Ford's updated Kuga is not just a fresh look and engaging drive, but a great value proposition, too...

The remnants of yesterday’s braai or pizza aside, it’s fair to say that reheated leftovers are seldom met with any degree of enthusiasm, and this is often the case with the facelifts doled out to most cars. The Kuga has recently been the recipient of just such a spot of midlife nip and tuck, leaving untouched much of the well-tuned mechanical foundations that made it a firm favourite among many.

The long-term tenure with our mid-rung Kuga 1,5 EcoBoost Trend model has been a mixed bag (more of which later) and it was with this in mind that we got behind the wheel of the range-topping 2,0 TDCi Titanium model to see if the diesel has what it takes to win back some of the ground that the Kuga has conceded of late.

While we never considered the Kuga a dated looker, it has to be said that, in the company of more boldly styled rivals from the East, it was beginning to fade into the background. Thankfully, this recent facelift, with its prominent trapezoidal grille, restyled lights all-round and some neat sheetmetal creasing, has given the Kuga a new lease of aesthetic life.

The interior has also seen some changes, most of them welcome, and some a trifle disappointing. Although the layout of the previously scatter-gun dash has been cleaned up, it’s still not a study in simplicity and the quality of some cabin plastics is average at best, feeling a bit flimsy and creaky once on the move. The cabin does, however, remain a generously proportioned and practical space.

Although this Kuga test vehicle’s AWD drive system wasn’t tasked with any driving off the blacktop – something precious few vehicles in this bracket will do with any conviction anyway – it managed to impress on the road, keeping wheelspin and hard-acceleration shimmy well in check. These attributes are further complemented by the Kuga’s considerable dynamic prowess. Supple suspension, a hallmark of many Ford products, is present and is augmented by steering that’s tight but responsive and impressive body control. It continues to engage its driver, striking a neat balance between comfort and agility.

Our technical editor, Nicol Louw, has had something of a complicated relationship with his 1,5-litre, turbopetrol-engined long-termer. He revels in the car’s driveability, but is irked by average fuel consumption that’s been less than stellar. It’s a trait we’ve noticed with a number of Ford’s EcoBoost units and possibly an upshot of their punchiness above their low-displacement weight class that tends to goad you into mashing the throttle a little more than frugal driving requires.

The 2,0-litre turbodiesel is a pleasingly flexible salve to such foibles. A healthy 400 N.m of torque chimes in at a low 2 000 r/min and spreads itself in a brisk yet progressive fashion across a handy 1 250 r/min range. It’s this low-to-midrange muscle that helped propel the Kuga from standstill to the benchmark 100 km/h in 9,87 seconds, while 80-100 and 120-140 km/h overtaking exercises took 2,34 and 3,45 seconds respectively; all are respectable figures.

The 2,0-litre turbodiesel also manages to temper this satisfying degree of flexibility and fun with a good dose of frugality. Our 100 km, mixed-use fuel route returned 7,3 L/100 km, good enough for a range of 822 km from its 60-litre tank.

Those with a predilection for manually changing gears will find that the dual-clutch gearbox’s application here isn’t quite as crisp as it is in the petrol-engined models, but left to its own devices, the six-speed unit seldom skips a beat, being pleasingly smooth and finding the right ratio time and again.

If there is a blot in the Kuga’s ledger, it’s a lack of low-speed refinement, with a palpable degree of vibration through the pedals and some unwelcome oil-burner clatter finding its way through the firewall at low speeds. The engine’s demeanour does, however, improve drastically once speeds pick up.

But where the halo Kuga falls slightly short on the refinement front, it more than compensates in terms of value for money; try to find a range-topping turbo-diesel AWD automatic competitor and you’ll notice some considerable price gaps. In fact, the Titanium’s pricing places it in a bracket occupied by rivals’ mid-tier offerings. This model’s Titanium standard specification wants for little, providing a well-weighted balance between plentiful safety and utility features, as well as a sizeable suite of nice-to-haves such as a smartphone-compatible Sync3 touchscreen infotainment system and leather-upholstered, electrically adjustable seats.



TEST SUMMARY

Although aspects such as the cabin's slightly subpar material quality and refinement that doesn't quite match that of its newer rivals do betray the Kuga's age, this neatly tailored re-skin of an already capable and well-liked product has meant that our reacquaintance with the Kuga has been a pleasant one.

While recent safety issues have cast a dark cloud over the Kuga and Ford has worked hard to to regain the public's confidence in its midsize SUV, this model's punchy, frugal engine, balanced dynamics and keen pricing will hopefully go a long way to reinvigorating what remains an accomplished product.

*From the April 2018 issue of CAR magazine