Each generation of Kia’s Sportage model is a microcosm of the South Korean brand’s status in the marketplace.
The first, back in 1995, represented their first foray into Western markets and was cheap and not very cheerful. The second iteration, a decade later, was more worthy but remained dull. It did reflect Kia’s growing interest in Europe and from 2007 was built in Slovakia for Western consumption.
The latest, on sale in the UK from August 2010, is contemporary Kia in every respect – bold and desirable. The Sportage is the most distinctive model in its current range and when you cast any eye across the other mid-sized crossover SUVs on the market, it’s one of the most daring-looking models you can buy full stop.
Last week there was a trending topic amongst the car-loving Twitterati about motoring writers’ clichés, and inevitably there was one about seemingly every Kia article that’s written lately referencing former Volkswagen and Audi stylist Peter Schreyer, who’s now responsible for the look of the current range. So, I’ll do all I can to avoid that for fear of being mocked by the legions of professional motoring writers.
Exploring the Sportage’s exterior is a delight. It’s not perfect, being spoilt a little by some overly glitzy detailing, but the basic proportions are spot on. A strong, easily recognisable nose, leads on to simple, elegant body sides, featuring a high waistline and shallow side windows. And those windows are framed by thick pillars at either end. Such defining characteristics are also visible on much of Schreyer’s Germanic work, including the late 90s New Beetle and TT… D’oh!
To be fair, the Sportage is the greatest exponent of Schreyer’s style since those aforementioned models hit the roads and fair play to Kia for being brave in giving him an essentially free rein to allow his pen to flourish. And whilst those aforementioned cues may pay a homage to his earlier work (and those rear bumper-mounted lights are very reminiscent of Audi’s Q5 and Q7) the Sportage nevertheless has a unique look.
If further proof were needed of the styling’s success in the eyes of the public, the lines of the Sportage drew praise from everyone I spoke to about it. The now regular car park chats with interested passers-by were all positive, with one querying if it cost more than £40,000. It was only the revelation of the Kia badge that altered the perspective of people, but even then these were limited to a handful of badge snobs. The common theme was summed up succinctly when someone rhetorically asked “Kia – they make good cars now, don’t they?”
Like the smaller Soul, the Sportage wears some audacious detailing. The bonnet is deeply scalloped, leading to an aggressive nose with slanted headlamps containing the bright LED day running lights which are fast becoming de rigeur. The lower edges of the bumpers are unpainted grey plastic to emphasise the tough and rugged nature of the would-be mud plugger, a feature that blends seamlessly up and around the wheel arches. Those arches are filled with machine finished 18” alloys, embellished with gloss black paint and are a fine accompaniment to the Sportage’s tuneful lines. The rear quarters are especially distinctive with a very straight vertical edge to the rear doors, emphasised by a wide C-pillar and a widened chrome finishing strip.
Those chrome elements lend an air of bling to other areas of the design. Small, silvered eyebrows above the oversized front fog lights are a matter of taste, as is the bright grille surround which is a centimetre too thick to my eyes. Saying that, the chromed door handles look classy and the wing-shaped crease in the lower extremities of the doors works well too. Legislation may mean the main -rear lamp lenses are too high to house the indicators and therefore may warrant (as well as mimic) the Audi SUV-style strip of lights in the rear bumper, but it still smacks of afterthought. I’m sure a more elegant solution could have been found.
Overall, I find the styling a success. With the chrome jewellery and bright white paint finish I could have easily featured in an amateur hip hop music video. If such things are filmed round the ghettos of Lincoln.
The UK Sportage line-up follows Kia’s current trend of using numbers in order to establish levels of trim for car park bragging rights, although none are badged as such. 1 is the entry level grade, 2 is mid-spec and 3 sits at the top of the range. Models with all the wheels driven are prefixed KX.
