New front end style is designed to mimic the bigger Everest. Picrures: Rob Till
Johannesburg - Ford's Kuga is probably South Africa’s best-known SUV for all the wrong reasons, and if you need reminding that it’s been at the centre of the country’s most controversial vehicle recall after a series of more than 40 engine fires, you might want to crawl out from under your rock.

And though it’s probably unfair to start a road test of Ford’s facelifted, and completely unrelated Kuga with that statement, it’d also be unfair to you, the reader, to altogether avoid the touchy topic. Just know that the Kuga fires involved a now discontinued 1.6 turbo engine made between 2012 and 2014, and that Ford has actioned 98 percent of the recall’s first phase and 88 percent of a follow-up phase two. In total just over 4500 units were affected.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the new Kuga with which Ford hopes to start afresh.

Nothing radical in terms of styling changes here. It’s still easily recognisable as the C-sized Ford it has been since its original launch more than 10 years ago, but with a more Everest-esque front end, some chunkier tail-lights and a new set of wheel designs ranging from 17 to 19 inches in diameter.

Much the same story inside, but some serious effort has been put into simplifying the outgoing Kuga’s infotainment system. Ford says it drew on more than 22 000 comments from customers to tweak the new Sync3 interface, and for the most part it’s a job well done.

Gone is the old spaceship-like control panel with one giant centre knob and an explosion of around 26 buttons in its periphery; in its place is a much more elegant one knob, eight button setup.

The new design allows for a bigger 20cm touchscreen (in upper Trend and Titanium trim levels) with much crisper graphics, but users do have to lean forward out of their seats a bit to use it properly.

Thankfully those aforementioned shortcut buttons do a good job of circumventing most on-screen functions.

As an iPhone user I also appreciate the inclusion of Apple CarPlay compatibility, but Android Auto is also there for other smartphone owners - though it will require a complicated login workaround to activate until it’s officially released in our market.

Infotainment controls are far simpler to use than the outgoing Kuga’s.

Cabin quality has been one of the Kuga’s strongest attributes since day one, and this updated version keeps it going. It’s a fairly high quality place with decent material choices making for a relatively upmarket vibe.

There’s enough soft-touch plastics to give a genuinely premium feel, and the Torino leather seat upholstery in our range-topping Titanium derivative wouldn’t look out of place in a hoitier-toitier German vehicle.

Looking at dimensions, the Kuga falls in at the bigger end of the scale in relation to competitors. The boot will swallow up to 456 litres’ worth of gear with the back seats in place, or up to 1603 with the second row folded flat.

In the standard golf bag test I found it wouldn’t fit in lengthways with the back seats in a reclined position, but it would with them upright. Adjustable seat  backs for the second row is a nice touch, as is a set of folding plastic tray tables for, let’s face it, kiddie-type paraphernalia only.

On test here is the top diesel model in all-wheel drive Titanium trim, and it’s a surprisingly strong performer. There’s a touch of turbolag on pulloff, but once up and running it delivers its 132kW and 400Nm with healthy punches in each of its six automatic gears.

I’d have no problem in calling this a true “hot” SUV, especially against some notably weaker turbodiesel (and turbopetrol) opposition. It’s also quite frugal considering its hefty outputs, and after a week of stop-start city driving our trip computer showed an average of 8.8 litres per 100km.

We’re confident this number would come down quite a bit with more freeway use.

Trip computer showed an average of 8.8 litres per 100km after a week of stop-start city driving; this number should come down quite a bit with more freeway use.

All-wheel drive is a nice-to-have, though it’s probably there more for added confidence in wet conditions than any true offroad exploring. That said, a generous ground clearance of 193mm will afford some mild adventuring should owners find themselves on any of the Kruger’s trickier gravel loops.

It’s a fully automated system which defaults to front-wheel drive in most situations, and sends drive rearward only when some extra grip is in order. No need to activate any complicated 4x4 or difflock settings.

On top of the Kuga’s mild stylistic makeover comes a handful of driver assistance additions - namely a revised version of Ford’s Active City Stop auto-braking system which comes as part of a R15 450 package that also includes adaptive cruise, blind spot monitors, lane keeping and self-parking systems.

I found the City Stop’s sensors a tad too sensitive when approaching slow or stationary objects, though I can understand why the car might freak out about overtaking a right-turning vehicle on the left hand side at medium speed.

Lane keeping, on the other hand, was tuned to unobtrusively guide me back into the lines only when I was drifting unwillingly over them.

In all I think the safety package is one well worth having, but I think Ford should look at building it in as standard equipment in upper models. Same goes for the optional navigation priced at R5044.

VERDICT

At R506 900 this particular Kuga is the priciest of the seven-derivative pack. But you do get a very upmarket interior, plenty of power, and all-wheel drive in the deal.

It’s also important to note that Ford dropped the prices across the entire facelifted range (37k in this case), no doubt in an attempt to entice buyers back into the fire-tarnished nameplate. Fair deal. Good deal.

FACTS

Ford Kuga 2.0 TDCi AWD Titanium

Engine: 2-litre, 4-cyl turbodiesel
Gearbox: 6-speed automated dual clutch
Power: 132kW @ 3500rpm
Torque: 400Nm @ 2000-3250rpm
0-100km/h (tested, Gauteng):10.4 seconds
Top speed (claimed):196km/h
Price: R506 900
Warranty: 4-year/120 000km 
Service plan: 5-year/90 000km (turbodiesel models) 

ALTERNATIVES

Hyundai Tucson 2.0 CRDi Elite131kW/400NmR539 900
Kia Sportage 2.0 CRDi EX Plus130kW/400NmR528 995
Mazda CX-5 2.2DE AWD Akera 129kW/420NmR561 700
Nissan X-Trail 1.6 dCi 4WD Tekna 96kW/320NmR467 900
Peugeot 3008 2.0 HDi Allure110kW/370NmR520 900
Toyota Rav4 2.2 D-4D AWD VX110kW/340NmR557 900
VW Tiguan 2.0 TDI 4WD Comfortline105kW/340NmR551 900

Drive 360

Follow Jesse Adams on Twitter: @PoorBoyLtd