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2011 Ford Kuga - The Cars We Need Now!

Georg KacherwritersTom Saltphotographers

Launched this past June, the Kuga is a compact, five-seat crossover designed by Englishman Martin Smith, who left General Motors to join Ford in early 2004. He and his team created an aerodynamic yet extroverted skin, which is accentuated by available wheels as large as nineteen inches. Stylish and fashionable, the new crossover from Ford of Europe is about the same length as a Ford Escape, but it sits astride a 2.8-inch-longer wheelbase.

The long stretch between the axles helps provide a commendably roomy cabin, although the stubby rear end encloses a rather small cargo hold (maximum capacity is 47.9 cubic feet). For passengers, there's plenty of cabin space, first-rate ergonomics, and premium-feeling materials. The rather uncomfortable and unsupportive seats are the only letdown. Ford offers a host of deluxe extras, including a large glass sunroof, keyless ignition, a heated windshield, dual-zone air-conditioning, and a backup camera.

The Kuga buyer's most significant option, though, is all-wheel drive. Ford chose a progressively variable AWD system that employs a Haldex clutch to distribute the forces between the axles. A brake-operated virtual limited-slip differential optimizes the side-to-side torque flow.

Like many European Fords, the Kuga uses the highly efficient modular C matrix-the basis of the Mazda 3, the Volvo S40, and other North American products. It's a solid, driver-oriented platform that blends inspiring handling with good ride comfort. The car-based Kuga is free of fun-killers like excessive body roll, sloppy steering, spongy brakes, and terminal understeer. Instead, it invites you to explore its strengths, such as sure-footed roadholding, energetic grip, and excellent all-wheel-drive traction, which makes all the difference on slippery blacktop and through tight corners. At more than 3500 pounds in AWD guise, the Kuga is no featherweight, but it nonetheless covers ground with enthusiasm and effortlessness. Just about the only serious dynamic drawback is the excessive vertical body movement on uneven freeway sections, which can threaten the otherwise impeccable high-speed directional stability.

In Europe, Ford offers only one engine in the Kuga, a 136-hp, 2.0-liter diesel four-cylinder that pumps out 236 lb-ft of torque. The diesel is incredibly frugal, achieving 37 mpg in the European test cycle in both front- and all-wheel-drive models, giving the Kuga a range of some 550 miles. Its acceleration, however, is not exactly rocketlike (0 to 62 mph in 10.7 seconds), and it runs out of steam at 113 mph. The Kuga comes equipped exclusively with a six-speed manual transmission-no automatic is available. However, a second engine choice-a 2.5-liter, 200-hp, gasoline-burning five-cylinder-due later this year, will offer both manual and automatic transmissions. When the U.S. model goes into production, Ford likely will add a 145-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, also gasoline-powered. A mild hybrid may follow suit, but Ford is still mum on the timing. Another possibility is a stretched seven-seat Kuga that would feature an extended wheelbase and a longer rear overhang.

Why we want it:One word: style. Why We Need It:It may seem to be the odd man out in Ford's lineup, but the Kuga holds appeal for the fashion conscious.