Ford Kuga

More power, less price, broader range

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

FIRST AUSSIE DRIVE

IN AN ideal Wheels World, everybody would choose to drive light, nimble and efficient wagons over bulky and unwieldy SUVs.

Weíre dreaming, of course, Weíre dreaming, of course, because nobody much cares for them outside of Europe.

At the very least, then, why donít Aussie SUV buyers make more informed choices? Case in point is Fordís underrated Kuga, which is outsold by the Toyota RAV4, Mitsubishi Outlander and Honda CR-V that it shamed in a recent Wheels Megatest.

Yes, the name is divisive. And there has been no sub-$30K frontdrive auto variant. And the 1.6T

AWD petrol models struggled under load, and only the flagship Titanium scored a reversing camera. Yet the dynamic Ford SUV was still our favourite.

Now there are no excuses. Kuga has received engine transplants, a natty rear-view mirror camera is available (but not standard), and petrol variant prices are down, with the new turbo-petrol FWD auto kicking off at $28,990. The TDCi diesel costs $750 extra, but it does offer more oomph (though we couldnít drive one on launch).

On paper, the new 1.5-litre turbo-petrolís 134kW/240Nm outputs are identical to that of the old 1.6, but the removal of about 70kg of AWD gear means the expected volumeselling Ambiente FWD auto feels decisively quicker off the mark and pulls harder during overtaking, all without the loss of that engineís revvy exuberance.

Keeping in mind the prevalence of 2.0 atmo lumps in most rivals, this Kuga feels downright spirited.

Stepping up to the 2.0-litre 178kW/345Nm turbo-petrol AWD is an interesting exercise in expectation management. Initial acceleration is nowhere near as forceful as a Forester XT with similar outputs, thanks to the Subaruís 100kg weight advantage.

The flabby Ford only properly belts along once the tacho swings past 4000rpm, where effortless mid-range punch is this four-pot turboís party trick.

Everything else that was good about the Kuga largely remains, including its roomy and practical cabin, fussy though informative dash, balanced chassis, great steering and forceful brakes, though its ride is occasionally fidgety and the Ambienteís 235/55R17 Hankook tyres drone on coarser bitumen.

Ford has systematically addressed the key things that kept a good Kuga down. If it doesnít become an SUV bestseller, then Aussie crossover buyers deserve to drive mediocrity. Or maybe Ford should consider importing the Focus wagon, which would make us even happier. at nít hen erve e ing ld

PLUS & MINUS

Road noise; expensive diesel; fidgety ride on big wheels Turbo-petrol performance; dynamics; refinement; value; space

Ace of base

THE sweetest of the old Kugas was the 110kW/240Nm 1.6-litre turbo front-drive model with the slick sixspeed manual shifter, relatively low 1569kg kerb weight and seamless idle-stop tech. Now $500 cheaper and with improved economy of 6.3L/100km, the lighter MY15 Ambiente 1.5-litre Ecoboost manual opener with identical outputs is even better.