Tackling the rough stuff with the Ford Kuga
The Ford Kuga has been with us for some time now, but in a segment that is flooded with worthy competitors, Ford's mid-size SUV had all but dropped off the radar. But we've always suspected that the Kuga is a pretty capable machine - after all, the Blue Oval should have learnt something from its years of owning Land Rover.
With the 2013 facelift and the recently-announced, top-spec Titanium X Sport trim level, it truly did seem that the Kuga could finally be a match for the luxurious yet rugged Freelander. We took Ford's 4x4 for a spin on the challenging off-road course at Bedfordshire's Milbrook proving ground to put our theory to the test.
In theory, the Kuga shouldn't be a particularly brilliant off-roader. The ground clearance is a far-from-remarkable 195mm, compared to the Freelander's more impressive 210mm and the Kuga also lags when it comes to approach and departure angles. A 27.7-degree departure angle is respectable, but the 21.5-degree approach angle leaves the Ford a long way behind the Freelander’s 34- and 31-degree angles. The Freelander also leads on ramp break over angle, with the Kuga’s ability to traverse 17.2-degree peaks paling next to the Freelander’s 23 degrees of capability.
On the plus side, Kugas specified with all-wheel drive (it's only available on Titanium models and above) get an electronically-controlled drivetrain, which feeds the power to the wheels with the most grip, as opposed to a conventional, permanent 50/50 front/rear split. Purists might say that's just something to go wrong, but, in theory, it should provide more grip on slippery surfaces, as well as reducing on-road emissions and fuel consumption.
Also to the Kuga's advantage is the 2.0-litre diesel engine, which comes as standard in top-spec Titanium X models and produces not only 163hp, but more importantly, 340Nm of torque at just 1,600rpm. The outright figure can’t match the 2.2-litre Freelander’s 418Nm, but it comes in at lower engine revs.
As well as having promising vital stats for mud-plugging, the engine also has good environmental credentials, emitting 154g/km of CO2 and returning as much as 47.9mpg.
Spouting all the numbers is great, but great 4x4s do not build their reputation on paper, rather on steep, muddy inclines and flooded farm tracks.
Happily, the Kuga is even more accomplished when the going gets tough than it is in the battle of headline figures.
The steep approach and departure angles make the Kuga relatively stress-free over the bigger lumps and bumps, which is handy because the Ford's underbody protection is lightweight at best. The lack of armour is only really a problem over big boulders and rutted tracks, where 'loud' noises can all-too-easily become 'loud and expensive' noises.
This aside, the Kuga will cope with pretty much anything most off-road scenarios will throw at it. The low first gear and bags of low-down grunt go some way to making up for the lack of a low-range 'box. As a result, despite the road tyres, ascending steep, muddy inclines isn't an issue, provided the driver has a modicum of off-roading nous. Changing up to second halfway up would be a recipe for disaster.
That said, the low-range transmission is still sorely missed going down the steeper gradients. A hill descent system would help to a degree, but it isn’t fitted so the car pushes on, tempting the driver into a fatal lunge for the brakes.
In general, though, the Kuga is a competent 4x4. The trick all-wheel drive system keeps wheelspin to an absolute minimum and the low-down torque keeps means the driver needn’t be too liberal with his or her right foot.
Fords are famous for their great gearboxes and the six-speed manual in the Kuga is no exception. Not only is it slick-shifting, but the clutch is precise without being heavy, allowing easy speed control when wading.
Of course, most Kugas won’t be used in as much as a field, but in Titanium X Sport trim, the Kuga is even more competitive as a road car. Leather is standard and the spec sheet is generous, providing customers with 19in alloys, digital radio, parking sensors with a reversing camera, a panoramic sunroof and automatic lights and wipers. The only real downside is a busy and shiny dashboard, but that is common to all Fords at present.
On the road, the Kuga takes the driving dynamics that spice up all Ford products and applies them to the SUV segment. OK, it rolls, but it’s a 1.75m-tall car so that’s no surprise. Nobody expects it to win any Grands Prix. It is, however, refined and the diesel engine which is so proficient off-road is equally adept on the tarmac, providing a punchy power delivery and a relaxed motorway cruise.
With a maximum braked towing weight of 2.1 tonnes, the Kuga is also a slightly more capable tow car than the Freelander and competitors like the Volkswagen Tiguan and Toyota RAV4, which can’t legally tow anything over two tonnes.
The Kuga isn’t a proper off-roader, but then Ford doesn’t pretend it is - there’s no official wading depth and the car isn’t marketed on the strength of its off-road prowess.
So green-laning enthusiasts should steer well clear, but if all that’s needed is a family bus with the ability to traverse waterlogged gymkhana car parks or tow a caravan across a muddy campsite, then the Kuga is definitely worth considering.
Ford Kuga at a glance
Width: 1838mm (excl. mirrors)
Height: 1744mm (inc. roof bars)
Boot space: 456/1653 litres
Engines: 2.0 Duratorq diesel 140hp; 2.0 Duratorq diesel 163hp; 1.6 EcoBoost petrol 150hp
Fastest: 1.6 EcoBoost FWD (9.7s, 121mph)
Trims: Zetec, Titanium, Titanium X, Titanium X Sport
Cheapest: Zetec 1.6 EcoBoost FWD - £21,000
Priciest: Titanium X Sport 2.0 163 AWD Power Shift - £33,250
Most fuel efficient: 2.0 Duratorq 140 FWD – 53.3mpg, 139g/km CO2 – £22,400
Rivals: Land Rover Freelander 2, Volkswagen Tiguan
On sale: Now