What is it?
The new Ford Kuga Vignale is a retaliative swipe at the likes of Audi, BMW and Land Rover (all of whom have been making lots of money out of Europe’s growing love affair with the SUV, thank you very much) by one of Europe’s biggest car makers (still hoping to do equally well out of it, fingers crossed). It’s the best reason that the Blue Oval can currently come up with not to buy an Audi Q3, a BMW X1, a new Volkswagen Tiguan or a lower-end Range Rover Evoque. And yet it’s not quite a good reason.
Having just given the Kuga an averagely thorough mid-life facelift, Ford is banking on a healthy dose of extra standard equipment here, as well as some new quilted leather seats, shiny alloy wheels and relatively appealing personal finance deals, to transform its five-seat SUV into a credible premium-brand alternative.
There are precisely no meaningful mechanical differences between a Kuga Titanium X and a Vignale. In years to come, after the designers and engineers have got their ideas for the Vignale version of the next Kuga locked in from an early stage, there may be mechanical differences – but Ford’s fledgling premium brand project started too late for that to have been the case here.
Instead, the Kuga Vignale gives you almost everything worth having from the car’s options catalogue (park assist, a powered tailgate, adaptive headlights and an 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system, for starters), as well as lashings of Windsor leather, for a price that should still look like value next to a similarly equipped Audi or BMW.
The Kuga’s lesser engines aren’t part of the Vignale range, but you can choose between 180bhp 1.5-litre turbo petrol, 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel or 178bhp 2.0-litre diesel powerplants, as well as automatic or manual gearboxes.
Ford would, of course, be quick to add that, like its other Vignale models, the Kuga goes through 100 extra quality checks during assembly compared with a regular model. It’s dusted with ostrich feathers prior to painting, for heaven’s sake. So what more, exactly, could the company have done to be worthy of that hard-earned splash of cash?
What’s it like?
The Kuga’s ride and handling isn’t the problem here. It’s more that the car’s top-of-the-line diesel powertrain isn’t the match of it, while packaging, material quality and infotainment system sophistication aren’t up to proper premium-brand standards either.
Like its range mates, the Kuga Vignale is an agile and often encouraging kind of SUV to drive. There’s a bit of elasticity to the steering feel and an occasional clunkiness to the ride quality over harsher urban roads if you go for the optional 19in wheels. But still, the car blends a taut yet compliant ride with direct, darty directional response, strong body control and good grip levels, constructing a keen sense of dynamism that’s rare in a car of this kind and, in isolation, might be worth paying extra for.
But the 178bhp 2.0 TDCi engine is noisy at high revs compared with the premium-brand opposition, and its dual-clutch automatic gearbox can be a bit clumsy and slow to kick down – although both work well at a normal cruising pace. Acceleration feels fairly strong, but it comes as no surprise to discover that this Kuga gives up more than two seconds to its German-branded rivals on the claimed 0-62mph sprint.
The Kuga Vignale’s leather front seats are comfortable and tactile, but the rear ones are still rather thin in the cushion, and passenger space in both rows could be better. And for every material highlight and flourish around the cabin, there’s also a dull, hard plastic moulding or a flimsy bit of trim to burst the bubble of luxury you’d momentarily been enjoying. In a £25k car, those cheaper materials may be okay – but in a £35k one they’re difficult to forgive.
The one addition that could have done most to elevate the Kuga into premium-brand territory for 21st century car buyers, Ford’s new Sync3 infotainment system, also leaves a mixed impression. Navigation mapping is displayed at a more useful scale than before on the 8.0in screen, and the addition of smartphone mirroring systems for both Apple and Andoid phones is long overdue. But the system responds only reluctantly when you try to pinch and swipe your way around its maps, and its online connectivity options are still limited.
Should I buy one?
Although that poised, precise drive is as distinguishing and likeable as ever, the Kuga is out of its depth at a near-£35,000 showroom price. Private buyers would certainly be well advised not to gamble on the commitment of Ford, and its main dealer network, to keep residual values high, and instead simply see how well the Vignale brand stands the test of time.
At a lower price point, avoiding the Powershift transmission, the Kuga still makes a competitive case for keener drivers. But as raw material for the Blue Oval’s already shaky-looking attempt to expand upmarket, it simply lacks the necessary class and polish to shape up.
Ford Kuga Vignale 2.0 TDCi 180 Powershift AWD
Location Austria; On sale Now; Price £34,445; Engine 4 cyls, 1997cc, diesel; Power 178bhp at 3500rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd dual-clutch automatic; Kerb weight 1716kg; 0-62mph 10.0sec; Top speed 124mph; Economy 57.6mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 134g/km, 26%; Rivals Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI 190, BMW X1 xDrive20d
What is it?