The Kuga make not make a scratch on the SUV segment.
Ford could be throwing its belated Euro soft roader into the lions' den. Yes, you can add another vehicle into the overcrowded SUV segment; one that hit double figures in 2010, and now represents 12 percent of vehicle sales.
But while the segment soars, Ford Australia is playing catch-up. While the company has enjoyed a diesel-led resurgence of its large Territory, its compact entry for the past 11 years has been the Escape.
As the name suggests, many of us cannot get away fast enough from this US-market-driven, old-school softie. The Escape dates back to 2001, and when it finally surfaced after lengthy delays, the Subaru Forester, Toyota Rav4, and Honda CR-V already had a stranglehold.
History has repeated with the Kuga; the German-built Escape replacement debuted globally in 2008. Four long years later, we finally get 200 cars a month with a turbo five-cylinder petrol, auto transmission and two trim choices.
So long has been the wait that the updated Kuga -based on the current Focus platform rather than the superseded one, with more tech, and most likely a 2.0-litre diesel donk - will be here next year.
There's no base model per se; the Kuga comes only in mid-spec Trend and top-shelf Titanium, keeping with Ford's notions of the Kuga representing a high-end alternative and ensuring the resale value of the late-gen imports remains stable. The Escape is kept alive for now as an entry level car.
The Trend starts at $38,990, which includes 17-inch wheels, fog lights, roof rails, dual chrome-tipped exhaust, keyless start, cruise, a decent eight-speaker stereo with Bluetooth and voice activation, and five-star safety.
Step up six grand, and the $44,990 Titanium model adds a panoramic glass roof, 18-inch wheels, leather trim, heated front seats, power adjustment on the drivers seat, auto headlights and wipers, and dual-zone air-con.
Herein lies the biggest dilemma for the Kuga. In 2008, it would have been right up there. Now VW's Tiguan and Subaru's XV hold the cards in the world of tech warcraft. There's nothing new about the inline five-pot powerplant; the five-speed automatic tranny with a sports shifter is mildly dimwitted next to the likes of the Tiguan's DSG, and the Haldex on-demand system is nothing special.
The rear of the car is held up by an independent control blade suspension; the rear bumper coming short of covering it up, as if to give traffic behind a peep up its skirt at this inclusion, and it works well with the excellent handling characteristics.
However, it misses out on Ford's patented EPAS parallel-park-for-dummies system that automatically parks the car for you. The US Kuga, which has kept the Escape nameplate, has this feature, so we may get it. But not yet.
More than a big bloated Focus, the Kuga's design manages to avoid the crossover car-on-stilts typecast with low skirting, a big glasshouse and wedge-like roof and shoulder line. Its quite a tall car, but big alloys fill the arches, while a nifty split tailgate with a flat-loading cargo floor and covering net make it easy to access.
Rear legroom is tight, however, and the high sill line will impede the view of kids. But that isn't this empty nester/young active couples target demographic. Tow capacity, which is strangely set at 750kg whether braked or unbraked, is poor. And a space saver underfloor is the only spare, which is simply not good enough on an SUV in this country.
The Kuga has already been crashed into a few barriers at the ANCAP facility, and earned a five star rating for its intelligent protection system or cabin capsule, front, side and curtain airbags, ABS, EBD, BA, and traction and stability control (DSC) with Anti Rollover Mitigation, which will brake the front wheels and cut the engine if the balance starts to skew in the roof's favour.
High expectations come with a long-anticipated car, particularly one based on the superbly set-up Focus. The Focus XR5's rorty little turbo five is detuned to produce 147 kW at 6000rpm in the Kuga, but gets the same 320NM from 1600rpm - 4000rpm to get its 1653kg bulk away with good push. Its lovely power steering cops rough-road kickback, but remains pointy and progressive.
The ride is supple, despite the New Zealand-specced cars we tested on the hilly roads north of Auckland being fitted with larger 19-inch rims and thinner rubber, where we get 17s and 18s (our cars will have a softer ride and absorb some of the test cars' front-end reaction to uneven surfaces; corner entry will be less crisp).
It sits low which also aids handing -- though the ride height of 188mm is far below the 220mm legs of its SUV brethren. The AWD system got a short workout on gravel, running 90:10 in favour of the front wheels but progressing to a 50:50 split without noticeable hesitation.
However, it was felt through a fog of active driver aids - the stability control is deactivated through the setup menu; and a task to turn off. It's a good steer with a quality feel; as good as the top runners in the class. But it doesn't set a new benchmark.
A taste of things to come, but ultimately leaves the plate empty and the stomach half full. Bring on the 2013 Kuga.
Price: from $38,990-$44,990
Warranty: 3 year/100,000km
Service interval: 12 months/15,000km
Engine: 2.5-litre 5-cyl turbo petrol, 147kW/320Nm
Body: five-door, five-seat
Dimensions: 4443mm (L), 1842 (W), 1710mm (H), 2690mm (WB)
Transmission: 5-speed auto, AWD
Thirst: 10.6L/100km, 244g/km CO2.