It’s pretty unusual for a car maker to reuse nameplates on different models, at least here in Europe. I mean of course there many cases when a model has been relaunched (such as the Fiat 500, MINI or VW Beetle) and there are also times when a manufacturer has decided to reuse an old name in a new marketplace (like the new Ford Escort), but it’s rare that a name is used on a completely different type of car altogether.
Ford’s former mid-range brand Mercury used the Cougar nameplate on a series of coupes for many decades, with the last generation Cougar making the transition across the Atlantic and into European showrooms with a Ford badge but name model name. As a relatively striking coupe based on the 90’s Mondeo platform, the Cougar was a bigger sister to the smaller (and far more popular) Ford Puma and shared it’s big-car naming strategy and sporty handling. Despite being a relatively good value and performance proposition, the Cougar was not a success – the large coupe market was in a worldwide decline (amongst non-premium marques at least), and even the nameplate’s long heritage in the USA did not prevent the Cougar from being discontinued a mere 3 years after launch.
Fast-forward a mere 6 years and Ford decided to re-use the Cougar name on a similarly dramatically styled but very different small crossover it was launching in Europe. Spelt K-U-G-A yet pronounced the same, it was hoped that European buyers would not really remember the ill-fated ‘koupe’ and instead embrace the sporty nameplate and car itself. This strategy was actually one used by Ford on the launch of their last European targeted SUV, the Maverick. In North America the original Maverick was a compact sports car, but the 1993 European model was a lacklustre rebadging of the Nissan Terrano II. Alot changed in 2001 when the second Maverick was launched, this time it was the extremely popular US Ford Escape but with a different name on the boot. I actually really liked the chunky little American car, but a lack of diesel engine and failure of Ford to market the car aggressively meant that the Maverick/Escape disappeared from the UK in late 2003 and remains a rare sight.
I guess it was this dismal failure of past efforts that led Ford to choose the exciting (if slightly confusing) Kuga name, but in all fairness they could have called it anything and it would still have been the strong seller which it turned out to be. Based on the platform of the ubiquitous Ford Focus the Kuga is a very striking vehicle to behold, especially for a vehicle from a mainstream manufacturer. The Kinetic styling language used on late 00’s Fords is very prominent here, with the large swept-back headlights and trapezoidal grille giving the car real presence at the front. A relatively short but dramatic body features chrome detailing and usually large alloy wheels, whilst the rear dual exhaust pipes and silver underbody cladding give the impression of a junior Range Rover Sport, which to be honest is the best comparison I can make with the entire car.
Inside things can be similarly dramatic. The basic layout is the user friendly (if slightly bland) one used on the Ford Focus, C-MAX and Mondeo. Lots of silver plastic and a decent amount of soft touch materials make the car feel light and airy (despite smallish windows and large rear blindspots!). The driving position is higher than other Fords but maybe not level with larger SUVS, though front visibility is good; driver controls are slightly unusual however as the handbrake is similar to an aeroplane controller and the gear lever is mounted high up as with MPV’s and some SUV’s like the Honda CR-V. Because the Kuga is positioned a little higher than other Fords, trim levels (and prices) are at the higher end of the spectrum; all models come with air-con or climate control, with alot of models having an excellent Sony stereo and the decent Ford navigation system. Heated seats and leather can also bed had but are not a common find. Where Ford decided to be really different though was with it’s choice of interior colours – contrasting orange and white to the regular black are a regular sight, even orange dashboards are not unheard of! Similarly different from competitors is the disappointing practicality that Ford bestowed on the Kuga. Despite having a useful split tailgate the luggage space is smaller than many family hatchbacks, as is rear seat space and there are few cubbies in the cabin. Rivals like the Honda and Nissan’s X Trail offer much larger interiors, and whislt this shouldn’t put me off that much it it nevertheless something that enters my mind.
On the road is where most Fords shine and the Kuga is no exception. Those second generation Focus underpinnings mean that handling is very sharp, and even with the larger alloys of high spec variants the ride is compliant for the vast majority of journeys. No other rival in the Kuga’s class give it a run for it’s money in terms of driver enjoyment, and it would run an Audi Q5 or BMW X3 very close on a twisty road. This extends to the Kuga’s engine options, which whilst abit limited ultimately offer exactly what the average buyer of the car is after. Two diesel engined variants can be had, both 2L engines with differing power outputs that are competitive for the class and in many cases better rivals for speed and torque. For a while there was also a turbo charged 5 cylinder petrol engine, sourced from Volvo and used in the Ford Focus ST (albeit tuned to give higher bhp) the engine was not really very popular but was able to challenge hot hatchbacks in acceleration. Fuel economy for the diesels was around 44mpg compared with 30 for the petrol version, so running costs won out for the majority of buyers.
It’s clear that Ford made a very good car when they produced that Kuga, much better than the previous effort with a similar name, but ultimately they chose to replace the car after a mere 4 years on sale…pretty much unheard of even for a Japanese brand let alone Ford! Why? Well the Kuga was a victim of it’s own success; the US Ford Escape had been on sale with relatively few changes since 2001 and buyers were starting to cotton on that Ford offered a much better small crossover (more in tune with modern rivals) across the Atlantic. But because of the small interior and limited petrol engine options it meant that an entirely new car had to be produced rather than merely transplanting the Kuga to North America. The second generation Escape and Kuga are one and the same, with similar styling yet larger interior and cheaper price (because of economies of scale) the current car is arguably a better all-rounder, if less of a driver’s car than the original.
As with the Ford Maverick before it, I am a fan of the Kuga and for a while seriously looked at one as my next potential ride. Whilst it is a very different car from the likes of X5 and ML it still offers a relatively premium image and raised driving position alongside significantly cheaper running costs and possibly more modern equipment tally. Yet all these plus points mean that used Kugas have a very high value on the used market…cars with navigation start at around £11k and ones with leather are even more – maybe if I lowered my sights a bit then a more spartan 2WD Zetec could be had for under £10k, but considering I could get an ML only a year or 2 older for a similar amount it seems unlikely I will go with the Blue Oval’s offering.