Ford Kuga 2.5 PHEV ST-Line 2020 UK review
25 March 2020 - autocar
All-new version of Ford's best-selling SUV, driven here in plug-in hybrid guise, mixes dynamic appeal with practicality and refinement
What is it?
This is the new Ford Kuga, part of Ford's belated multi-pronged attack on the ever-growing SUV sector. There has been a Kuga on the Blue Oval's books since 2008, but it was pretty much the only credible crossover offering, if you exclude the rather undercooked EcoSport and Escape models.
The original looked great and steered more sweetly than the competition yet it failed to sell strongly, partly because the SUV boom was far from in full swing. The second-generation car arrived in 2013 and was a product of the global 'One Ford' policy that meant it had to work as well in New York as it did Neasden. It grew in size, yet retained its predecessor's ability to entertain its driver. After a slow start, sales finally took off, and in its last couple of years on sale, it finally hit its stride, becoming Ford's biggest-selling SUV.
So there's quite a bit resting on the shoulders of the latest version. New from the ground up, it's arguably the most ambitious iteration yet. Not only does it take a different design approach to its predecessors, but it also features Ford's broadest range of powerplants yet, including petrol, diesel, diesel mild hybrid and, as tested here, petrol plug-in hybrid.
It's also bigger and more spacious than before and it packs all the latest showroom lures, including semi-autonomous driving modes in the form of adaptive cruise control and steering assist. There's also cutting-edge connectivity and a healthy smattering of TFT screens. Yet despite all this increase in tech, it's also a claimed 80kg lighter compared with its similarly specified predecessor.
In the case of this plug-in hybrid version, that's harder to verify because there's no direct comparison, but at 1844kg, it's a useful 50kg lighter than a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. Still no lightweight, but not bad given how much there is packaged underneath the all-new skin.
Powering this plug-in version is a variant of the Atkinson-cycle 2.5-litre petrol four-pot already seen in the Ford Escape, which was the North American version of the previous Kuga.
Mated to what is essentially a CVT transmission, it's boosted by an electric motor fed by 14.4kWh lithium ion battery. The total power output for the whole system is a respectable 222bhp and the electric motor can propel the Kuga at speeds of up to 85mph and for as many as 35 miles before internal combustion takes over or you can find a recharging point. (You'll need six hours from a domestic supply for a full charge.)
Externally, it's all change for the new Kuga. Gone are the angles and sharp creases, replaced by softer, more rounded lines. The similarities to the smaller Puma are obvious, and if the slightly bulbous new car isn't as handsome as before, then it's certainly distinctive, particularly with this ST-Line test car's colour-coded wheel-arch extensions and 18in gunmetal grey alloy wheels.
Like its predecessor, there's a heavy Focus theme once you climb aboard. In fact, the dashboard is carried over largely unchanged, complete with the same simple-to-use Sync touchscreen, which is installed with the FordPass Connect app that allows you to remotely access and monitor the car's functions from your phone.
As with the Puma, there's a TFT instrument cluster ahead of the driver that changes its 'theme' depending on the selected driver mode, which on the Kuga extends beyond the usual Comfort, Sport, Eco and Slippery to include a pseudo off-road setting for sand, gravel and rocks, although only the 187bhp 2.0-litre diesel is available with four-wheel drive.
Yet although it looks the part, the smartly designed interior still falls short of that premium ambience Ford has been striving for. Most of the materials look and feel good, but there's too much hard and scratchy plastic lower in the cabin. Still, you sit high behind the wheel, with good visibility ahead. Rear visibility isn't quite as good, with the thick C-pillars limiting your over-the-shoulder view.
In the rear, there's a split fold bench that now slides back and forth by up to 150mm, allowing you to choose between greater space for either luggage or legs. With the seats pushed back, there's loads of room to stretch out, yet the boot can still accommodate 411 litres in the plug-in or 475 litres in other models. Slide the seat forward as far as it will go and there's up to 645 litres, or 581 litres for the plug-in.
As for pricing, the plug-in Kuga is pretty much on the money with its rivals, with Titanium models starting at a competitive £33,095 and rising to £37,795 for the Vignale.
What's it like?
On the move, the hybrid system is remarkably effective, the transition between the different motive forces proving smooth and almost inaudible. You can choose to run in pure EV mode or leave it in Hybrid and let the computers work out what's best. Engage Sport and you summon the combined efforts of petrol and electricity for maximum performance.
Even then, though, the Kuga is brisk rather than quick, being outgunned by the similarly powerful Vauxhall Grandland X Hybrid. Ford claims 9.2sec for the 0-62mph sprint, but the linear nature of the gearbox means it never feels that fast or responsive. Only when you require some rapid mid-range muscle for overtaking does the Kuga feel really lively, the electric motor delivering a helpful burst of torque.
However, refinement is excellent, particularly when zipping around in EV mode. And when the traditional engine does cut in, you only notice its subdued efforts when it's worked hard. The sense of calm is enhanced by the low levels of wind noise (there's special acoustic glass for the windscreen) and suspension that reduces even big impacts to nothing more than a muffled thump.
The Kuga is underpinned by the same C2 platform that's used on the Focus. There are struts up front and a multi-link rear axle, while ST-Line versions get subtly stiffer springs and dampers. Yes, the new Kuga is taller than a Focus, but it's 20mm lower than the old car and it sits on a track that's 44mm wider, plus the batteries are located as low and centrally as possible.
Add all this together and you get an SUV that handles with impressive poise and agility. In fact, it feels like what it is: a slightly higher and heavier Focus. As ever with Ford, it's the damping that impresses the most, the Kuga breathing with the surface and delivering that trademark blend of comfort and control as you slice cleanly through one bend after another. Sharp ridges and deep potholes can cause a shudder through the cabin but otherwise the Puma rides with a welcome suppleness, flowing down the road where others fidget.
The light, electrically assisted steering is far from chatty, but it's quick and accurate, the Kuga diving for apexes with surprising zeal. Of course, it lacks the smaller Puma's sense of agility and adjustability, but it's not far behind, and through quick corners, there's genuine poise. It's certainly a more entertaining choice than the Vauxhall or Mitsubishi. Only when pushing on through tighter bends does the car's mass start to tell, with over-ambitious entry speeds giving the torque-vectoring system a real workout as it struggles to maintain your chosen line.
Another niggle is the braking system, which lacks a totally smooth transition between its regenerative and friction systems, so you need a delicate foot to avoid jerkiness. It's exacerbated by the fact that with no ratios, virtual or otherwise, in the gearbox, the brakes are worked particularly hard when pressing on.
Should I buy one?
The Kuga has lost none of its dynamic flair, yet it's more refined and practical than ever. It's comfortable, too, Ford's suspension engineers creating a ride that's plusher and quieter than most. Perhaps the only real niggle is that the interior fails to achieve that premium feel Ford has been striving for. We also suspect the cheaper petrols will be the pick of the line-up.
But slightly lacklustre straight-line pace and grabby brakes aside, the Kuga PHEV makes a strong case against its less entertaining rivals from Vauxhall, Peugeot and Mitsubishi.
Ford Kuga 2.5 PHEV ST-Line specification
Where Surrey, UK Price £35,195 On sale Now Engine 4 cyls, 2488cc, petrol, plus electric motor Power 222bhp (combined) Torque Not specified Gearbox CVT automatic Kerb weight 1844kg Top speed 124mph 0-62mph 9.2sec Fuel economy 201.7mpg CO2 32g/km Rivals Vauxhall Grandland X Hybrid, Peugeot 3008 Hybrid, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV