Ford's Kuga is one of Northern Ireland's favourite cars. With a new version of the family SUV due later this year, William Scholes finds out if the current car still measures up
THE continued success of Ford’s Kuga in the upper reaches of the sales charts is perhaps more of a reflection of just how strongly the rising tide of SUV demand is lifting all comers than it is of any particular superiority on its part.
According to registration figures from industry body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the Kuga was the single most popular model in Northern Ireland during last month.
It pipped the Hyundai Tucson - another family SUV fixture at the top of the tables - to number one, and left other, fresher, rivals such as the Nissan Qashqai, Volkswagen Tiguan and Kia Sportage trailing in its wake.
It’s a similar picture in the year-to-date figures. SMMT data shows that the Kuga is the third most popular new car of 2019 in Northern Ireland - a highly respectable performance considering the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Fiesta are in first and second place respectively.
Nor is Northern Ireland an outlier when it comes to the Kuga’s popularity - it is firmly ensconced in the overall UK top 10.
This should perhaps give other contenders in the white hot heat of competition in the family SUV market cause for concern because, compared to its key rivals, the Kuga isn’t especially, well, good.
And if Ford can sell heaps of a not-very-good Kuga, how well will it do when a brand new, up-to-date version arrives later this year?
Perhaps the example of the Kuga I drove most recently didn’t show the car at its best.
First, it was not only expensive, but very expensive (see At a Glance panel). It did not feel like a car that should carry a mid-£30k price tag.
And while it may be possible to negotiate a better price with your friendly Ford dealer and arrive at competitive monthly payments, ‘my’ Kuga’s second problem - atrocious fuel economy - can’t be so easily addressed.
The Kuga is offered with Ford’s sweet 1.5-litre four-cylinder ‘EcoBoost’ turbo engine in three different power outputs - 118bhp, 148bhp and 174bhp.
Diesel duties are catered for by a 1.5-litre with 118bhp. Ford offers that same power output from a 2.0-litre diesel, which is also available in 148bhp and 178bhp guises.
These engines can be variously combined with front-wheel-drive, four-wheel-drive and six-speed manual and automatic gearboxes.
There are no hybrid versions, though that will change when the new Kuga arrives.
Though it earned me lots of Nectar points, the test car arrived in a financially ruinous blend of the most powerful petrol engine with four-wheel-drive and an automatic gearbox.
Low- to mid-20s mpg is baffling for a family car of modest performance. I have driven more frugal V8 sports cars. At least in one of those, you have the satisfaction of driving something that’s fun while you watch the fuel needle swing towards ‘empty’.
The CO2 emissions are very high, too, and put the Kuga firmly in the maximum 37 per cent benefit in kind tax bracket.
Though perfectly competent, ‘fun’ is not the first word that comes to mind when describing the Kuga driving experience.
This is a little disappointing, not least because Ford knows how to make a car entertain - the Fiesta and Focus are among the very best to drive models in their respective classes.
The Kuga’s interior also feels off the pace. The centre of the dashboard protrudes in an odd way and the haphazard and inconsistent layout of the infotainment, heating and other systems looks like the aftermath of an explosion in a button factory.
Similar criticisms could have been levelled at previous Fiesta and Focus models, but the new versions of those cars are exemplars in how to meet modern customer expectations in connectivity and slickness.
Passenger space is tighter than you will find in something like a Honda CR-V, particularly in the rear.
Ford offers a typically wide range of trims for the Kuga and while decently equipped, there are some unusual omissions in standard kit.
For example, the nudging-the-top-of-the-range ST-Line Edition I tested made do with halogen headlamps, when xenon and LED lamps are prevalent.
The current Kuga, though overhauled several times, has been around since 2012. That’s a reasonably long time in car years and helps explain why it feels a bit, well, average in today’s market.
That feeling is amplified by the fact that rocketing demand for SUVs has seen a flood of new cars enter the family market, leading to particularly intense competition.
That means there are many alternatives to the Kuga - Hyundai Tucson, Renault Kadjar, Honda CR-V, Skoda’s Kodiaq and Karoq, Peugeot’s 3008 and 5008, Mazda CX-5 and Volkswagen Tiguan, to name but a few.
That the current Kuga remains such a strong sales performer is testament, in large part, to the strength of the Ford dealer network and the loyalty the brand inspires.
Kuga models other than that which I tested may be better value and cheaper to buy, and it is possible that there will be attractive offers in showrooms as the current car runs out.
Such a deal may be sufficient to persuade you to overlook the Kuga’s relative shortcomings. A better course of action, however, might be to wait for the all-new Kuga later this year. It should improve on the current car in every way - and may be even more dominant in the sales charts.
AT A GLANCE
Ford Kuga 1.5 EcoBoost Automatic ST-Line Edition
Price: £35,125. As tested £38,050, with ruby red ‘exclusive’ paintwork £850, 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat £325, heated steering wheel £125, driver assistance pack with active city stop, lane-keeping aid, traffic sign recognition, driver alert, auto high beam and blind spot warning £1,075, upgraded Sync 3 infotainment and navigation system £550
Engine and transmission: 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo, six-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel-drive; 174bhp, 177lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 122mph, 0-62mph in 11.4 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 28.5mpg-29.1mpg (WLTP average), 23.5mpg ‘real world’, 205g/km
Car tax: £1,280 in first year, then £145 annually
Benefit in kind: 37 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (94/86/70/100), 2012