Kuga the sweet little kitten that roars
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A SMALLER POWERPLANT SAVES ON GAS BUT LOSES NO POWER
This might be what’s called good, honest motoring. It’s a medium-sized Ford Kuga model presented in what’s the default body style these days, the SUV. It’s pleasingly unpretentious, not just because there’s a blue oval on the front, but also because this is the Ambiente version. It’s the least expensive Kuga you can buy.
But this $36,990 model is special. The main reason is that it’s powered by a 1.5-litre EcoBoost powerplant, a new member of Ford’s signature engine family.
EcoBoost is a good brand to put on a badge, but it’s also a real thing: a range of petrol powerplants based around similar architecture and a suite of technologies including turbocharging and direct-injection.
We’ve seen EcoBoost in 2, 1.6- and 1-litre forms in various models, but the 1.5-litre was launched globally only last year. Kuga is the first New Zealand Ford to have it, but Focus has followed.
This new engine is a downsized version of the 1.6-litre unit. Why so much trouble for just 100cc reduction in engine capacity? Some global markets impose heavier taxes on engines above 1.5 litres and this has been developed for those. Being a more modern powerplant, it has a little bit more technology than its 1.6-litre sibling, including an integrated exhaust manifold and computer-controlled water pump.
So thank you to other countries’ tax rules because the 1.5-litre EcoBoost is a sweet little engine: just as energetic as the larger versions, but more refined.
It’s strong low down, with peak torque of 240Nm delivered at just 1600rpm. Yet you can work it hard and there’s little opportunity cost in power delivery or noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). It’s smooth and sounds great.
The Ambiente 1.5 is special for another reason: this is the first Kuga to be sold here in front-wheel drive, as Ford embraces the current fashion for SUVs that make no claim towards off-road ability. As an aside, Kuga used to be one of only two cars in this segment available exclusively in all-wheel drive. That leaves the Subaru Forester as the last medium SUV standing. In the mud, obviously.
You can still have the Kuga 1.5 in all-wheel drive, but it adds $3000 to the price. The two versions are otherwise identical in terms of specification, although the all-wheel drive is 50kg heavier and 0.4 litres per 100km thirstier.
The small but sprightly EcoBoost engine has plenty of power to get the front wheels spinning, but if you don’t have a practical need for the extra traction, the base Kuga is still an enjoyable car to drive. That should come as no surprise, given that Ford has considerable talent for creating driver-focused front-drive family cars.
The Kuga has quite a stylish dashboard shape, but there are two time-warp factors to deal with.
The first is the tiny information screen which, at 3.5 inches in diameter, is much smaller than your average cellphone — not to mention much further away, given that it’s mounted right under the windscreen.
It’s the setup that goes with Ford’s Sync1 voice control system and it was suitably advanced in 2012, but next to the Sync2 systems in newer models, with their improved voice control, colour displays and touch technology, it’s like a museum exhibit.
The second issue is the switchgear layout on the centre console — another past innovation from Ford that’s run out of time. The elaborate keypad and symmetrical design were used on Fiesta and Kuga, and were supposed to pay homage to the button layout of Nokia cellphones — you know, the coming age of the connected car and all that. That was all very well in 2009 (when Fiesta was launched), but when was the last time you saw a cellphone with physical buttons? In 2015 this layout looks retro-kitsch.
Overcome the back-to-the-future ergonomics and the Kuga’s cabin is comfortable and practical. As is so often the case, the entry-level model’s simple cloth seats are more comfortable and supportive than the leather-clad chairs in the flagship Titanium model. The driving position is SUV-high and the cargo space is easily accessible thanks to a low loading lip. The 60/40-split rear seats have squabs that kneel down as you fold the seat back; you don’t get a completely flat load-through, but spring-loaded flaps cover the gap between cargo floor and seatback to make it easier to slide large items through.
The entry-level Kuga is a hugely appealing proposition for a variety of reasons. There is cause to consider shopping further up the range: it’s a big jump to the $44,990 Trend, but you get equipment such as self-parking, adaptive cruise control, automatic high-beam headlights, autonomous braking at city speeds, blind-spot warning and even a slightly larger (4.2in) screen.
Ford Kuga has a smaller engine to match some countries’ tax laws.
But New Zealand Kuga models from Trend upwards come with 2-litre EcoBoost or turbo-diesel engines and with all-wheel drive. You get more power and performance for sure, but neither are quite as sweet as this little 1.5-litre. Little wonder that the Kuga 1.5 is also available in top Titanium specification in Europe.
FORD KUGA AMBIENTE 1.5
|ENGINE:||1.5-litre turbo-diesel four, 134kW/240Nm, six-speed automatic transmission, front-drive, Combined economy 7.0 litres per 100km.|
|PROS:||By far the best engine in the Kuga range, practical family package, more choice with front-drive option.|
Build quality merely average, hopelessly old-fashioned centre-console switchgear and screen.