Front wheel drive models are powered by either the 1.6 GDi petrol engine or the 1.7 CRDi diesel unit tested here. The 4WD variants have either a GDi or CRDi powerplant of a 2-litre capacity, mated to both manual and automatic transmissions.
The Sportage range starts at £17,295 for the ‘1’ 1.6 GDi 2WD rising to £25,925 for the flagship KX-3 Sat Nav 2.0 CRDi AWD.
Climbing aboard the Sportage and you inevitably feel a little deflated. It’s a pleasant enough dashboard that faces you as you make yourself comfortable about the wheel but there’s little of the panache that graces the exterior panel work.
Charcoal grey and silvered plastic surfaces abound, combined with black leather seating, lending an austere air to the cabin, but a glazed roof, with retractable shades, makes it feel much more airy. The front half of the roof is an electric tilt and slide sunroof, although typically this is a feature rarely used in a dual-zone climate controlled interior.
The dashboard mouldings themselves follow current trends of being squeezable, soft-touch materials in the main. All the switchgear feels precise and good to use too, falling easily to hand. The infotainment colour touchscreen display works well too, controlling all audio functions, the Bluetooth connection for the phone, sat nav display and rear view camera monitor. It’s only fault is that at times the angle of the display can make it appear nigh on invisible when the sun shines on it as it’s fairly flush with the dash surface, rather than being recessed to create shadows to promote visibility.
What is disappointing in the interior is the comparatively cheaper feeling bestowed on the door panels. The door cards themselves are of a harder plastic than the dash and the colour doesn’t quite match up either. They have deep door bins in each of the four that all have space for bottles, should you wish to do so, but they feel, unsatisfying. Grab the silver-painted door release handle and as your fingertips explore the edge of the moulding seam, you’ll know what I mean.
The front seats are six way adjustable and are comfortable, even on long journeys. The seat bases could do with being a few inches longer though for a more supreme driving position. They also could use more side bolstering – cornering with vigour can result in your thighs sliding laterally across the seat. Not to a level that feels disconcerting, just to a degree that makes you wish you were penned in a bit more. The leather clad wheel adjusts for reach and rake, offering a clear view of the simple and effective instrumentation, while the gear lever and handbrake fall effortlessly to hand. And, between the seats, covering a deep cubby, a front centre armrest (yes!). Okay, it’s not adjustable but it’s at a useful enough height and angle to be worthwhile.
The rear, with that narrowing window line and privacy glass has the potential to feel claustrophobic, yet doesn’t at all. That glazed roof certainly helps but the bench is wide enough for three adults to sit side by side in a raised seating position. Naturally, for a car with 5 Stars in the Euro NCAP testing and airbags all round, all three positions in the rear have three-point seat belts and adjustable headrests. The outer two seats also have ISOFIX child restraint provision.
One might imagine that those thick rearmost pillars make parking difficult but whether they do or not will depend on your style of going backwards. If you’re the type who manages to spin the upper half of their body through 180° to look in the direction of travel, you may well grumble. However, if like me you champion the use of the trio of mirrors (those electrically folding door mounted ones are huge, by the way), aided by the parking sensors and camera, then it will never be a problem.
Where the pillar thickness is an issue is at the front. The windscreen pillar on the driver’s side can obscure some traffic light positions while the one on the passenger side creates quite a sizeable blindspot, especially when combined with the door mirror.
The Sportage’s luggage bay is a reasonable size at 564l with the rear seats in place, although its raised ground clearance means the loading lip itself is quite high. The rear seats split fold for versatility but don’t lay quite flat – still 1353l of useable space is not to be sniffed at.
In addition to the equipment already mentioned, ‘3’ grade Sportages also feature all-round electric windows, RDS radio/CD/MP3 player with iPod cable, automatic xenon headlamps, cornering lights, automatic wipers, heated front and rear seats, cruise control and Intelligent Stop & Go (ISG).
Sportage by name, Sportage by nature?
