Kia Sportage: Gunning for more than Tucson

Despite declaring a price war on Tucson, Kia NZ insists its Sportage isn’t just here to embarrass the parent brand's donor. In fact, the Seoul connection barely rated a mention on the launch.

THE tasty price advantage that might swing sales favouritism toward Kia’s newest sports utility to the detriment of its Hyundai equivalent is also used as a reason for detuning direct comparison with that donor.

Kia New Zealand’s boss was surprisingly cautious airing his thought about whether an up-to-$7000 price advantage the new Sportage line has over its Hyundai Tucson sister model on advertised list price – a gap that widens to $12,000 in automatic entry format during a Kia launch promotion - will allow it to outshine the parent brand’s fast-rising star.

His suggestion that these models might not even be cross-shopped because the Hyundai could well be perceived to be in a higher price set might seem a tall order given these are component and chassis-sharing cars that, while having different styling and (in two out of three cases) engines are all but identical in interior dimension and close in dynamic feel.

Yet McDonald insists Sportage should not be considered to be purely in a sibling rivalry.

“There are many different choices in this category … the Sportage might be viewed as being in a different price bracket (to the Tucson).”

The salient question - how can Sportage be SO much cheaper? - is carefully responded to. McDonald vouches that how Kia New Zealand buys the model makes considerable difference in this present state of currency condition.

“We transact in New Zealand dollars … others work in Yen or US dollars.” Also Kia by tradition is always that little bit cheaper. But an even more crucial consideration is that there's no middleman - Kia Motors New Zealand is a factory shop, being directly owned by Kia Motors, whereas Hyundai New Zealand is run by an independent, wholly New Zealand-owned distributor. 

Even so, the launch price strategy in particular required some degree of conversation with Seoul and has been realised as result of a special allowance from head office.

Nonetheless, on the strength of a first introduction, Kia’s quiet optimism about this fourth-generation car being good enough to surpass the 1000 annual sales its predecessor has averaged since 2011 seems well-founded: This product deserves utterly serious consideration.

Driving-wise, the most evident individual difference between it and the Tucson comes down to the divergent paths taken in respect to the petrol engine technology.

Though Kia’s engines – a 114kW/192Nm 2.0-litre and a 135kW/265Nm 2.4 – do not let the side down for zest and also deliver good torque spreads, they do not demonstrate on first impression as being as refined or as immediately reactive as Hyundai’s more complex GDI engines.

The drive afforded opportunity to drive the brands’ competing 2.0-litre front-drive products, which have identical claimed economy.

The Kia has an easy muscularity that is going to win fans and it is said to match on economy, yet to me the Hyundai engine was definitely smoother, and a bit quieter, and less prone to flaring when being pushed. (Alternately, in respect to road noise, the Sportage won – both run 225/60 R17 rubber but Kia’s are from Hankook and Hyundai’s from Kumho).

There’s no immediate potential for Sportage to update to the Tucson’s 121kW/203Nm 2.0-litre and for the long-lived 2.4 to be pulled for the owner’s star engine, a direct-injection turbocharged 1.6-litre which divests the Sportage standard six-speed auto for a seven-speed direct shift gearbox. While 5kW less powerful than the 2.4, the 1.6 has 48Nm more torque and is 0.8L/100km thriftier.

McDonald says the existing engines will stay until Euro Six emissions standards mean they are no longer become commercially viable – in short, then, they’re potentially here for years.

He also argues that the 2.4 will win favour with buyers who perceive benefit from what they perceive as a larger capacity engine for the sector. Sales trends suggest this is the case.

The bold styling - led by Kia’s European design studio with input from its other studios in the US and Korea – is sure to raise split opinion; that raked nose alone goes a long way to making it look more overt than most class offers and side-by-side consideration tends to suggest Tucson has a more conservative air, which is to be expected. Head office has mandated that Kia becomes the ‘sportier’ of the two.

Whether the Sportage will be universally compelling is harder to judge; the separation of the headlight from the ‘Tiger Nose’ grille is the most radical design departure and it’s the one that will punters will either love or loathe. In some respects, it lays down the same challenge as the Subaru Tribeca, which the market initially found hard to swallow.

