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The renaissance for the Blue Oval in Malaysia continues with a vehicle that has essentially been needed for the brand here for quite a while now. The arrival of the Ford Kuga later this evening will finally plug the void left by the sterling but long-suffering Escape.

The Escape was a true trooper, even if never the prettiest – it soldiered on gamely from the very early part of the century (sounds old, doesn’t it?) with an iffy four-speed gearbox and lumpish 2.0 litre Zetec mill through to repackaging jobs in 2009 and 2010, which pressed it on into the current decade. That it stayed that long in service was partly circumstance and partly how the brand once viewed the Asean market.

Not any more, as exemplified by the likes of the Fiesta, third-gen Focus and Mondeo. And now, despite all the missed opportunities an earlier introduction might have well staved, the brand is finally pitching the Kuga into the equation here. The first Kuga incarnation, the C394, never reached our shores, so it’s left to the second-generation C520 – which retains the Escape name in the US – to take the fight to the competition.

UPDATE: The Ford Kuga 1.6 EcoBoost Titanium has been launched, and is priced at RM159,999, OTR with insurance. Read the launch report here.

The Kuga arrives at a time when the particular mid-sized SUV segment is booming, burgeoned by the arrival of a slew of new temptresses, namely the Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5 and, most recently, the fourth-gen Honda CR-V. If it follows the estimated pricing that has been bandied for it (RM168k), the Valencia, Spain-built offering will enter the market as the most expensive of the lot, at least until the 2.4 litre version of the CR-V debuts.

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Still, to offset that, it’ll also be the most powerful, a mantle it will hold until the new Subaru Forester officially debuts, with a few distinguishing novelties thrown in for good measure. Malaysia will get a single engine variant (and a unique trim level mixture despite the Titanium badging, but more on this later), and this is a 1.6 litre EcoBoost, the turbocharged direct-injection mill good for 180 PS at 5,700 rpm and 240 Nm at 1,600 rpm to 5,000 rpm.

The unitary all-wheel drive offering will feature a six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission, specially calibrated for the EcoBoost and featuring revised gear ratios and a new torque converter. As for the Intelligent AWD system, it’s pretty sophisticated, with no less than 40 amplitude points being analysed in 16 millisecond intervals to ensure the Kuga remains sure-footed in all conditions.

There’s also Torque Vectoring Control and AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control and Curve Control in the mix, and the electric power steering gets Torque Steer Compensation and Active Nibble Compensation (sounds devilish, doesn’t it?) to trim off unwanted feedback.

The kitbag also includes an Active Grille Shutter (as seen on the Focus) and a segment-first hands-free tailgate, in which simply sweeping a foot under the rear bumper allows the opening or closing of the rear tailgate automatically. Two sensors means that you’ll need to show purpose in those kicks and be in possession of the key to get it to work.

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In use, it takes some practice to get it spot-on, but it’s a cool thing to have when your hands are full of shopping bags. Alternatively, the press of a button located on the tailgate shuts the powered tailgate, so you don’t have to kick to close the lid if you don’t want to.

What else? Also on the list are seven airbags (front, front thorax/pelvis, side curtain, driver knee), Electronic Stability Control (ESP) with ABS, Trailer Sway Control and Hill Start Assist, Brake Assist and rear parking sensors. Other bits are a Sony audio system replete with SYNC connectivity and keyless entry with push-button start.

The Malaysian Kuga will however not feature a Technology Pack, which includes items such as Active Park Assist, BLIS, Active City Stop, Lane Keeping Aid and Lane Departure Warning.

Interestingly, the omission means that the Kuga we’ll be getting will have a right indicator/left wiper stalk configuration, as opposed to the more European left indicator/right wiper layout deployed if the SUV comes equipped with the Tech Pack. It’s all to do with the way the harness arrangement is, as explained when the different layouts were noticed on the wide-ranging specification Australian examples.

Design-wise, the new Kuga derives its overall lines from the Vertrek Concept that debuted in Detroit in 2011. Much of the flow has made the migration, though the overall disposition for series production is less fettered and the bulk, leaner. Still, the lines are well resolved, and it’s an absolute scalpel if you consider its predecessor.

Wheelbase length is the same as the Escape (2,690 mm), but the Kuga is longer by 81 mm, measuring 4,524 mm from nose to tail, and narrower by four mm at 1,838 mm wide. It’s also lower at 1,702 mm tall (with roof rails in place), a reduction of eight mm. Other numbers are a 1,662 kg kerb weight (for the Malaysian version) and a cargo volume of 406 litres with rear seats in place, increasing to 1,603 litres with them folded.

