Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.
It's a given when developing a new vehicle that certain things have to change in between the concept stage and production. But Ford has proven itself particularly adept at minimizing that transition. Put the production version of the Ford GT, for example, next to the GT40 Concept and start taking notes. You'll likely run out of differences before you run out of paper. But that was a limited-production supercar. So look at the Verve Concept then, and the production Fiesta that followed it: a few millimeters higher, slightly reshaped headlamps... the similarities are more striking than the differences. But place the Kuga side by side with the dramatic Iosis X concept that came before and it's a different story.
When Ford took the wraps off the production Kuga at the Geneva Motor Show this past March, we could see the family resemblance, but only if we squinted and tilted our heads just so. Ford isn't blind to the disparity, either, and is preparing to launch a new premium package at next month's Paris Motor Show to close the gap and imbue the Kuga with some of the concept's aggressive styling elements.
In the meantime, the Kuga is what it is. So the question is, what is it? Think of it as the European equivalent to the Ford Escape here in the U.S. and you're off to a good start. Ford sold the Escape in Europe as the Maverick for a few years following its introduction 2001, but the absence of a diesel engine underhood made it a tough sell to European customers. The Kuga, however, was specifically targeted at the European market;the Kuga is available only with a diesel until a 200-hp version of the 2.5-liter turbo five from the Focus ST joins the lineup in Paris next month.
The 136-hp 2-liter Duratorq TDCi drives through the front wheels or the optional Haldex all-wheel-drive system, compared to the Dana-supplied central-locking system found in the Escape. Although dimensions are comparable, the two are based on entirely separate platforms: the Escape shares its CD2 platform only with its badge-engineered counterparts, the Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute, while the Kuga uses the same C1 platform as a variety of Ford, Mazda and Volvo products. More importantly, however, while the Kuga is an entirely new vehicle, the Escape will soldier on a while longer with its recent mid-cycle refresh for 2008/09.
Having just gone on sale in Europe earlier this year, our first opportunity to drive the new Kuga was scheduled for Ford's Lommel Proving Grounds, where it would have to fight for our attention with the Focus ST and several other C-segment Fords. But we also had some time to get acquainted along the drive there with the latest in a long line of SUVs and CUVs bearing the Blue Oval badge.
Like the Escape, the Kuga is by no means a large vehicle, especially in the context of Ford's other sport-ute offerings like the Explorer, Expedition and Excursion. But the compact Euro-ute managed to swallow four occupants and all our luggage... without much room to spare, mind you, butits capacity impressed us for a compact crossover. Access to the cargo area can be gained by lifting the entire tailgate or through the separate glass rear window, with the retractable cargo cover securing the items below even with the window lifts open.
We set out on the Autobahn fully loaded with all our gear and the Kuga rode confidently and tracked straight as our speeds increased. An hour earlier, we never would have considered the Kuga for high-speed cruising, but Ford has clearly spent considerable resources making sure the vehicle would be up to the challenge to which German customers would be subjecting it on a regular basis. Our drive around the high-speed oval and winding road course at Lommel turned up the same impression: although this writer isn't a big fan of sport-utilities or crossovers, even miniscule crossovers like this one, the Kuga displayed considerable on-road composure.
Lommel also has considerable off-road tracks, but since the Kuga was designed primarily for driving on pavement, it's probably for the best that these dirt trails weren't part of the program. Driving over the cobblestone section on Road 7, however, the Kuga again maintained its composure, much as it did around the twisty bits. Coming out of those corners, though, we pined for more grunt, but instead had to row through the gears. The addition of the ST's engine, even in detuned spec, should go a long way in addressing that shortcoming, though most customers will likely stick with the diesel.
The more time we spent in the Kuga, however, the more we noticed the cacophony of materials and textures around the cabin. The disparity between the trim on the steering wheel, dashboard, door panels and center console gave the interior an air of incongruity, as if each component were designed independently of the rest without much in the way of coordination. Given that this was surely one of the first vehicles off the assembly line, we'll allow Ford the chance to further refine the interior as production continues at Ford's plant in Saarlouis, Germany.
It was interesting to watch some of Ford's personnel who joined us from Detroit examining the vehicle for the first time. And, of course, the obvious question arose: Would the Kuga make it to the United States? The answer seems to depend on which day you happen to ask which Ford representative. While some have suggested the Kuga could replace the Escape soon, the current line (at the time of writing, at least) seems to be that this version will carry on solely for overseas markets, but that the replacement for both the Escape and the Kuga is destined to be a global project. With the two models apparently on completely different life-cycles, that may be difficult to orchestrate. But if Ford manages to pull it off to the same high standard to which it produced the new Fiesta, customers in North America and around the world could stand to benefit. Which is more than we could say for the competition.
Until then, though, we'll let the Europeans keep this one.