With large passenger car sales plummeting Ford Australia's decision to begin importing its Kuga mid-sized SUV makes sense. Family buyers in particular were switching in droves to the functionality of SUVs and Ford's ageing Escape wasn't keeping up with its growing number of competitors.

The latest generation Kuga has been imported since April 2013. Although it still lags on the medium SUV sales chart, Ford Australia is confident it will climb the sales ladder. This is a highly competitive market, and after spending a week in a new Kuga we agree that it seems to have what it takes.

STYLING

We've long admired the neat and clean appearance of Ford Territory and that look is carried over to the front of the Kuga. In profile and at the rear there's a bit more flair in line with its younger target audience.

Inside the styling is bold, with large sporty looking dials and a centre stack that protrudes towards the occupants for ease of use. Interior space is noticeably better than the previous Kuga with reasonable rear seat legroom and a slightly larger cargo area. The rear seat backs also recline up to 10-degrees for increased comfort.

PRICE / FEATURES

As is the norm with most contemporary SUVs the second generation Kuga comes with the option of either two or four-wheel drive. There are three equipment levels: in ascending order, Ambiente, Trend and Titanium -- ranging in price from $27,990 to $47,740 excluding on-road costs.

Standard features across the Kuga range include push-button start/stop, cruise control with speed limiter, 3.5-inch mono TFT screen, leather wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel mounted audio and cruise controls, and front and rear foglights.

The mid-specced Trend adds 18-inch alloy wheels, satellite navigation, 5-inch colour TFT screen, leather inserts and bolsters, heated front seats, interior ambient lighting with multi-colour choices, tables on front seatbacks and active park assist for one-touch parallel parking.

The flagship Kuga Titanium gains 19-inch alloy wheels, panoramic glass roof, bi-xenon headlights with automatic levelling and LED daytime running lights front and rear. But its star turn is the hands-free tailgate which opens and closes when a light kicking motion is made under the centre of the rear bumper. Naturally it only works when the owner has the car's key fob on their person.

ENGINES / TRANSMISSIONS

There are three engine options. Two are 1.6-litre petrol units, one with maximum power of 110 kW which is fitted to the entry-level Ambiente FWD model, the other with 134 kW which is available in all three trim levels. Both engines provide up to 240 Newton metres of torque between 1600 and 5000 rpm.  The third engine is a 2.0-litre Duratorq turbo-diesel with outputs of 120 kW and 340 Nm at 1750 revs.

The 2WD Ambiente is only available with a six-speed manual gearbox. The other models are all automatics with a six-speed SelectShift mated to the petrol engines and six-speed Powershift to the diesel.

INFOTAINMENT

The centrepiece of Kuga's information and entertainment package is Ford's new voice-activated Sync system that allows hands-free operation of Bluetooth phone, music searching, radio tuning and access to phone apps.

Sync is also used to operate an Emergency Assistance (EA) system that, when there is a Bluetooth-paired smartphone, sends out an emergency call when either an airbag is deployed and/or the car's emergency fuel shut-off activated, indicating the car has been in a crash. The emergency call also uses the on-board GPS locator to provide the emergency services with the car's location. The audio system is USB and iPod compatible with USB and auxiliary sockets.

SAFETY

Active safety equipment in all Kuga variants includes seven airbags; stability and traction control; ABS brakes with Brake Assist; Roll Over Mitigation: Hill Launch Assist; and Trailer Stability Function.

For those drivers who allow their attention to wander there is the $2650 Technology Pack available on the Kuga Trend and Titanium models. The Pack includes passive safety features such as Active City Stop to prevent or minimise low speed collisons; adaptive cruise control; blind spot and lane departure warning; automatic high beam control; and a driver impairment monitor.

DRIVING

Our most recent road test was in a Kuga Titanium diesel. The normal diesel clatter is noticeable from outside but barely so when underway. Likewise road noise and vibration are well suppressed to provide a car that cruises comfortably on the open road.

Handling feels safe and predictable with the various stability and traction aids there to intervene if the Kuga is pushed too hard including the Torque Vectoring Control system which applies a small amount of braking to the inside wheels through bends and keeps the car on line.

Off-road the Titanium's big 19-inch wheels sent a real shudder through the car when we encountered a few moderately large pot holes. On the positive side there's plenty of grunt from the 340Nm engine and it simply galloped up the steepish hills on our route.

VERDICT

The second generation Kuga's accelerated arrival here just a few months after its global release is an indication of its importance to Ford's Australian operations. With SUV sales booming and the future of Ford's Territory in doubt, vehicles like Kuga and its smaller sibling EcoSport models will need take up some of the sales slack.