Ford Escape

Kuga nameplate does a runner; reset button hit

BARRY PARK

Model Engine Max power Max torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Economy Price On sale Ford Escape Trend FWD 1498cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo 134kW @ 6000rpm 240Nm @ 1600-5000rpm 6-speed automatic 1607kg 9.7sec (claimed) 7.2L/100km $32,990 Now

Kuga nameplate does a runner; reset button hit

FIRST AUSSIE DRIVE

YOU have to feel a bit sorry for the old Ford Kuga.

Never embraced like its Blue Oval forebears and completely dwarfed in sales volume by just about every mid-sized SUV rival, it was one of the most overlooked cars on the Australian market.

The Kuga also missed the memo that confirmed buyers would swarm to front-drive SUVs in the $33-38K bracket like seagulls to a dropped hot chip.

But as is so often the case, timing is everything. Kuga was due for a major stylistic redesign, as well as a refreshed interior, and Ford Oz reckoned it looked different enough to carry off a name change. The rest, as they say, is history.

Underneath, the Escape is still all Kuga, including the superb European suspension tune that made Kuga such a driverís SUV.

Yet Escape crucially introduces a $32,990 mid-spec Trend frontdriver fitted with a standard six-speed auto that plugs in above the base Ambiente (or the same money as an Ambiente AWD version) and right into that Kugasized hole left in the old line-up.

The front-drive Trend shares Fordís latest 134kW 1.5-litre turbopetrol four with auto Ambiente models (the Ambiente manual has 110kW). Thatís significantly down in the grunt stakes compared with the Trend AWDís 178kW 2.0-litre turbo but thatís not a bad thing.

The new 1.5 is a fun little engine, revving sweetly and willingly. It works well when left to slur through the autoís gears on its own, and even better when asked to change manually via the new steering wheelís paddle shifters that thankfully replace the Kugaís daft rocker switch on the side of the gearlever.

In fact, Iíd go so far as to say the 1.5 turbo-petrol is a better choice than the larger 2.0-litre. The AWD Escape struggles to rein in its extra poke at times, scrabbling around corners and dissolving into ESC-induced understeer if you push it too hard. We also prefer the Trendís 18-inch alloys over the range-topping Titaniumís 19s; the larger hoops corrupt the ride.

The stuff we liked about the old Kuga is all there. The steering feels meaty without being artificially heavy, the front seats are nicely supportive, and the 1603-litre boot capacity with the reclining rear seats folded almost flat make Escape very load-lugging friendly.

But, despite updates, Escapeís heavy-handed dashboard is showing its age. The protruding centre stack is neater but no prettier and the new 8.0-inch colour screen is a long way from the driverís eyeline. Itís definitely better, but still looks too much like last decade.

Yet itís hard not to like the Escape. What it lacks in flash, it makes up for in finesse.

PLUS & MINUS

Interior shows age; firm ride on 19s; no safety pack for Ambiente Perky new 1.5 turbo-petrol; neater centre console; top-shelf handling

Crash course

The Ďnewí Ford Escapeís fivestar crash test rating came under intense scrutiny at its rebirth. The rating on which it was assessed dates back to a 2012 test of the European-market Kuga, and doesnít even account for new driver-assist technology such as autonomous emergency braking Ė something the heavily penalised, two starrated Ford Mustang was criticised for lacking. AEB is available for Escape, but Ford has chosen not to offer it on the entry-level Ambiente, and only as a $1300 option on Trend and Titanium.