Diesel engines were once the bread and butter of the family SUV segment.
Even five years ago, if you wanted a big high-riding machine for transporting lots of people and stuff you’d most likely end up with a 2.0-litre oil-burning lump under the bonnet, regardless of what badge was on that bonnet.
Times have moved on however and more and more brands are ditching DERV entirely, with Ford among them.
It recently discontinued diesel versions of its popular Kuga family SUV and has thrown all its weight into hybrid motors to offer diesel-like economy without the stigma.
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There’s still a 1.5-litre straight petrol model offering 148bhp, and around 40mpg but the Kuga also comes with a 2.5-litre petrol in full “self-charging” or plug-in hybrid guise, both of which are front-wheel-drive and come with a CVT transmission as standard. The full hybrid offers 187bhp and claimed economy of around 49mpg while the PHEV has 222bhp and features the usual ridiculous 200mpg+ claims.
Silly official figures aside, the plug-in variant is one of the first PHEVs to properly impress me with its performance. It might just be good fortune that my needs matched its characteristics, but over several hundred miles on a variety of roads the Kuga returned an impressive 70mpg. That was with regular overnight charging to top up the battery, but with no change to my driving style and with the hybrid system largely left to its own devices.
The full hybrid will never match the economy of the plug-in if it’s used properly but still returns mid-40s economy easily and can be coaxed north of 50mpg without too much effort. It’s also around £1,000 cheaper. Which is the better choice will come down to how and where you use it and whether you have access to home charging.
In either arrangement and either of the two trims I recently tested, the Kuga’s ride remains problematic. It’s just the wrong side of firm, with a brittleness that rivals like the Nissan Qashqai and Honda CR-V have largely eliminated. The Vignale’s softer suspension is offset by bigger wheels so there’s not a huge difference in ride quality between it and the ST-Line Edition. For a truly decent ride you’ll need to step down to a Titanium spec car with smaller wheels. Of course, in typical Ford fashion, it handles better than most other rivals, cornering neatly and masking its size well.
Whether on-road dynamism is more important than comfort in a family SUV is a personal choice but, either way, the Kuga has the practical side of things covered.
There are more interesting and stylish interiors in the segment but the Ford’s solid simplicity is a welcome approach and easy to simply get in and drive without endless messing about with touchscreens and menus.
It’s also practical and spacious, with decent legroom even behind tall front-seat occupants and enough head and shoulder space to fit three rear-seat passengers. The boot ranges from 412 to 526 litres depending on how you position the sliding and reclining rear seats.
Vignale is now well established as the top trim level in Ford’s line-up, offering all the luxury goodies you could want and probably some you can live without. Fittingly, it’s also the most expensive, although only by around £1,300. Given how well equipped the ST-Line Edition is, the choice really comes down to whether you prefer the sportier looks of the ST-Line or the chrome embellishments and quilted leather of the Vignale.
Both versions come with full LED headlights with self-dipping function, a power tailgate, keyless entry, 12.3-inch digital instruments, dual zone climate and an eight-inch Sync3 touchscreen with smartphone mirroring
The Vignale adds active noise cancellation, heated rear seats, wireless phone charging, fancy leather trim and a unique exterior styling kit that won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Regardless of the trim level, the Kuga remains a major force in the family SUV segment. The compromised comfort aside, it’s spacious, practical and well equipped and, particularly in PHEV form, is impressively frugal.
Ford Kuga Vignale PHEV
Price: £39,305 ((£40,995 as tested); Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder, petrol with single electric motor ;Power: 222bhp; Torque: n/a; Transmission: CVT automatic; Top speed: 125mph; 0-62mph: 9.2 seconds; Economy: 256.8mpg; CO2 emissions: 25g/km; Ford Kuga 35 miles