What is it?
It’s the facelifted Ford Kuga, which we’ve already driven abroad in 1.5 Ecoboost petrol guise. This, however, is our first UK drive and our test car is fitted with something more relevant to the average British punter: a diesel engine.
To be precise, it’s the top-spec 2.0-litre diesel with 178bhp. It comes only with four-wheel drive, but for those that value a degree of autonomy you still have a choice of either a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic.
The whole set-up is on the money in terms of efficiency: 134g/km of CO2 emissions and a claimed fuel economy of 54.3mpg are, give or take, what you’d see from a four-wheel drive, automatic Seat Ateca 2.0 TDI 190. However, keep checking the performance figures and you’ll discover that the dash from 0-62mph in the Ford is 10.0sec, while in the Seat it’s 7.5sec. On paper at least, the Kuga is outpaced then.
Our test car is the new sporty ST-Line trim. This has lowered sports suspension and loses any exterior chrome, swapping it for black on the grille, window surrounds and roof rails. You also get 18in dark machine-finished alloys. Inside, sports seats, steering wheel, gear knob and the aluminium pedals complete the spiced-up look.
There are other general updates to all 2017 Kugas. These include a front and rear cosmetic refresh, with the trapezoidal grille also seen on the Ford Edge, and new head and tail lights. You also get Ford’s updated Sync3 infotainment system, an electronic parking brake and gesture control for the power-opening tailgate. There’s more safety kit available, too, with enhanced optional automatic emergency city braking that works at speeds up to 31mph and, for the first time, rear cross traffic alert.
What’s it like?
A few years ago, if you wanted an SUV with tidy handling but hadn’t the budget for a Porsche Macan, then the Kuga, along with the Skoda Yeti, were your main considerations. But not any more; 2016 hatched yet more SUVs, and the Seat Ateca proved it is the sportiest of the lot at this money.
The Kuga still has it, though. Grip that snazzier ST-Line steering wheel and give it a turn, and the Kuga darts towards an apex. That’s down to the well-geared rack with 2.6 turns lock-to-lock, and some decent steering weight. So while Ford’s chronic condition of too much self-centring is present, it’s not an acute affliction in the Kuga, so you have the means to choose a clipping point, take aim, and mostly hit the spot.
Better body control helps the cause, too. With the ST-Line’s stiffer suspension, coupled with the fact that all four-wheel-drive Kugas come with a 9mm drop in ride height, the consequence is less body lean and neater control through curves, even ones strewn with troublesome bumps. That said, we have little doubt that in a back-to-back run an Ateca would grip harder and turn with even more alacrity.
Yet the Kuga, even with these tighter springs and dampers, arguably rides better than an Ateca, which we know has an underlying firmness. But while the ST-Line is mostly cosseting, at times you do notice more harshness than you’d feel in a standard Kuga.
The 2.0-litre TDCi engine and gearbox unite to produce an admirably smooth powertrain. On start-up there’s some background diesel clatter, but once the engine’s warm that mostly quietens down, and the dual-clutch ‘box flits without fuss between its ratios. In isolation it doesn’t feel slow, but the Kuga isn’t isolated. For less than £35,000 there are a host of automatic, four-wheel-drive SUV rivals that’ll whisk you up to 70mph or past a dawdling truck much quicker.
Many offer smarter cabins, as well. There’s been some tidying, sure, so now you get fewer buttons on the dashboard and more centre console storage space thanks to the ditching of the handbrake lever, but this doesn’t hide what’s still an old design, or mask the use of some decidedly low-rent materials. Compare it with the interior of a new Peugeot 3008, for example, and it feels a generation apart in its design and execution.
And although Ford’s Sync3 8.0in touchscreen now has larger icons that are easier to press, and it’s laden with additional features such as pinch-to-zoom maps, improved voice activation and Apple CarPlay, we still rank it behind the systems you get in an Ateca, Skoda Kodiaq or Kia Sportage, all of which you can pick up for similar money.
Should I buy one?
While the Ateca may have nabbed the crown of sportiest sub-£35,000 SUV, this Kuga ST-Line still runs it closer than many other rivals for driving kicks. For us car enthusiasts, this alone is justification for sticking it on your shopping list.
Just be aware, though, that for similar money there are cars out there that offer more pace, space, and smarter interiors with more user-friendly infotainment packages.
2017 Ford Kuga 2.0 TDCi 180 ST-Line Powershift AWD
Location Hertfordshire; On sale now; Price £31,795; Engine 4 cyls, 1997cc, diesel; Power 178bhp at 3500rpm; Torque 295Ib ft at 2000-2500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd dual-clutch automatic; Kerb weight 1716kg; Top speed 124mph; 0-62mph 10.0sec; Economy 54.3mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 134g/km/25%; Rivals Seat Ateca 2.0 TDI 190 4Drive DSG, VW Tiguan 2.0 TDI 190 4Motion DSG

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