As with Hyundai, Kia also uses a lot – too many, in fact – of hard plastics in the cabin and, though button layouts (and steering wheels) differ in each camp, there’s a general air of common design compliance. If you know one, you’ll be familiar with the other.

In respect to specification, Sportage comes out punching hard: The NZ specification could have been improved by adding the smart parking assist system available overseas but provision of a wireless charging for compatible devices (iPhone requires an adaptor) is an advanced touch and it ticks no fewer boxes than a certain other in respect to the usual modern necesssities.

Kia’s impending provision – as a software patch that will work for cars already here - of the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto system will bring Sportage on equal technology terms with Tucson.

The potentials of this smartphone-tethered setup that enable in-car use of personal device app infotainment interfaces on the car’s seven-inch touchscreen opens a world of potentials, though it’s curious that the Kia product lacks the voice command feature that Tucson implements to enable on-the move use of Apple’s Siri function.

However, it will deliver opportunity to update the front-drive models to a cheap and effective sat nav provision beyond GT-Line, where (as in Hyundai’s flagship Elite Limited) the set-up is factory-incorporated.

Safety assists of blind spot detection, lane change assist, lane departure warning and forward collision warning span reach into most of the eight variants.

Dimension changes have helped out on an interior which feels more spacious and more car-like than the outgoing model (which we also drove on the launch programme).

The boot is now marginally larger, being 35mm wider for 466 litres’space with the second-row seats in place and 1455 litres with them folded down. Sportage runs 17, 18 and 19 inch rims depending on variant but, in all instances, a full-size alloy spare is hidden beneath the boot floor.

The stretch in the wheelbase has also meant a slightly larger fuel tank is fitted, growing from 58 litres to 62 litres.

The back seats of the Sportage now offer a little bit more head and leg room than before, but one of the major changes in the back has been the lowering of the floor by 40mm and the raising of the seat hip point by 30mm, which makes it much seem more spacious. Because of the high transmission tunnel it suffers the same middle seat syndrome as many such cars.

A lowered driving position makes it feel more car-like than the old model and though the side windows are barely any bigger, all-round visibility is improved, through it having thinner pillars and a bigger rear window. This improves rear vision, but the C-pillar is still huge and so careful use of mirrors (which have been lowered slightly), the now standard reversing camera and shoulder checks is prudent.

So where will Sportage stand? McDonald would be happy to see it rise to seventh in the medium crossover sector this year.

The charge is set to be led from the front, with the two-wheel-drives that have traditionally been the sales bedrock – in the longer term the EX, but initially the entry LX, whose impressive sub-list launch price of $29,990 is expected to realise 250 sales before that promotion ends in April.

Making this car the cheapest in the medium sector by some margin, the special price pitch represents a reprisal of a strategy Kia used in December, 2014, to move the old model LX.

McDonald sees the latest cheapie being attractive to a wide customer base, including younger, first-time buyers – Kia research has shown this is the price level where sub-30-year-olds will confidently sign into.

He also calls it a way of saying thanks to past loyal customers though, in this respect, the strategy has another intention. A shortage of pre-owned Sportages is stymying brand awareness potential. The influx of older examples that are traded on the new will broaden the used Sportage stockpile and thus broaden a new potential for customer interest.

Kia is also hoping to beef up its standing in four-wheel-drive, particularly in the increasingly popular petrol scene, where it has previously been utterly overshadowed by its parent.

Not that it is potentially going to crow too loudly about this.

The delicacy of the relationship between the conjoined Koreans – if not so much in New Zealand, where each has unrelated distributors, then back in South Korea, where Kia is more clearly represented as a Hyundai sub-brand – appeared to temper cross-brand comment during the launch.

The Tucson barely rated a mention in McDonald’s detailed market and competitor set analysis, at least in respect to the local market condition (a graph showing how Sportage was outselling Tucson in its homeland was shown). He was also coy when asked if he thought his car could out-sell the Hyundai this year – a feat never previously achieved.