FORD KUGA SPRINGS INTO SUV CLASS CONTENTION.
ACCORDING to conventional wisdom the four-wheel drive market should have died off ages ago in the face of higher fuel bills and greater awareness about the extra pollution they - supposedly - cause relative to a conventional car.
The thing is though, their appeal to drivers who enjoy the feeling of sitting that little bit higher up plus the extra versatility they afford courtesy of their all-wheel drive, is proving to be rather more resistant than many thought.
Perhaps one of the keys to this is the growth of the medium-sized SUVs with running costs not too out of sight such as the Land Rover Freelander, the recently launched new Nissan X-TRAIL and Volkswagen Tiguan and now this car, the Ford Kuga.
Based on the C-MAX/Focus platform, the Kuga is one of the better looking cars in its sector, with styling that makes it seem quite sleek and sporty compared to others. It continues the `kinetic design' theme already seen on the Mondeo and revised Focus and which certainly helps the Ford stand out from the crowd. I think a car's looks are a big factor in this sector of the market and in this respect the Kuga has got off to a flying start.
The positive impression continues inside where the interior is obviously very well put together, inviting in its architecture, well-equipped and practical. For example, it has a useful storage space under the rear seats with further room under the luggage floor at the back. There is also a handy split tailgate design and the benefit of this is that you can open the glass section to access the storage area without having to lift the whole tailgate and if you wonder what the point of that is, just try it in a multi-story car park where the roof is low...
I also liked the `power button' that replaces the traditional ignition key for starting the engine; it lends an extra sense of sophistication.
I felt instantly at home behind the wheel of the Kuga and sensed it is one of those cars where even a long journey would be more of a pleasure than a chore. Sitting higher up in that lovely cabin, with the improved visibility and the sense of almost being in a premium car, the Ford offers its occupants a haven from the stress of our modern roads.
The Kuga rides quite softly at the expense of the handling which, given its underpinnings and bearing in mind its higher centre of gravity, is not quite as sharp and precise as I would have expected. How much of a problem this will be for the average Kuga customer is another matter but I felt bound to mention it.
I did try it briefly off-road where the automatic four-wheel drive system seemed more than happy to cope with the loss of grip on the slippery stuff. In normal driving the Kuga is front-wheel drive in the interests of better fuel economy but will instantly spread the engine power to all four wheel drive if it detects the onset of wheelspin. The driver need do nothing at all and it is always reassuring to know that on a wet bend or junction where you might be caught out by a sudden lack of grip, there is always the equivalent of a co-driver with you in the car.
On the engine front you can have any like so long as it is the 2.0 Duratorq diesel which is an excellent unit and mated to a six-speed 'box. In addition to being powerful and smooth, it has the lowest CO2 emission in the class of 169 g/km and averages almost 45 mpg.
Prices start at £20,500 and there is one final point to make here - Ford says its factory at Saarlouis in Germany where the Kuga is built alongside the Focus and C-MAX is limited in capacity and no more than 8,000 Kugas a year should be heading to the UK shores which bodes well for residual values that are forecast to be quite strong anyway. Mind you, Ford proved with the S-MAX people carrier that it can build cars good enough to retain strong RVs based on demand for the product rather than just limited supply.
I don't think the Kuga is going to be as good in its class as the stunning S-MAX is in its but it is certainly a strong contender in a sector of the market that refuses to go away.
Prices from £20,500
0 to 60 11 seconds
Top speed 112 mph
Average mpg 44.
CO2 169 g/km.