Ford hasn't had a great track record with 4x4s in the UK but the Kuga looks set to change that.
In giving up trying to sell us a conventional 4x4 and instead concentrating on a niche crossover vehicle, Ford might just have hit on something..
Brilliantly styled, smartly finished and powered by one of the better diesel engines in its class, the Ford Kuga is undoubtedly one of this year's must-have cars. With car-like driving dynamics allied to the all-weather security of four-wheel drive, it's tightly priced and is creating quite a buzz.
For a company that has counted on sports utility vehicles for such a huge proportion of its global earnings, Ford has had a surprisingly patchy track record with the things in the UK. Where other manufacturers have rapidly jumped on the 4x4 bandwagon and made some fairly decent coin, Ford has tried half heartedly with a succession of Mavericks none of which were ever that appetising. Now it appears to be trying a different tack.
Rather than convince the British public that they need a big, butch wagon slathered in chrome, Ford has instead unleashed the Kuga, a so-called crossover vehicle that attempts to meld the best bits of 4x4 ownership with none of the antisocially obese excess. With taut, chunky styling and an economical turbodiesel engine, it's one of the few 4x4s that won't have you mumbling an apologetic justification when people ask what you drive.
4x4s tend to polarise opinion. Either they're so ridiculously macho that you feel the need to start chewing tobacco and killing your own food in order to drive them or they're so self-consciously suburban that you'll look like a harassed school run mum - neither is a good look and a significant number of people despise them. The Kuga is different. For a start it's manageably sized which means that the urban driving experience is a pleasant one.
Powered by a 2.0-litre Duratorq TDCi 136PS diesel engine with standard particulate filter and a six-speed manual transmission, the Kuga comes with a full-time Haldex intelligent AWD system. The engine provides 320Nm of torque at 2,000rpm and 340Nm should you really put your foot down and need what Ford calls 'transient overboost'.
Show the Kuga a straight, well-surfaced road and it serves up a good standard of ride comfort and refinement. The ride is reasonably firm and that helps the Kuga resist body roll when cornered vigorously, plus it's also less liable to become unsettled over bumps in the road. The accurate steering makes it easier to position the car too.
Outside, the detailing is exquisite, Ford hitting just the right tone between sporting aggression and nuggety cuteness. The interior isn't quite as successful as the exterior. For a start it's surprisingly small, the Kuga being one of those increasingly rare cars that doesn't pull all manner of packaging tricks out of its hat. Space in the back is tight for anything other than kids and drivers who are long in the body will find headroom an issue when getting in and out. Of course, this high seating position will be a huge bonus for ladies and shorter guys, but those with short legs will find that they'll need to shift their seat forward to such an extent that the heavily raked windscreen starts getting very close. The centre console appears to have been lifted from the C-MAX but a few more of that car's practical touches wouldn't have gone amiss, especially for rear seat passengers.
The second row of seating has a 60/40 split and can fold completely flat to maximise the load space. Underseat storage beneath the second row with further storage under the floor of the luggage compartment area offers maximum practicality. The Kuga has a generous luggage capacity of 1,355 litres when in two-seat mode, while the enclosed luggage compartment achieves a volume of up to 410 litres.
The 2.0 TDCi engine is a very good unit and suits the urban nature of the Kuga very well. Two trim levels are offered. The first step is Zetec which comes with keyless start, 17-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, ESP stability control, anti lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and an MP3 connector to plug into your iPod. For all of this you'll be expected to hand over 20,495. If you're feeling a little more flush, 22,495 nets you the Titanium model which gets part leather trim, rain sensing wipers, automatic headlights, cruise control, blue tinted glass and dual climate control.
Other options include a rear facing camera which is useful due to the rather poor rear visibility caused by the Kuga's high rear end, a panoramic roof, a USB connector and a DAB radio. The pricing of the Kuga is interesting. On the face of it, the 22,790 Citron would charge for the bigger, quicker, and more versatile C-Crosser 2.2HDi would seem a much smarter buy but the Kuga is aiming at a different sector of the market. It targets less determinedly price conscious buyers who are after a car that doesn't play by the normal compact 4x4 rules.
Overall cost of ownership is a tough thing to tie down, due in no small part to the vagaries of fashion. Should the Kuga retain its desirability, then residual values will remain strong and ongoing running costs should be reasonable. That doesn't always happen. Remember when the Chrysler Crossfire or the 'new' Beetle were hot tickets? That didn't last for too long, but the Audi TT and the MINI have retained their appeal. It'll be interesting to see how the Kuga fares in that regard. Fuel economy shouldn't keep prospective owners awake at night, the 2.0TDCI engine returning a healthy 44.1mpg and carbon dioxide emissions are a similarly benign 169g/km.
Even around town, the Kuga will see 34.9mpg and the quoted extra urban, or open road, fuel economy is 52.3mpg. Of course, this figure is helped by some slippery aerodynamics and a tall sixth gear on the Getrag Durashift gearbox.
In giving up trying to sell us a conventional 4x4 and instead concentrating on a niche crossover vehicle, Ford might just have hit on something. The Kuga looks great, it'll hopefully persuade a few 4x4 drivers to downsize into something more suited to their requirements and in equipping it solely with a 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine, Ford has made a powerful statement regarding the environmental credentials of this sort of vehicle.
Much will depend on how long the Kuga remains trendy for. It certainly created a huge buzz when the wraps came off that first Electric White prototype at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show and the production-ready version has been kept refreshingly similar, at least in terms of exterior styling. Perhaps the Kuga's most impressive achievement is that it's a four-wheel drive car that targets an urban clientele but which it's virtually impossible to take exception to. That'll be more than enough justification for a very respectable swathe of customers.