We on this newspaper are not known for our love of 4x4s. But neither should we allow prejudice and gut feeling to obscure the facts.
As a motoring writer, I am not keen on the 4x4 genre outside its proper area of use (on tough terrain). But this new Ford Kuga opens the mind. First, it has a CO2 emissions rating of 169g/km, lower than that of any comparable car including the Honda CR-V. Second, being based on Ford's so-called C-car underpinnings, on which the best-driving family hatchback on the planet is also based (the Ford Focus), suggests the promise of decent dynamic abilities.
Model: Ford Kuga 2.0 TDCi
Prices: £20,500 (Zetec), £22,500 (Titanium). On sale June
Engine: 1,997cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 136bhp at 4,000rpm, 236lb ft at 2,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 112mph, 0-62 in 10.7 seconds, 44.1mpg official average,
There has been a similar-sounding Ford before – in name, anyway. A decade ago Ford's US arm launched the Cougar coupé, which was sold here with little success despite being a fully formed example of Ford's European-inspired "edge design" canon. This time, the etymologically different but phonetically familiar Ford comes from the "kinetic design" school which ousted edginess via an interregnum of rather dull sobriety.
Yes, the Kuga is Kinetic. Its design is meant to suggest motion, to make you want to drive the car. Buyers of cars like this, who often buy them for show as much as for usefulness, like a bit of visual bling and the Kuga obliges. There's almost a taste of 1950s automotive Americana in the fake air vents under the headlights and just ahead of the doors, set into the bash-proof plastic front wings. The other plastic body panel, this one thicker and stiffer, is the upper tailgate surround which can be opened separately from the main tailgate and gives a bigger loading hole than opening the window alone, as found in some estate cars, would provide.
Ford has obvious connections with Volvo and Land Rover, both experienced in four-wheel drive systems, even if the British brand now belongs to Tata. But that doesn't mean the Kuga shares technology with the bigger Freelander and Volvo XC60, although it does have a stability system designed to stop it rolling over. Not that such a disaster is remotely likely, as you can sense within yards of driving the Kuga.
It feels like the taller, wider, longer-wheelbase Focus it effectively is, which means no other compact 4x4 comes near the Kuga's kinetic prowess. Just one engine will be available when sales start in June, the 2.0-litre, 136bhp turbodiesel, but it's an engine well suited to the Kuga. Ford's 200bhp, 2.5-litre, five-cylinder petrol turbo joins the diesel later in the year. It will be faster but a lot thirstier.
The diesel has the crisp-edged, punchy power delivery typical of today's better diesels, which sets the tone for the driving experience. When you set off in a 4x4, you're normally prepared for two possible outcomes. Either the machine will feel top-heavy and threaten to trip over its outside front wheel if you turn too enthusiastically, or its suspension will feel hard and fidgety because it's designed to stop the car leaning too much, too soon. A Honda CR-V is a 4x4 which manages to avoid these extremes, feeling instead much like a normal car, but the Kuga takes things a stage further.
Its steering is terrific: crisp and consistent. I can't think of a 4x4 that steers better. The Kuga stays level in the corners yet it soaks up bumps with surprising serenity. It feels alert and agile yet it keeps its passengers comfortable. Truly, I have not before encountered a 4x4 as adept at eating the cake it possesses. Ford's slogan is "Feel the Difference", and you absolutely can.
Provided, that is, you don't try to mess things up by playing with the gimmick that can make the steering "sportier" by adding resistance and therefore weighting, or more "comfortable" by increasing the power assistance. Neither feels natural.
Some markets will have front-drive-only Kugas at the bottom of their ranges, but for the UK all will have four-wheel drive with power sent to the rear wheels when needed. There's no need for any driver intervention, even when off-roading, which is something the Kuga does quite competently.
The UK also gets upmarket trim levels, called Zetec and Titanium in usual Ford fashion. The first of these can be had with an interesting finish on the interior trim garnishes, a soft-looking, semi-matt sheen either in blue or orange. The seats are mono-striped to match. If your choice of exterior colour clashes with these hues, though, you can instead have something which looks like aluminium. In the grander Titanium there's shiny blackness and half-leather seating, with full leather optional.
Common to all Kugas, though, is a feeling of quality and solidity, and an interior ambience more car-like than 4x4-like. The dashboard is shared with the Focus C-Max, for example.
If you like 4x4s, you'll love this one. If you don't, it's the one most likely to change your mind.
Honda CR-V 2.2 i-CDTi: from £18,990
Looks like an estate car plonked on top of a truck, but is roomy, well finished and feels good to drive. Excellent diesel engine, passable off-road ability.
Mitsubishi Outlander 2.0 D-iD: from £19,449
Another gentle off-roader; this one lets you turn off 4WD. Has seven seats and a VW engine. Mitsubishi-made Peugeot 4007/Citroë*C-Crosser very similar.
Vauxhall Antara 2.0 CDTi: from £21,105
Korean-built and good-looking, shares Chevy Captiva underpinnings. Petrol version slow and thirsty, manual diesel clumsy to drive, auto version worth a look.