The Kuga Pounces

By Lee Pang Seng
THE Ford Kuga, which takes over from the Escape, is a fresh model in all respects to our market. Though the name is new, it is the second generation model as the earlier Kuga was introduced to the US and Europe markets. Strangely, the name Kuga is used for the European market while in the US, it is sold as the Escape.

However, the American Escape is different to the Ford Escape that was sold here. Ford developed a mid-size SUV (sport utility vehicle) on its own in anticipation of the break in joint model development programme with Mazda (which it currently holds three per cent equity). It was with the second-generation model that Ford engineered the SUV as a global model and with the phasing out of the Escape in Asia, the Kuga-Escape is fully primed to assume its worldly status.

This model will retain the Escape name in the US and some other countries while Kuga will be used in Europe and the Asia-Pacific markets. The name Kuga is likely to be punned from the cougar, a wild cat native to the US, and hints of this global SUV first surfaced as the Vertrek concept vehicle displayed at the Detroit Motor Show in January 2011. Names aside, the Kuga will look the same anywhere in the world. (By the way, the word ‘Vertrek’ is Afrikaans for ‘departure’ which is pretty close to the name ‘Escape’.)

Due here in June, the Kuga is imported from Ford’s factory in Valencia, Spain. That may explain why it is carrying the Kuga name. The model built in the US as the Escape is mainly for the American market, where some 300,000 units are expected to be sold annually. Europe and China are expected to see sales of 100,000 units each while the ‘rest of the world’ would account for another 100,000 Kugas.

The Kuga looks a little similar to the Escape but is longer while sitting on the same 2690mm wheelbase. The Kuga’s overall length is 4524mm (+81mm) but is marginally narrower at 1842mm (-4mm) and lower at 1702mm (-8mm). The idea is provide more interior space.

We had Eric Loeffler, Global Chief Program Engineer, joining us for a segment of the Kuga impression drive during the regional launch media event in Adelaide, Australia. He was a pretty tall guy, towering easily above 182cm (6ft). Although the 60:40 splitfolding rear seatrest can be tilt-adjusted for rake, headroom appeared to be a little tight for him.

The Kuga comes with the hands-free power liftgate that we first came across in the BMW 3 Series GT recently. Put your foot under the rear bumper for about two seconds and the door will automatically unlock and raised. It’s ideal for those with hands fully loaded with the weekend’s groceries or other items. It saves the hassle of rummaging through the handbag or pockets for the keyfob to open the rear gate.

And if you are too short to reach the touch button on the gate to close it electronically, you can do the same thing, i.e. put your foot under the bumper for the same short spell and the gate will close by itself. Don’t wiggle your foot though as that may send mixed signals to the receiver and nothing will happen.

The Kuga comes with two power options; a 1.6-litre EcoBoost petrol engine and a 2.0-litre turbodiesel. Sime Darby Ford is introducing the former in Titanium model trim (which is the top specification against the lower-spec Trend and Ambiente variants). The latter is not deemed suitable with our Euro 2M diesel fuel.

The smaller displacement engine may seem inferior to the Escape 2.3-litre but the mild turbo pressure EcoBoost unit delivers more at 132kW (179bhp) at 5700rpm and 240Nm that develops early at 1600rpm and stays flat till 5000rpm. Yes, there is plenty of strong torque over a broad engine range to pick up the pace for quick overtaking. This is complemented by the six-speed automatic transmission with Sport mode, which responded quickly and jerk-free (depending on the urgency of the accelerator pedal pressure) to provide the best gear for the purpose. A direct benefit is Ford’s claim of almost 13km/l in average fuel consumption.

By comparison, the normally aspirated engine of the previous Escape delivered 115kW (156bhp) at 6000rpm and 200Nm peaking at 4000rpm. The transmission was a four-speed automatic, and the model options were two-wheel drive or part-time four-wheel drive.

The Kuga goes one up by being an ‘intelligent’ All-wheel Drive (AWD). Eric Loeffler says engine output is apportioned to all four wheels as and when it is needed, and in the most fuel economical way under normal driving circumstances. On the highway, most of the output is likely to be biased to the front while for the winding B-road stretches, output would be channelled accordingly to provide best traction and handling

The system is said to reassess driving conditions 20 times faster than it takes to blink and readjust the AWD power split accordingly. At low speed, traction is the primary goal, while above 30km/h, the system is tuned to improve driving feel, handling and response. Drivers can follow the torque demand of each wheel via a graphic display on the instrument panel.

Ford also credits the Torque Vectoring Control System that is enhanced and developed with the Focus RS and which was already introduced in the latest Focus. It operates by applying a small amount of braking to the inside wheels so that tyre traction is evened out, improving dynamic and cornering control.

During the Adelaide event, we could feel traces of these engineering features due to the moderate convoy speed we were doing. As the Australian traffic police do not take kindly to any breaking of the road laws, we were toeing the recommended speed limit most of the time during the 200km-plus drive.

Other than brief spurts to gauge engine response in building up speed (for an SUV weighing about 1660kg), it was as close to normal driving as could be. The winding stretches through the hilly areas that took us through farmlands and vineyards provided some insights on the AWD and Torque Vectoring Control System. We understeered a few times through some tight corners and we could feel the respective systems working to neutralise the steering direction.

The electric power steering with a lock-to-lock of 2.6 turns might remind some of the early days of overly light steering feel. It didn’t feel that way though in the Kuga as the steering was fairly well weighted and directional response was pretty good for the input made.

A brief 3km off-road section that consisted of dusty gravel trails gave a fair account of the Kuga’s ride comfort. The independently sprung suspension system saw MacPherson struts in front and a Control Blade multi-link design at the rear. Eric Loefler says the suspension is tuned to meet the driving needs of markets the world over. As such, no special tuning is made to specific market demands such as Australia, where harder springing is desired. The Kuga runs on 17-inch 7.5J alloy wheels with 235/55 R17 tyres.

In noise levels, the Kuga ran quietly except for the audible road roar that surfaced because of the silent mobility. Moreover, the coarse tarmac surfaces of the road also led to more noise being generated by the tyres and a fair bit got into the passenger cabin via the suspension mounting points. The decibels were low enough to pass mostly unnoticed and normal conversations could be conducted, even during the few brief spells of 120km/h cruises.

The Kuga is also ahead of its rivals in trims and fittings, and equipment, including the engine stop-start system. Its voice-activated SYNC connectivity is also seen as a segment first. You can choose singers and songs merely by talking to the system, or make mobile calls, individually or for conferencing, in a hands-free manner (though you may still be distracted by the conversation). The top Euro NCAP crash rating may be a small consolation but it’s best to leave serious debates out of mobile communications!

As an imported SUV, the Kuga fetches a premium price of about RM168,000 on the road. If you can look beyond the small engine displacement, the Kuga might just meet your driving needs as a mid-size SUV. Ford has introduced a global colour called Ginger Ale (a metallic light green hue) which is available here: the other options are Frozen White, Panther Black and Moondust Silver.

Photo Gallery