Although the Sportage’s platform is derived from that used in the cee’d and shared with its Korean cousin, the Hyundai ix35, it looks a big, substantial car, especially with all those wide expanses of bodywork. The prospect of a 114bhp 1.7 turbo diesel engine doesn’t sound as though it’ll serve this front wheel drive faux-by-four at all well. The top speed of 107mph and a 0-60 jog of 11.9 seconds tend to back this up too. Thankfully, it doesn’t feel slow.
With almost 200lb/ft of torque at your disposal from low down in the rev range, accessed by an impressively slick and effortless to use 6-speed manual gearbox, performance is never found to be wanting. An 80mph motorway cruise at just 2500RPM makes it a fine choice for long multi-carriageway jaunts.
That engine, now finding its way into a variety of other Kias and Hyundais is a little gem too. The inevitable diesel clatter is barely audible inside, but is smooth and silken in its power delivery. Most would be hard-pressed to know whether they are being pulled along by something that drinks from either the green or black pipe. This is also true when studying the trip computer, the display for which is nestled in the centre of the speedometer. Kia claims an average consumption rate of 52.3mpg, which I can only assume was achieved with a jockey at the wheel wearing helium filled shoes. Either that or my lead right foot was purely at fault for dispensing a disappointing 42mpg overall after a varied mix of road types over the week. Especially with the ISG stop and go system fitted, this is a poor showing, although the system itself worked smoothly, cutting the power when in neutral and not firing up again until the clutch pedal was depressed.
Sharing its basic underpinnings with the Kia cee’d means the Sportage is very car like behind the wheel. You quickly get used to the elevated driving position and realise it’s not going to topple over if you fancy pressing on into a bend. Back road jaunts reveal more of the Sportage’s competence in terms of handling, but it’s a no more than a neutral, well balanced experience, than one which’ll have you turning off major routes to go your favourite B-road way home.
Where the ride and handling fails to deliver is on those sub-30mph urban crawls on poorly surfaced rat runs. All that well controlled damping and compliance you’ll have experienced getting to town in the first place seems to evaporate and in its place the spring rating seem to have been swapped for something promising great sporting prowess. It’s not rock hard but it does feel a shade or three too stiff, resonating bumps and traffic calming measures all the way from those chunky 55 section tyres through to the buttocks of those within.
The Sportage is a brave, bold move by Kia and judging by the frequency of which you spot them on the roads, that first year of sales must have been pleasing for the Korean firm. To my eyes, it’s a more mature and accomplished design than its Hyundai sister and is definitely more attractive and distinctive than the likes of Ford’s Kuga, Nissan’s Qashqai and Volkswagen’s Tiguan to name a few.
Dynamically, others may offer a better all round experience but if you spend the majority of your time on long commutes or if your urban thoroughfares have been resurfaced in the past 20 years, this Sportage’s ride comfort shortcomings will be less apparent.
It’s very well equipped in ‘3’ grade, decent value and unless you really need all the wheels driven, perfectly acceptable in FWD format. Kia’s 7 year/100,000 mile warranty would be a significant draw for many even if it looked as insipid as the second generation Sportage. Company car drivers also benefit from the VED band F rating of this mechanical configuration – the 2-litre AWD diesel is in band G, or I if specified with automatic transmission.
If I was looking for a crossover of this size, the Sportage’s virtues would be hard to ignore. Personally, a darker hue for the bodywork is a must though – I’ve not yet mastered the “berrap berrap” to pull off a white one successfully.
Thumbs Up: Looks, equipment level, price, cruising refinement
Thumbs Down: Some cheap interior fittings, fuel economy, urban ride
Model Tested: Kia Sportage 3 Sat Nav 1.7 CRDi 2WD ISG
Top Speed: 107mph
Average fuel consumption: 52.3mpg
CO2 emissions: 143g/km
Engine size: 4/1685cc common rail injection, turbocharged diesel
Price: £22,195 (July 2011)
All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2011, except for interior photographs which are © Kia Motors (UK) Ltd 2010