The time has come for the Ford Kuga (or Escape as it’s called on the other side of the pond) to get its mid-life facelift, with the update becoming a part of the company’s plan to strengthen its SUV line-up in Europe.
Instead of throwing a regular press launch, Ford decided to organize a huge road trip, where a fleet of Kugas would start their journey from Athens, Greece all the way up to the North Cape in Norway. The trip was then divided in 15 legs with Ford inviting us to drive the new Kuga in Finland for Leg 13, from Oulu to Ivalo and across the Arctic Circle.
As you would imagine, Finland is rather cold this time of the year, with temperatures close to -10 degrees Celcius and a whole lot of that icy white flake stuff dropping from the sky. Armed with the warmest of clothing we arrived in Oulu where the new Ford Kuga was waiting.
Ford has updated the looks of the new Kuga, with new lights all around and a new front grille being the most obvious changes, bringing it in line with the bigger Edge SUV that was launched a little while ago in Europe.
The range also gains two new versions: the luxurious top-of-the-line Vignale and the sporty ST-Line. The latter throws some go-faster looks into the mix but not the extra grunt you hoped for. Still though, the new ST-Line comes with a 10mm lower ride height, thicker antiroll bars and a retuned suspension, all of them aiming to make the Kuga a bit more inspiring to drive.
The end result is rather good for the Kuga as it not only looks sportier, but more characterful than its predecessor as well. Ford has also installed their latest SYNC3 infotainment system which comes with a sharper 8-inch touchscreen display, a faster voice control operation, an easier-to-use interface, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard.
All of the test cars were equipped with AWD and winter tires, which are mandatory in Finland this time of the year, leaving us with the choice of sampling the range-topping 180hp 1.5-litre EcoBoost petrol and 177hp 2.0-litre TDCi diesel engines.
This 1.5-litre EcoBoost unit is the most powerful petrol engine of the range, but Ford offers it only in conjunction with AWD and a traditional six-speed torque converter automatic gearbox, instead of the Powershift dual-clutch unit available in the diesels. The added weight of the AWD system though makes it slower than its lesser-powered 148hp manual FWD petrol sibling, which for the record tips the scales at 1579kg (3,481 lbs), more than 100kg (220 lbs) less than the 180hp version we drove.
Enough With The Details, Let’s Just Go
Our driving style was largely mandated by the soft snow that covered most of our 300-mile route (around 500km) from Oulu to Ivalo. Speeds were kept low; inputs were calmer than usual and generally a more careful approach was adopted.
We started with the range-topping 2.0-litre TDCi Vignale model, which sort of checks every box in the options list, adding things on top like a different grille, quilted leather upholstery for the seats and a leather-wrapped dashboard among others.
The addition of the SYNC3 infotainment system reduced the number of physical buttons on the dashboard while the leather inside does give you a sense of higher quality but don’t expect any actual differences over the cheaper models.
The 177hp 2.0-litre TDCi diesel is smooth and surprisingly quiet in its operation, especially on motorway cruising, offering 295lb-ft (400Nm) of torque from 2,000rpm which is more than enough grunt to get the Kuga going. The cabin remains a calm and relaxing place for long distances, with only a little bit of wind noise coming from the big door mirrors.
The chassis retains some of the nimbleness that characterized the original European Kuga, meaning a precise front end matched by a nicely weighted and consistent steering wheel. There is plenty of grip too, thanks to the combination of the winter tires and Ford’s ‘intelligent’ AWD which shuffles torque between axles according to the driving conditions.
Despite having a suspension that allows for some body roll, the new Kuga allows you to build confidence quickly behind the wheel, a feature than came handy later on when a snow storm decided to keep us company.
We then switched to an ST-Line with the 180hp 1.5-litre EcoBoost petrol engine and almost immediately the smaller engine made its presence known. It’s not a bad engine, only one that doesn’t fit the Kuga like the torquey diesels do. Ford says that peak torque remains the same (177lb-ft/240Nm) in all three versions of the 1.5-litre which reveals why the petrol engine feels like it’s working much harder to move the SUV.
The combination of the AWD system and the six-speed auto don’t do the turbocharged four-cylinder petrol any favors either, bringing more noise into the cabin than its diesel counterparts on motorway cruises.
The sporty suspension does a good job at controlling the roll of the car without compromising the comfort too much, but the increased noise levels brought by the 1.5-litre EcoBoost makes us feel that the Kuga is a more complete family car when equipped with one of the diesel engines.
With the segment being flooded with new models, the Ford Kuga has a tougher than ever job. It’s still one of the most enjoyable drives out there as long as you opt for one of the diesel engines. If you still insist on a petrol SUV, you’ll find that rivals offer a more complete package.
As for the upscale Vignale version, there is much talk about whether it represents good value. Just by looking the £34,445 price tag (around $43k in current exchange rates) of the 177hp 2.0-litre TDCi AWD PowerShift version in the UK, it sure sounds like a pretty expensive proposition, asking for £3,250 more than the equivalent ST-Line model, but to sweeten the deal, Ford also gives Vignale customers a special concierge service too.
In the real world though, where most people finance their cars, the price difference is likely to feel a lot smaller. Ford UK has a history of selling more range-topping Kugas through finance and intends on keeping the momentum going with the new Vignale editions.