The interior has all the current family hallmarks, with Focus-esque design elements peppered about. Both display instrumentation layout and function switch operational aspects are good, as is overall trim, but despite the claim that lots of clever spaces abound, storage at the front end remains average at best. The centre console, for one, feels bulkier than it should, and for all that mass has very little usable stowage space, not aided by an average volume cabin box.

As for cabin space on the whole, it’s still not the better of the CR-V, which champs everything else if internal acreage is one’s prime consideration. The rear isn’t what you’d call pinched, but as shown by the Chinese-market Kuga, you can always get more legroom (Ford boffins obtained more space in the Chinese version by shortening the rear seat cushions and eking extra space from the rear of the front seats).

During the regional media drive for the Kuga in Adelaide, virtually the entire range of local specification models were on call. Australia has six equipment variants in all, two each in entry-level Ambiente, mid-level Trend and range-topping Titanium trim, split into four petrol and two 2.0 litre Duratorq TDCI diesel versions. There’s even a FWD, six-speed manual in that mix, and this is the base Ambiente model.

The Titanium there wears 19-inch wheels and 235/45 tyres, which we won’t be getting for ours, as seen on the roadshow models recently – the local Kuga will wear 17-inch nine double-spoke alloys, wrapped with 235/55 donuts (Hankook DynaPro HP RA23s on the display cars). And unlike the full leather seats seen on the Oz version, our Titanium will feature a fabric/leather combination seat material, borrowing from what is essentially a Trend level specification.

Undoubtedly, the 19-inch alloys look the business and make the Kuga a bolder-looking proposition, but losing them in our equation isn’t a huge loss. On the roughish Oz blacktop, the level of comfort left a lot to be desired, with the feedback and shimmies over uneven terrain coming across in chatterbox fashion. Road noise levels coming off the tyres were also on the high side.

Moving to the 18-inch on the Trend calmed things down somewhat, and though the 17-inch steel units (with similar 235/55 tyre profile) on the Ambiente weren’t the least bit sexy looking, they offered the most compliant – and quietest – ride. Given the inability to push the Kuga about in hard or fast fashion, it proved to be the choice cut over the 250 km plus drive route.

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There were only a few chances to try out handling as a result, accomplished while in the Titanium by dropping back from the convoy and gunning it into a couple of corners. Steering feel is invariably on the dull side, with some off-centre void, but no complaints about speed or precision.

It’s certainly not final as a call, but there was plenty of promise suggested by those few turns, and the AWD system feels quite the ace. The Kuga’s front-back integration is, for want of a better word, taut, turn-in and lead-out showing how well consolidated it is dynamically.

My guess would be this should be the handling pick of the current C-segment SUV lot, shading even the class-leading CX-5, but a comparo involving both – and perhaps other competitors – down the line at some point should answer that question. Ahead of that will be the local media drive, which should better reveal the Kuga’s dynamic abilities.

A word about the EcoBoost, and tempering expectations; 180 PS and 240 Nm and the turbo moniker sounds like it should drive the pants off the competition in terms of acceleration and pull. The reality, however, is that with 1.6 tonnes to haul, the delivery is more linear and progressive than it is punchy, especially at the low-end of things. It’s not anaemic, because from the midband on things get sparklier, and in-gear takeup levels are good.

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The SelectShift transmission is smooth; clean shifting and displaying good transitional aspects traversing the cogs, this is an automatic with refinement and pedigree, a progression of the six-speed FWD boxes that came about during the Ford and GM collaboration on transmissions a while back. In short, there’s none of the rubbishy, erratic low-speed shift patterns like on the Fiesta’s dry dual-clutch PowerShift.

There was a short run with the 2.0 TDCI, and the oil burner displayed its usual characteristics; perky and willing, if rougher around the edges than the benzene equivalent, there’s little to not like with 340 Nm to pull things along. Equipped with a six-speed PowerShift, the transmission didn’t feel PowerShift-like, which furthered the liking some more. Shame it won’t be coming.

A few of the colours you see in the photos won’t be making their way here either, the Ink Blue and Burnished Glow (that copper-looking shade) among them. We’ll be getting four colours, these being Frozen White, Moondust Silver, Panther Black and the hero shade, Ginger Ale.

The initial drive showed that the Ford Kuga certainly has more than what it takes to match wits with the rest of the assembled SUV cast available here. The question is whether you’re contrarian enough to consider having frisson served by such alternative means, one that’s arguably more left-field than the CX-5. If you are, this sounds like just the trick.