The name might be funny, but Ford's SUV is a real attention-grabber ... and it's a great ride
Parked in a row along the esplanade in front of the Adelaide hotel, 10 of Ford's new mid-sized SUV were attracting attention from locals taking their morning beach walk and tourists in search of breakfast.
Ford staff, preparing the cars for the press drive programme from the seaside suburb of Glenelg to the South Australia coast, had already garnered interest from locals, and still the curious came.
As I sat in one of the vehicles, a 30-something husband and wife diverted off the esplanade and headed to my Ford.
Nodding with interest, the woman walked to the rear of the vehicle, noted the nameplate and said to her husband, "it's a K-U-G-A".
He looked puzzled. "Koo-ja?" he asked.
No, I told them the name was Kuga (pronounced cougar) - though it wasn't their fault the model was unknown to them.
Already successful in Europe, the Kuga was badged Escape in the USA, with two million sales there since its 2001 launch.
So, when offered the chance to introduce the first-generation Kuga last year, Ford New Zealand sold a limited number of the top-of-the-range Titanium, priced at $53,990.
But at that price, and with the second-generation already selling in Europe, the Kuga was no competition for market leaders Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
But that is about to change.
In Australia, the Kuga (or should that be "koo-ja"?) will start at A$27,990 for the manual two-wheel-drive petrol model - which would have brightened the Adelaide couple's morning.
Ford New Zealand will be introducing five models - all with all-wheel-drive and automatics only - and expects to sell 120 units a month.
Starting the range will be the base model Ambiente - priced from $39,990 for the 1.6-litre petrol engine - slotting in next to the two-wheel-drive 2013 RAV4 and just over $2000 more than last year's manual base model CR-V.
Next is the Trend with the same petrol engine or a 2-litre diesel ($43,9990 and $45,990 respectively), then the top-spec, leather interior Titanium with a 1.6-litre petrol ($52,990) or for $2000 more, the diesel variant.
Both engines are new to the range. The petrol engine's fuel consumption has been reduced by 25 per cent and the diesel engine's consumption by 10 per cent, compared to the previous-generation Kuga.
The 1.6-litre Eco-Boost petrol engine has 134kW and 240Nm of torque, while my favoured diesel has 120kW but a road sure 240Nm that came into force while overtaking during the South Australia drive programme at the Asia-Pacific launch.
Also highlighted during the day-long route was the AWD's new Ford Curve Control system that helped if you entered a corner too quickly - as my co-driver decided to test several times.
The AWD system assessed the conditions and countered against understeer, and could further assist by reducing engine torque.
The new AWD system could pre-emptively assess road conditions 20 times faster than it took to blink an eye, and readjust the power split to give the driver the best blind of handling and traction.
Although you are seated high, the road handling of the Kuga was more in tune with a sedan, with little body roll and admirable road handing.
Added to that is the exterior and interior appearance of the crossover. The all-new Kuga is 81mm longer (at 4524mm), 4mm narrower (at 1838mm) and 8mm lower (1702) than the first-generation model.
It gained a less bulky-looking front and a slim-line grille that blends in to the angled front lights before flowing into the sculptured side panels.
Inside, the front console has a compact middle arrangement - with Ford's SYNC audio system dominating the line - before moving to the air-conditioning unit then the gear lever and on to the hand brake. You've gotta love a hand brake over the ever increasing electronic brake.
Ford Australia president Bob Graziano said the all-new Kuga had more technology than any other Ford in New Zealand.
That technology, available in the Trend and Titanium models, included active city stop (automatic braking), blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control.
Another clever feature, available in the Titanium only, was the hands-free powered tailgate that opened or closed by a foot sweep (or kick) under the rear bumper, as long as you had the key in your pocket or purse.
I had tested the technology in a European station wagon in Auckland recently - swiping my foot back and forward under the tailgate while parked by a supermarket and my arms loaded with groceries. I balanced on one leg while swiping, but the boot refused to automatically open, and more embarrassingly I attracted the attention of an elderly shopper who offered to help me as she presumed I was injured.
But with the Kuga, a kick (without coming in contact with the bumper) and then a pause proved successful. The boot swung slowly open and another kick closed it.
The technology is going to prove a popular function of the Titanium - and, to be honest, an old woman isn't going to look twice at you as you kick your car - as opposed to making the one-legged sweep.
We must wait
Australian buyers have gained the Ford Emergency Assistance system that automatically dials help in the case of a serious accident, but it may be a while before it is available in NZ.
In more than five million Ford vehicles globally, the system works via Ford's SYNC infotainment and a Bluetooth-paired phone. If you're in a serious crash in which airbags are deployed, the car automatically rings emergency services, tells the operator a Ford vehicle has been in a serious accident and audibly gives the GPS co-ordinates.
Ford NZ managing director Neale Hill said that he has been working with our emergency service to implement it here but it might take up to 18 months before it is available.