What are you driving?
Well, it's a Ford Kuga, but it's not the one you're thinking of. It's not the plug-in hybrid version, which we drove last year - and rather liked - and which was subsequently recalled for battery problems. No, this is the basic diesel Kuga model and, with just 120hp on tap from its 1.5-litre EcoBlue engine, it's the least powerful Kuga model (the plug-in hybrid has 225hp, by comparison).
However, that lack of power may not be the issue that it appears - this Kuga is some 80kg lighter than the previous model, in spite of being a little larger, and much roomier inside.
While it may not have batteries and a plug, there is some tech on board - there's the Ford SYNC3 infotainment system, which includes mobile phone connectivity via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as the FordPass app, which allows you to control some functions from your phone, including locking and unlocking the doors, and (for models with the automatic gearbox) remote start. It also has the rather whizz-bang 12.3-inch digital instrument panel, shared with the smaller Ford Puma.
Looks-wise, the Kuga clearly draws on the styling of the Ford Focus, and in that sense it's a bit of a grower - it looks a little bland at first, but it does come rather more into focus with familiarity, and our test car's ST-Line spec brings with it a pleasingly sporty body kit.
Name its best bits
Arguably, the best thing about the new Kuga is its practicality. The cabin is pretty vast, with sprawling room in the back seats (although the price for that is a driving position that's a bit perched-up). The boot doesn't have unbelievable space (just 456 litres under the luggage cover), but the space is square and flat, so it's more than a little useful. Also, you can augment it by sacrificing rear legroom - slide the back seats forward on their rails and there's as much as 645 litres to play with.
Overall quality is good too. As with the Focus, the cabin can look a little uninspiring in style terms, but it's well put together and made of solid materials. True, a little more flair wouldn't go astray, but the solidity is pleasing.
We like the clear, crisp digital instruments too, and the 'Slippery Road' function for the traction control was more than a little useful in the past while. The SYNC3 infotainment system may not have the biggest, flashiest screen, but it is simple and easy to use, with good graphics and a sensible menu layout. The Bang + Olufsen stereo fitted to our test car was excellent, too.
To drive, the Kuga is... good. It lacks the sharpness and incisiveness of the Focus with which is shares a chassis, and it's not as much outright fun (nothing like as much) as the smaller Puma, but it is a decent car to drive. Ford has given it sensible spring and damper rates, in spite of the sporty ST-Line kit, so the ride quality is very good. Handling balance and grip are fine too (although I'd like a little more bite at the front, ideally) but the steering is just a touch too light and springy for you to really be able to make the most of it. It's not a bad car to drive, not even slightly, but perhaps a little shy of the normally lofty Ford standards in this regard.
The engine is also good. It's refined, and in spite of its poor on-paper power, torque and acceleration figures, it only feels breathless when you accelerate hard up a long motorway on-ramp. The rest of the time, the Kuga EcoBlue always seems to have enough grunt in reserve for most situations, and the six-speed manual gearbox is a paragon of shift weight and accuracy.
Anything that bugs you?
But it's a diesel, not even a mild-hybrid diesel, and while Ford has fitted NOx-quelling AdBlue injection, and it has low CO2 emissions even under the WLTP test, there's no getting away from the fact that, increasingly, driving a diesel feels like you're driving yesterday's tech.
There's not even a case to be made for overall fuel economy. On a long run, you can coax the Kuga EcoBlue down to around 5.8 litres per 100km, and our overall average was 6.1 litres per 100km. Not bad. But there's an issue. Drive the plug-in hybrid Kuga with a flat battery and you'll hit similar overall economy figures and, if you charge it up regularly, and make the most of its electric-only abilities, then it'll blow this diesel Kuga's economy out of the water. And it's only €1,000 more expensive, model-for-model. And is more powerful. And no less good to drive.
While we're looking at downsides, having no heated seats in a car costing nearly €40,000 at this time of year feels a bit cheap, and the luggage cover, which clips to the inside of the tailgate, rather than the back of the seats, feels a bit flimsy.
And why have you given it this rating?
It's an odd sensation that suddenly diesel feels old-hat, but perhaps not that surprising given the current environment (excuse the pun). That, and the fact that the Kuga plug-in hybrid is so impressive, and barely any more expensive (especially if you're buying on a PCP) means that this EcoBlue model feels rather out of date already. That said, it's still a very likeable car, frugal, engaging to drive, hugely practical and well-built. For those not yet ready to take the plugged-in plunge, it's a solid choice.
What do the rest of the team think?
The core Kuga package is great as Neil said - it's spacious, massively comfortable and versatile. On top of that, there's a sense of high quality to the cabin, making it feel like a more expensive car than it is. The refinement is excellent, too, even with this diesel engine under the bonnet. Shame it's so gutless though.
Shane O' Donoghue - Editor