Swish range-topping trim level is an attempt to take Ford’s facelifted SUV upmarket
The new Ford Kuga Vignale is a retaliative swipe at the likes of Audi, BMW and Land Rover (all of whom have been making lots of money out of Europe’s growing love affair with the SUV, thank you very much) by one of Europe’s biggest car makers (still hoping to do equally well out of it, fingers crossed). It’s the best reason that Ford can come up with not to buy an Audi Q3, a BMW X1, a new Volkswagen Tiguan or a lower-end Range Rover Evoque. And yet it’s not quite a good reason.
Having just given the Kuga a thorough mid-life facelift, Ford is banking on a healthy dose of extra standard equipment here, as well as some new quilted leather seats, shiny alloy wheels and relatively appealing personal finance deals, to transform its five-seat SUV into a credible alternative to premium brands.
There are precisely no meaningful mechanical differences between a Kuga Titanium X and a Vignale. Instead, the Vignale gives you almost everything worth having from the options list (park assist, a powered tailgate, adaptive headlights and an 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system, for starters), as well as lots of Windsor leather, for a price that should still look like value next to a similarly equipped Audi or BMW.
The Kuga’s lesser engines aren’t part of the Vignale range, but you can choose between I80bhp 1.5-litre turbo petrol, 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel and 178bhp 2.0-litre diesel powerplants, as well as automatic and manual gearboxes.
Ford would be quick to add that, like its other Vignale models, the Kuga goes through 100 extra quality checks during assembly compared with a regular model. It’s
dusted with ostrich feathers prior to painting, for heaven’s sake. So what more, exactly, could the company have done to be worthy of that splash of cash?
Like its range mates, the Kuga Vignale is an agile and often encouraging kind of SUV to drive. There’s a bit of elasticity to the steering feel and an occasional clunkiness to the ride quality over harsher urban roads on optional 19in wheels. But it blends a taut yet compliant ride with direct, darty directional response, strong body control and good grip levels, constructing a keen sense of dynamism that’s rare in a car of this kind.
However, the 178bhp 2.0 diesel engine is noisy at high revs compared with the premium brand opposition, and the dual-clutch automatic gearbox can be a bit clumsy and slow to kick down. Acceleration feels fairly strong, but it’s no surprise to discover that this Kuga gives up more than two seconds to its German-branded rivals on the claimed 0-62mph sprint.
The Kuga Vignale’s leather front seats are comfortable and tactile, but the rear ones are still rather thin in the cushion, and space in both rows could be better. And for every material highlight and flourish around the cabin, there’s also a dull, hard plastic moulding or a flimsy bit of trim to burst the bubble of luxury you’d momentarily been enjoying. In a £25k car, those cheaper materials maybe okay, but they’re difficult to forgive in a £35k one.
Ford’s new Sync3 infotainment system also leaves a mixed impression. Navigation mapping is displayed at a more useful scale than before on the 8.0in screen and the addition of smartphone mirroring systems for Apple and Android phones is long overdue. But the system responds only reluctantly when you try to pinch and swipe your way around its maps and its online connectivity options are still limited.
Although that poised, precise drive is as distinguishing and likeable as ever, the Kuga is out of its depth at a near-£35,000 showroom price.
At a lower price point, avoiding the Powershift transmission, the Kuga still makes a competitive case for keener drivers. But as raw material for Ford’s already shaky-looking attempt to expand upmarket, it lacks the necessary class and polish.
Pseudo-premium Ford SUV has encouraging handling but lacks the completeness of its new-found rivals
Ford Kuga Vignale 2.0 TDCI 180 Powershift AWD
Engine: 4cyls, 1997cc, diesel
Power: 178bhp at 3500rpm
Torque: 295lb ft at 2000rpm
Gearbox: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
Kerb weight: 1716kg
Top speed: 124mph
Economy: 57.6mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band: 134g/km, 26%
Rivals: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0TDI 190, BMW X1 xDrive20d