiastic drivers. And I’m driving a Ford Kuga, while seriously eating my words.

Confession. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get excited about SUVs, because most of them are boring to drive - even many of the more powerful ‘performance derivatives’ are not that much fun to chuck through a stretch of twisty asphalt. Things like fleet-footed agility and perfectly balanced steering are falling by the wayside as car companies chase consumers’ growing appetite for pavement-hopping SUVs and crossovers packed with all the latest mod-cons.

With increasing cost pressures, something has to give and often it’s driver enjoyment, which most motorists don’t get to appreciate anyway on their daily urban grind and weekend highway dashes, where a comfortable ride is more important.

I’m not arguing with the logic here.

Sublime road holding

Ford is guiltier than most of obsessing its product plans on SUVs - this is what customers want after all. And yet I loved every minute of my time behind the wheel of the Kuga through the twisties. Pushed through these tight bends with some enthusiasm, the Kuga is far more agile than you’d expect from an SUV of this size and stature. Body roll is minimal and the steering feels beefy and communicative.

The occasion was a road trip down to Durban from Johannesburg, during which it eventually became apparent that some of that excellent craft beer from Notties would be worth collecting for that evening’s braai. Needless to say that it became a most welcome diversion.

So how did the Kuga handle the rest of the trip?

Frugal new 1.5 diesel

That is where the new 1.5-litre TDCi turbodiesel engine came to shine.

Recently introduced to the range, it provides a more affordable oil-burning option, retailing at R426 200 in Ambiente guise and R456 200 in Trend form (as per our test car), versus R566 900 for the 2.0-litre TDCi.

Available in front-wheel-drive only and mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, the 1.5-litre diesel with variable nozzle turbocharging produces 88kW at 3600rpm and 270Nm from 1500 revs.

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I wouldn’t call it effortlessly powerful and you will still have to gear down for some hills and overtaking manoeuvres, but the engine feels refined and overall performance is decent by class standards - consider that many rivals in this price range are fitted with normally aspirated petrol engines that you will struggle with at altitude.

Of course, the big bonus of a diesel engine, apart from low-down torque, is its fuel consumption and the Kuga didn’t disappoint here - returning an average of 6.1 litres per 100km on the round trip between Joburg and Durban, according to the vehicle’s on-board read-out.

Decent ride, comfortable cabin

As for ride comfort, the Kuga fell short of feeling particularly soft or plush over rougher surfaces, but the ride quality was not uncomfortable by any means, and certainly impressive considering the surprisingly sporty handling.

Now that we’re tackling the rational attributes, it’s worth noting that the Kuga also has a spacious and family-friendly cabin, with decent rear legroom and a 463 litre boot that will swallow the holiday luggage. It’s not the roomiest cabin in this segment, but, again, it’s certainly class competitive.

At the helm, however, the Kuga is starting to show its age a bit.

Although the surface materials are of a very good quality, the overall design looks dated. Thankfully the infotainment side of things was modernised during the 2017 facelift, with all models from the mid-range Trend upwards gaining Ford’s latest Sync 3 touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. Functionality is quite straightforward but the graphics are perhaps a little on the bland side of things. Navigation can be ordered as an optional extra.

Value versus rivals

There aren’t many diesel options in this class beneath the R500 000 mark, and at R459 400 the Kuga offers a lot of SUV for the money.

If power is a bigger priority then the Kia Sportage 2.0 CRDI Ignite plus auto, with 131kW and 400Nm, might be a better bet at R461 995, but it lacks a lot of the features that you’ll find in the Kuga Trend, such as standard leather seats, touchscreen infotainment and automatic climate control. A better specced Sportage will see you creeping up to the R520K mark.

Nissan also offers a cheaper alternative in the form of the X-Trail 1.6 dCi Visia at R423 500, but spec levels here are very basic to say the least.

The Ford Kuga 1.5TDCi comes with a five-year/90 000km service plan, which is on par with its rivals.

VERDICT

Most SUV buyers are not interested in how fun their vehicle is to steer, but for those few that do appreciate such a thing, the Kuga should prove surprisingly satisfying. It’s worth noting that a completely redesigned Kuga was recently announced abroad and although it has yet to be confirmed for local introduction, it will surely reach our shores at some point.

It’s true that the Kuga has experienced a reputational knock of note in the wake of the fire saga that affected earlier 1.6T petrol models, but Ford has bounced back with a well sorted facelifted range that offers good value. It could be worth a look if you don’t like the softer styling of the upcoming new model, and if the dealer gives you a good deal.

IOL Motoring