BY ANDY ENRIGHT
So you like the idea of a smart SUV but don't want to put up with the bulk? That always used to mean you were faced with some rather unpalatable choices, especially if you wanted a vehicle that rode fairly well on road. Ford's Kuga did much to change that when it first appeared in 2008. Here was a sassy looking but manageably-sized thing that was well equipped, priced well and drove extremely well. No wonder it sold well. It was facelifted in 2010 and here's what to look for when shopping for a used example of one of these revised first generation models.
Ford was uncharacteristically half-hearted in its entry to the SUV market. Where its rivals had realised that British buyers would love something like a Land Rover Freelander but at lower prices, the Blue Oval didn't really commit, offering us the Maverick from 1993, basically a roughly rebadged Nissan Terrano, following it with the 4.0-litre petrol Explorer from the US and then petrol-engined second generation Maverick, itself a rebadged Mazda Tribute. So for fully fifteen years, Ford missed the boat, selling us cars that were never really designed for the European market and which always looked third rate at best compared to rivals like the Freelander, the Nissan X-Trail, the Toyota RAV4 and so on.
That changed with the introduction of the Kuga. Here was something fresh and smart. It sold well too. Maybe not as well as Ford had hoped as they were fighting from a virtual stationary point against rivals with a huge head start, but the first generation model shifted over 45,000 units in the UK until the second generation model appeared in 2013.
In order to sustain these sales, the Kuga needed to be kept relevant. By 2010, with an army of new rivals launched against it, the Kuga needed a refresh, with more powerful, fuel efficient engines needed to complement the 2WD and petrol options Ford had introduced since the original version's launch. So equipped, a car that was already pretty in tune with its times earned an extra lease of life. As the crossover market expanded, the Kuga more than held its own.
What You Get
Whichever Kuga variant you order, from the 2WD 2.0-litre TDCi 140 through 4WD models with 140 or 163PS power, plus the minority interest 2.5-litre 200PS petrol version, you should find it to be decently equipped. All come equipped with alloy wheels, air conditioning, an MP3 and iPod-compatible CD stereo, heated power door mirrors, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and front foglights. There's plenty on the options list though, including a neat 230-volt connector which enables things like laptops to be used in the back seats. Plus of course the 6-speed Powershift dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Safety-wise, there are the usual six airbags, stability control, the latest electronic braking and traction control systems and a steering wheel designed to move sideways away from the driver in a high speed frontal crash. As for the cabin, the news that this car is 6mm longer, 3mm wider and a substantial 250mm higher than a Focus might understandably lead you to expect more space than is actually on offer. Legroom in the rear is a little tight for bigger people and three adults across the back seat will be a bit of a squash, though two should be quite comfortable, provided they're not of basketball-playing height. Out back, the 360-litre boot is actually smaller than a Focus's, though it does regain an advantage when you push forward the split-folding rear seats to liberate 1355-litres of fresh air. It's certainly a very accessible space too, with a separately-opening rear screen that makes it easy to load in small items, plus under-seat storage in the second row and an under-boot floor compartment.
What to Look For
The Kuga has a clean record so far as serious problems are concerned so you can buy with relative confidence. Although Kuga interiors are well constructed, check for the usual damage wrought by children and negotiate hard. The silver-coated plastics can scratch easily, so make sure the previous owner wasn't too big on the jingle-jangle jewellery. Mechanically, the Kuga is tough but clutches can take a beating in lower-powered versions, especially if you can spot evidence of a tow bar being fitted. Front tyre wear is also an issue with the relatively weighty diesel engines.
(Estimated prices, based on a 2.0 TDCi 140 Zetec (inc VAT) A clutch assembly is around £130, an exhaust system around £800 (incl. catalytic converter) and an exchange alternator around £320. Front brake pads are around £50, front shock absorbers are about £45 and rears just under £35.
On the Road
Just after the turn of the century, after years of bringing over US-market SUVs that simply weren't suited to the more dynamic driving experience demanded by the European market, someone at Ford finally realised that a different approach was called for. What might be created, they wondered, if the platform of a Focus family hatchback were to be slightly enlarged to carry a taller, SUV-style body? Yet one still benefitting from the Focus's class-leading multi-link rear suspension and enhanced by the extra on-demand grip from Haldex clutch-controlled drive to the rear wheels. This Kuga was their answer.
Years after its introduction, rival Qashqai-class Crossover models still haven't caught up with the quality of its roadgoing experience - and RAV4 or Freelander-type soft roader compact 4x4 alternatives are way behind. The reasons why are mainly due to the excellence of this design's Focus underpinnings that contribute to standards of steering, ride and body control never before seen in this class of car. Not that it can completely cheat the laws of physics of course. The fact that it's a quarter of a tonne heavier and a quarter of a metre higher than its family hatch stablemate is clearly apparent once you start to throw the thing around - though to be fair, not until.
Still, no Focus is going to be much use on the kind of rutted, muddy farmtrack this Kuga will take in its stride thanks to its extra ground clearance and Haldex clutch-based all-wheel drive system. This normally turns the front wheels but can automatically divert up to 50% of the engine's output rearwards if lack of traction requires it. It's a process that's completely seamless - no fiddly knobs, buttons or levers to manipulate - and offers welcome peace of mind on the wet or icy mornings that characterise this car's preferred tarmac habitat. You shouldn't, after all, be fooled by the front skidplate and tall SUV stance: this is no serious off roader.
Tarmac types made it pretty clear to Ford that they were looking for more performance than the original 134bhp TDCi diesel variants were able to offer. The Blue Oval's response was initially a little half-hearted: a 200PS 2.5-litre petrol version that almost no one in the target market could afford to run and a 2WD variant that shed a bit of weight but lost a lot of the peace of mind capability that created Kuga customers in the first place. Mid-2010 though, saw a package of engine revisions much better suited to customer needs. Mainstream models got a cleaner, pokier 140PS version of the 2.0 TDCi diesel engine, with a 163PS derivative of the same unit now also added to enable Ford to take on the fastest of its rivals, with sixty from rest possible in 9.3s on the way to 121mph. Both units are offered with the option of Ford's clever 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, one of those hi-tech systems that engages the next gear before you've even left the last one for smooth, seamless progress.
This generation Ford Kuga might have been replaced in 2013, but you only have to look at the latest version to see why Ford's designers were so keen to keep the look and feel of its predecessor. This 2010-2013 model makes a great used buy. Yes, it's not without its faults. Ground clearance is limited if you want to go off road and there are many larger rivals for less money, but as long as you don't plan on serious mud-plugging or need loads of leg room in the back, the Kuga barely puts a foot wrong and its reliability record speaks for itself. For the price of a modern supermini, you can get yourself behind the wheel of a low mileage SUV that will look smart for years to come. Some decisions really aren't that tough, are they?