(Almost) Better In Every Way: Ford Kuga First Drive

In a design studio, amongst designers, not all projects are equal, and it’s easy to imagine that designing SUVs generates fewer beating hearts than perhaps an exciting new two-door coupé does.  SUVs, nevertheless, are big business in a crowded market, and with increasingly image-conscious buyers demanding more and more technologically as well, things are starting to get savage. Ford is wading in (but presumably not too deep) with the revamped Kuga.

DRG is sharp, but overall the Kuga isn't as resolved as its predeccessor

The new Ford Kuga is a very safe car. Winning five stars in Euro NCAP ratings it leads its class for overall protection, offering the highest ever score for a mid-sized SUV. Sadly though, 'safe' also describes rather too well the new car's styling. In 2008 it marked Ford's entry into the compact SUV niche, and after being well received at launch it went on to sell over 300,000 units in its four-and-a-half year run. In its successor, Ford have reinterpreted the original, attempted to address its few faults and added a plethora of technology, yet sharpened the price, at least towards the lower end of the range.

The aesthetic of the new Kuga, however, is limited by two significant factors. Firstly it’s designed under the One Ford global car policy requiring it to appeal to over 100 markets (particularly America and China) with widely differing tastes and requirements. It’s a nice idea - allowing consistency and order - but consequently the look, once characteristic and appealing to European tastes has been diluted for mass appeal and acceptance. Secondly, in answer to criticism of the first model's limited boot space, the length of the car has been increased by a full 81mm giving it a larger and less dynamic stance, particularly regarding the increased rear overhang. Put simply, it looks uncomfortably long.

New Kuga carries a lot of length, and shares the 'spaceship' rear lights with the Focus

The design brief was to be more sporty, elegant and premium than the original. It appears more wedged than its predecessor and has more pronounced haunches leading into the front and rear lamps. The bone line running below the belt line is also more pronounced that before, too. Furthermore, the doors are more sculpted, to give the impression of solidity and the plastic protective trim along the base of the car has increased marginally in height across the door area, giving a hint more ‘rugged’.  Noticeably, the front of the car is also clearly a Focus-esque evolution of the original, in line with the One Ford philosophy. The lower fog light areas have been increased to form a trapezoid in conjunction with the lower grille and the indicators and running lights have been moved down to join the fog lights, reducing the headlight area accordingly. The vertical lines either side of the grille flow up along the sculpted bonnet and into the a-pillars. At the rear the lights are significantly stretched, edging half way along the rear wings, again very similarly to the Focus Estate. They are strongly chamfered and taller than the originals. Both bumpers have more plastic protection for light impacts. Although there's nothing wrong with the design it simply fails to excite, and it's certainly lost something, at least with regard to European sensibilities, in the homogenisation. In fact, the Kuga rather resembles the abovementioned Focus, but on stilts.

Back on the tarmac outside Valencia airport, and on stepping inside the car, one immediately notices the well-appointed cabin, with rear legroom and load space both increased. Anyone having driven a current Focus may well get a strong sense of déjà vu as the instruments bear a striking similarity, but this is no bad thing. The dashboard is logical and well-conceived apart from the inconveniently small satnav screen, set a little too deep in the distance of the dash. There’s no touch-screen control either, and the software is poor and unclear compared to competitors. An unexpected detour the wrong way round a Spanish is rather entertaining, but the same scenario in London would likely be somewhat less forgiving.

It's getting almost impossible to tell one model's interior from another

As you might expect, the car holds the road extremely well, although on some bends it can pitch laterally quite uncomfortably. The 2-litre Duratorq TDCi engine is extremely harsh when pushed and it's not a pleasant noise. Reaching the factory in Valencia we are briefed on the car, including some of the lengths Ford has gone to in reducing cabin noise – thicker glass, contoured deflectors by the mirrors and a net which rises when the ‘panoramic’ sunroof is open. Sadly these haven't been entirely successful, although conversation in the cabin is always easy, at least when the satnav isn't incessantly interrupting. The 'mute' button comes in very handy. Both manual and automatic gearboxes are excellent with the changes on the auto imperceptibly smooth.

The car’s much touted unique selling point is the keyless hands-free tailgate. With sensors in the rear bumper and below the car, waving your foot under the bumper causes the tailgate to open and close. It's a well devised system although it takes a little practise to avoid looking like an idiot. The overall equipment spec of the car is incredibly high, including SYNC connectivity with automatic emergency assistance, lane guidance warning and correction, blind spot warning, active intelligent four-wheel-drive with torque vectoring, curve control, park assist, auto main beam, active cruise control, voice control and active city stop.

Ford's factories have the capability to build more than one model on the same production line

Tuesday morning comprises another breathtaking drive through the countryside and mountains inland of Valencia. We stop for coffee in a café perched on the hills of Dos Aguas. Across the valley we can make out the 'off road' course in the distance, where we soon find ourselves after coffee and copious food. The Kuga is no Range Rover, nor is it intended to be. The course along a rutted cliff-side track pushes it to its slightly inconsiderable limits but nevertheless proves a point, it can be driven off-road. And it's enormous fun. The four wheel drive torque distribution display demonstrates visually the power fed to each wheel and confirms the intelligence of the system.

In terms of technological ability, safety, weight, economy, load space, refinement, handling, performance, quality, even cost, indeed nearly all of the primary factors of objective consideration in buying a new car, the Kuga has progressed significantly. But in terms of design – of subjectivity, of preference, indeed of being human - it's taken a step back. The original was truer to Ford's kinetic philosophy with its dynamic and distinctive design. Its successor looks just as one might expect, updated in line with its sibling Focus Estate, and channelling just a hint of the Vertrek concept. But it was the unexpectedness of the original which was so appealing and set it apart. There is nothing wrong with the new Kuga, yet there's nothing exciting either. It's expected and safe, a little like an adequate meal in an adequate restaurant, for which you've paid a very fair price. It's satisfying, good value and does exactly what's required. And it's almost unfair to expect it to have been any better. But it still could have been.

Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbodiesel Power: 161PS Top Speed: 123mph 0-60mph: 9.9s Economy: 48.0mpg combined (manual) Emissions: 154g/km CO2 Price: £29,795

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