Ford Kuga: All-rounder wins popular appeal
Ford's Kuga SUV is one of Northern Ireland's most popular new cars. William Scholes finds out why
AS we routinely report on these pages, car buyers cannot get enough of the new wave of SUVs and crossovers flooding out of showrooms, writes William Scholes.
Around 30 per cent of new cars registered in Europe now fall into this category.
More family-friendly comfort-tuned soft-roaders than hard-core mud-plugging off-roaders, their blend of raised driving position, practicality, ease of driving and affordable running costs have made them a big hit with punters, who are deserting big hatchbacks and saloons in their droves.
One of the most popular of the genre is the Ford Kuga, a nameplate which has been with us since 2008.
The Kuga is pretty much a fixture in the top 10 best-sellers in Northern Ireland each month.
Around 1,000 have been registered so far in 2017, numbers which mean it is our second most popular SUV.
A facelift last year moved the Kuga even more towards Americana, so that it now looks like a diet plan's 'after' picture to the 'before' image of its bigger, heavier brother, the Edge. The test car was painted a shade of orange, and was christened Donald Trump
It trails only the Hyundai Tucson - whose popularity is such that it is regularly number one in the sales charts - and outstrips models like the Nissan Qashqai, Kia Sportage, Vauxhall Mokka X and Volkswagen Tiguan.
More than most manufacturers, Ford has its corporate finger on the pulse of what its customers want.
The Fiesta, for example, has consistently been the UK's best-seller for years and the Focus, despite being some way short of best-in-class, remains a potent sales weapon.
Similarly, the Kuga perfectly ticks the boxes on the check-lists of most SUV buyers in 2017.
It looks suitably chunky and tough, though is not so big that car parks and tight manoeuvres are intimidating, and can be had with a wide range of engines, gearboxes and a choice of front- and four-wheel-drive.
The Kuga is also generally well-priced - if you avoid the range-topping versions - and can be loaded with all sorts of crowd-pleasing infotainment, convenience and safety kit.
The Ford, then, is your classic all-rounder - good at everything, though perhaps not excellent at any one thing; then again, perhaps that very roundedness is its own sort of excellence.
The original Kuga was quite a Trans-Atlantic looking machine, and when the new version reached these shores in 2013 - a little longer and bigger than before, and still sharing lots of Focus oily parts - it looked even more American.
The Kuga is your classic all-rounder - good at everything, though perhaps not excellent at any one thing; then again, perhaps that very roundedness is its own sort of excellence
This can be largely ascribed to what its maker calls its 'One Ford' policy. This was a sensible money-saving response to the credit crunch which threatened the survival of the American car industry.
Rather than build one SUV for North American buyers and a different one for Europeans, and perhaps another one for Asian or South American markets, the same SUV would be designed to be sold in all those markets.
This helps explain the gradual American-isation of Ford's model range. In the Kuga's case, European engineers looked after the engines, chassis and frame of the car while their American colleagues designed the bodywork and interior.
In America, what we call the Kuga is known as the Escape, and true to the One Ford philosophy the same car is assembled for its relevant markets in Russia, the United States and China. Kugas on sale in Northern Ireland are built in Spain.
A facelift last year moved the Kuga even more towards Americana, so that it now looks like a diet plan's 'after' picture to the 'before' image of its bigger, heavier brother, the Edge.
The test car was painted a shade of orange, and in honour of its United States lineage we christened it Donald Trump.
Trump was in sporty-themed 'ST-Line' trim and packed a zippy 2.0-litre diesel engine with 178bhp and a 'powershift' automatic gearbox with all-wheel-drive.
A Kuga ST-Line starts at £55 less than £27,000 for a front-wheel-drive model with a 148bhp 1.5-litre petrol engine.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, weighed in at a hefty £34k, including £1,735 of options.
You're probably thinking that this is quite a lot of money, as did I, but further consultation of Ford's price lists revealed that it is possible to spend even more.
The Kuga perfectly ticks the boxes on the check-lists of most SUV buyers in 2017
'Titanium X' - a name which sounds like it should belong to a men's razor - prices kick off at £27,995 and an 'ST-Line X' can be yours from £28,945.
Above even those is the posh Vignale version, which starts at £31,045. Put the 180PS diesel, auto gearbox and four-wheel-drive system into it and you've got a £35k car, before options.
This is what I meant when I noted earlier that the Kuga is "generally well-priced". In my view, once into the high-£20ks and into the £30ks, better alternatives begin to present themselves - Mazda CX-5 and Land Rover Discovery Sport, to name two.
The upper reaches of the Kuga range also tread heavily on the toes of the larger Edge, which is bigger in all departments and comes with added Trumpness.
Stick with an entry-level Zetec, next-one-up Titanium or - if you must have the sporty embellishments - the ST-Line, and the Kuga makes more sense price-wise, especially against the keen competition it faces from the Tucson, Sportage, Kadjar, Skoda Kodiaq et al.
Whichever version you opt for, you get a smooth-driving, easy-going family SUV; others may have bigger back seats or boots, but the Kuga has a balance of exterior size and interior space that will likely satisfy the majority of customers.
The 178bhp diesel engine and automatic gearbox combo made Donald Trump pleasingly nippy, but I can imagine that one of the 1.5-litre petrol or diesel units with front-wheel-drive would be more than adequate for most.
Major niggles are few. Elements of the dashboard layout grate; though improved over earlier Fords, the company still prefers to festoon its cars with more buttons and switches than seems necessary and the infotainment system is far from intuitive.
It feels a well built car, but the quality of some of the plastics in the cabin is shy of what one would expect in a car costing more than £30k, or what, say, Volkswagen and its satellites serve up in their Kuga rivals.
Describing the Kuga as an all-rounder might sound like damning it with faint praise, but it is hard to sum it up otherwise.
There are better looking, quicker, more fun to drive, cheaper and roomier alternatives, but they don't necessarily cover all the bases as well as the Kuga.
AT A GLANCE
Ford Kuga 2.0 TDCi ST Line 180PS AWD PowerShift
Price: £32,295. As tested £34,030. Options included driver assist pack £550, metallic paint £685, upgraded satnav £500
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, six-speed double-clutch automatic, four-wheel-drive; 178bhp, 295lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 124mph, 0-62mph in 10.0 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 57.6mpg (combined), 34.5mpg (real world), 134g/km
Car tax: £200 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 28 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (94/86/70/100), 2012