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The sporty Kuga is worth seeking out

Thursday, 23rd November, 2017 8:53am

Ford’s decision to create ST-Line versions of most of its mainstream models has been a bit of an inspired one.

It’s certainly a far better fit for the brand image of the Blue Oval than the (somewhat daft, and far too expensive) luxury Vignale concept, and links in far better to Ford’s history.

After all, Ford has never made posh, luxurious cars (unless you count Lincoln, and as Europeans we can’t really do that) but it has one of the most amazing motorsport back catalogues of all time.

Let’s just take a quick look back, shall we? The Lotus Cortina. The Escort Mexico. The Escort RS1800 and RS2000. The DFV Formula One engine that dominated F1 for a decade and also took wins at Le Mans and Indianapolis. The Sierra, then, the Escort Cosworth.

Decade upon decade of rally dominance. The Focus RS. Ari Vatanen. Colin McRae. Need I go on?

What’s nice about the ST-Line range is that they bring a small taste of that motorsports inflected glamour to a regular, workaday Ford, and without jacking up the price to stratospheric levels. It works well on the Focus, especially, and the Mondeo too, but how does it feel when strapped to a Kuga SUV?

Well, there is a heritage of high-performance 4x4s within Ford, but again that’s mostly an American phenomenon.

Here in Europe, the idea of a high-performance 4x4 really only began in the late nineties with the BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne, but it’s still something of a minority interest. People who buy an SUV are usually doing it for reasons of a practical nature.

That’s actually why the Kuga ST-Line works really rather well. The whole idea of ST-Line is that it’s really only a light sprinkling, a touch of motorsports fairy dust on top of a regular, ‘normal’ car.

So, by ticking the ST-Line trim box, you get a chunky, sporty-looking bodykit which the Kuga wears rather well. On our white-painted test car, the black-finished 18 inch alloy wheels were a nice contrast, and on the inside you do get ST-Line part-leather seats that are as lovely to look at as they are to sit upon.

As standard on an ST-Line Kuga, you also get active parking assist (great for slipping into tight parallel spaces, but you do need to be patient to give the system a chance to work), black roof rails, and sports suspension.

Now, normally, the addition of a sports suspension makes us wince, especially when it’s been added to what is supposed to be a practical family car. It’s usually a recipe for uncomfortable progress over speed bumps and urban intrusions, while its benefits in terms of handling and precision can only rarely be enjoyed when the back seat is full of offspring and the boot is full of shopping.

In the Kuga ST-Line, though, that concern proves unfounded. In fact, it has a genuinely well-sorted chassis, proof that Ford’s suspension engineers are still among the best in the business. There’s a pleasing sense of precision and weight to the steering, and while the springs and dampers are very definitely set to ‘firm’ they’re equally, and most certainly, not set to ‘harsh’.

In fact, I think you’d have to say that the Kuga’s chassis setup is possibly the best of all the current lineup of mid-size SUVs. Certainly, it feels far more alive and engaging to drive than do rivals such as the Hyundai Tucson, VW Tiguan, Nissan Qashqai, or Kia Sportage.

Sadly, that fact is also as good a correlation as you’ll find that sharp driving dynamics do not necessarily lead to strong sales. The Kuga currently holds the 25th spot on the Irish new car sales chart, while all of the other SUVs I’ve just mentioned are in the top ten. Indeed, the Tucson is the best selling car in Ireland.

There is a price element to that, of course. The Tucson and Qashqai, for example, both have starting prices below €28,000 while the cheapest Kuga starts at €33,345.

Our ST-Line test car rocked up with a €48,925 sticker price, thanks to having the top-spec 180hp engine, four-wheel drive, and a few choice options. That’s a pretty stiff figure.

In some ways, you can see the worth of paying it. While I do reckon that Ford’s 150hp turbo diesel 2.0-litre is more than adequate, there’s no denying the enjoyable extra punch of this 180hp version, and it is exceptionally refined, much better at silencing its growls than most rivals.

The six-speed manual gearbox snicks easily and lightly between gears, and while the interior does look rather a bit old-fashioned compared to some of the opposition, everything does feel well made.

It’s worth mentioning Ford’s SYNC3 infotainment system too. A €500 option, it comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and has a simple, logical menu system that makes it easy to use.

Still pretty good is a reasonable summation of the Kuga itself. The ST-Line additions, although pricey, are well-judged, and it is almost without question the best of the mid-size SUV brigade to drive, if such matters to you.

Throw in a refined, and punchy, engine and a comfortable cabin and you can easily see why that 25th place sales ranking undersells the Kuga. It’s a bit of an underrated star.

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