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What’s this?

It’s the facelifted Ford Kuga (or Ford Escape, if you’re American), tested here as an uber-posh Vignale. The Kuga is Ford’s mid-size crossover/SUV-thing, which means it competes with heavyweights like the Nissan Qashqai, plus the new Peugeot 3008 and Seat Ateca. It’s sandwiched between the Edge and EcoSport in Ford’s three-strong line-up of SUVs in Europe, and even though it’s technically been on sale the longest, it’s probably the best of the three.

What’s new?

Many things. For starters, you can actually tell it apart from the car it replaces – unusual for a mere facelift nowadays. New front- and rear-ends bring it more into line with the Edge and EcoSport, says Ford. We think it’s done a tidy job. Inside little has changed except the infotainment system, with the much-maligned SYNC system trashed to make room for SYNC 3.

ST-Line cars get sports seats and different chassis tuning, while Vignales like this one get a hexagonal grille, special paintwork, bespoke trim, upscale leather upholstery and a few other bits and pieces. All Vignales are apparently hand-finished in a special bit of Ford’s Valencia factory, with each one hand-polished for up to two hours.

What does Vignale even mean?

It was an Italian coachbuilder, established just outside Turin a few years after the end of World War Two. Responsible for many tremendous-looking cars (Google the Ferrari 212 Vignale. Go on…), Vignale was sold to De Tomaso in 1969, and then acquired by Ford (along with Ghia) in the early Seventies. Ford promptly adopted the Ghia badge for its posh trim-levels, and effectively killed Vignale.

Ghia died in the Noughties, and now it’s Vignale that stands for posh Fords. Yes, you get the fancy leather, trim and whatever else, but Ford wants its new sub-brand to stand for more than that – so customers get a kind of concierge service that can do all manner of things, a dedicated ‘relationship manager’, plus priority servicing and stuff like that.

It’s a Ford. Is all this really necessary?

Apparently so. Four in every five Kugas sold in Europe in 2015 were ‘Titanium’ spec (before Vignale, the highest trim-level Ford offered), signalling a desire for Fords with much equipment. Ford takes this to mean there are people out there who want to spend even more money on its products, even when they could be scraping into Audis and BMWs.

It’s worth noting that for now, only big Fords can be Vignale’d – besides the Kuga, there’s the S-Max, Edge and Mondeo. A generation down the line Vignales will be developed at the same time as standard versions - rather than being added in later.

Fair enough. Engines?

It has one. A 2.0-litre diesel with 178bhp, here with all-wheel drive and a ‘PowerShift’ automatic transmission. And it’s absolutely fine. A bit grumbly now and then, but quick enough when you need it to be, and quiet enough not to disrupt the aura of the Vignale-fettled cabin. The gearbox isn’t the fastest thing in the world no matter what mode it’s in. It’s no DSG, but it’s more than up to the task of getting the quite lardy Kuga up and running. Unremarkable is probably how we’d describe it.

Your other options range from a FWD-only 1.5-litre diesel with 118bhp to some uneconomical, not especially fast petrols that presumably few will buy, via a 148bhp version of the 2.0-litre diesel we tried. The 1.5-litre diesel is the most economical Kuga (with the manual ‘box Ford claims 64.2mpg) and the fastest is the 2.0-litre 178bhp diesel, which with the six-speed manual gearbox does 0-62mph in a heady 9.2 seconds. It’s worth noting not all engines are available in Vignale spec, either.

Good to drive? Fords usually are…

Here’s the thing – as my colleague Stephen Dobie pointed out in his review of the Ford Edge – only a few years ago pretty much every car Ford made was the best driving car in its class. They may not have had the best interiors, they may not have been the most well equipped, cheapest or most comfortable, but you could rely on Ford to dish-out fine-driving cars time and time again, from the Fiesta right the way through to the S-Max and Galaxy. But things have changed. Because everything Ford makes nowadays has to appeal to Americans as well as Europeans, its cars have lost some of their dynamic sparkle.

Take the Kuga. It’s good – with well-weighted steering and a chassis that, though it’s quite clearly been set-up for comfort, is happy enough at speed – but it’s not the stand-out at the top of its class that the Mk1 Kuga was when it was launched many, many moons ago. This is a shame but, inevitably, the price of progress.

It’s still up there, though. Definitely the best-driving Ford SUV, which is something, and it’s probably among the best four or five cars in its class. And it’s very comfortable – quiet at speed, with a mostly decent ride and therefore great at covering distance.

And inside?

Feels a bit old now. Go sit in a new Peugeot 3008 and you’ll see what we mean. Roomy, though, and SYNC 3 is a big step-up from its predecessor. The graphics are nicer, and it all operates with a reassuring slickness. And now Apple Car Play and Android Auto are on-board, too. It’s not perfect – pinching and scrolling through a map still takes a bit of concentration – but it’s definitely better.

The Vignale’s dashboard and comfy seats are slathered in stitched leather. Looks and feels great, but some tinny plastics remains elsewhere. Kit is predictably plentiful, and so you’d hope for a near £31,000 starting price (the car we tested was more like £35,000…).

Should I buy one?

The new Kuga is a competitive thing, even though it’s one of the older cars in a class full of fairly new ones. If you buy one we’re sure you’ll be happy enough with it. The real question is whether Ford can convince people to embrace Vignale and everything it involves, when they could have something with an arguably sexier badge (but much less kit, and no special treatment at the dealer) for similar money. Ford thinks yes, we’re reserving judgement.

What do you think?

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