Kuga plugs-in to hybrid SUV trend
AMONG the new models that may have been overlooked during coronavirus lockdown is the latest version of Ford's Kuga family SUV.
Like its predecessor, this is fishing for customers in the same congested waters as the likes of the Seat Ateca, Volkswagen Tiguan, Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Tucson and a bunch of other competitive offerings.
The new Kuga is bigger than before, with more modern Focus-inspired styling, and arrives with improved safety, fuel economy and a commitment to offer electrified powertrains - an area in which Ford has lagged behind.
That means the plug-in hybrid powertrain is, for Ford at least, a big deal. It pairs a 2.5-litre petrol engine with an electric motor and generator that are powered by a 14.4kWh battery. It makes a total of 222bhp with a top speed of 125mph.
This provides an electric-only range of 35 miles, which seems to be what just about all of these drivetrains seem to offer. It does mean that - providing they recharge it - owners with smaller daily mileages should be able to get away with barely using the petrol engine.
If you're able to do that, then you might get close to the official fuel economy figure of 202mpg... Though that won't be realistic if you're leaning on the petrol engine.
CO2 emissions are a low 32g/km. This will please company car users, whose benefit in kind tax bill shrinks as CO2 emissions fall.
It also rather emphasises how plug-in hybrids' MPG and CO2 figues are rather flattered by the way the official efficiency test - known these days as WLTP, for 'worldwide harmonised light vehicle test procedure' - is conducted.
Away from the numbers, the Ford's plug-in powertrain is a bit uneven in daily use. At lower speeds, where the electric motor is doing most of the work, it is brilliant - smooth and silent, but with punchy response.
At motorway speeds with the petrol engine operating, the Focus is still quiet enough, and even when the engine kicks in around town, it's not too intrusive.
The Kuga is very spacious too, making it ideal for families. Rear seat passengers, big and small, will have plenty of leg room, while boot space is decent at 411 litres
However, the car is fitted with a CVT continuously variable transmission which means that anything beyond gentle acceleration can result in a lot of unappealing engine noise. The net effect is to take the shine of the Kuga's refinement.
The driving experience is also a bit hit-and-miss, which is rather unusual for a Ford.
Positives include good handling and the body control is impressive, particularly given the weight and height of the car. It's an easy car to drive as well, particularly when the electric motor is relied upon.
But against this are negatives, such as rubbery self-centring of the steering wheel as you turn, a brake pedal which offers little feedback while being very sensitive, a combination which works against smooth driving. Nor is the ride as smooth as one might hope for a family SUV.
The Kuga does display more desirable family SUV characteristics, however, including a high driving position and practicality - two of the attributes that have helped make SUVs of all sizes so popular.
It's a good looking car, but the cabin is perhaps the Kuga's strongest asset. For a start, it feels very well made.
The top-spec Vignale model is well-specified, with high-quality materials used throughout and luxury extras such as a heated steering wheel and leather-wrapped instrument panel helping to improve the overall feel.
It's very spacious too, making it ideal for families. Rear seat passengers, big and small, will have plenty of leg room, while boot space is decent at 411 litres, even if it is less spacious than non-hybrid versions.
If you're not looking to stretch to the price of a top-spec model - or just don't fancy putting premium leather at the mercy of the kids - the Kuga's interior has all the practicality and build quality you could need in a family car, regardless of trim level.
There are five trim levels available for the Kuga, rising from Zetec to Titanium, ST-Line, ST-Line X and Vignale.
You can't have the plug-in in Zetec trim, however. Prices start at £33,085 for the Titanium plug-in.
In conclusion, the Ford Kuga plug-in hybrid feels like a car that is close to being great.
Its styling is sleek and the interior is well made and spacious, and the electrified portion of its powertrain makes for a relaxing, effortless driving experience. Keep the batteries topped up and its useful electric range means running costs could be very low.
However, it's hard to get away from the fact it's a bit of a letdown from behind the wheel. The inconsistent control weights make smooth driving a chore and detract from what should be a brilliant family SUV.