Kia’s bold pitch for leadership of a crucial SUV sector is potentially hard to beat.
For: Ride and comfort, competitive price.
Against: 2.4-litre not best engine, frontal styling a bit too much.
SPORTS utility vehicles and sporty utilities are linked beyond using the same ‘s’ word descriptive.
Soft-to-hard style wagons and one-tonne traydecks are hot sellers of the moment; the compact medium versions of the first and the high-end doublecab editions of the latter are the front-running choices, especially with the private sector.
Such is their popularity that there’s growing sense that distributors are pricing higher than they might have done were market conditions less favourable; certainly, evenb if they are not, there surely has to be good margin in these vehicles, the utes especially given that they are – once all the glam is stripped away – simply commercial vehicles designed and built to meet a certain budget standard.
But anyway. Here’s the thing. With this new Sportage, Kia has simply gone against all expectation by pricing not up, but either keeping status or marking down.
The arrival, in particular, of a launch special entry model pitch that significantly undercuts all its rivals – not least the Hyundai equivalent – was a jaw-dropping, attention-nabbing audacity that sites Sportage as the cheapest offer in the medium category by some margin.
Adoption of a lower-tech engine and absence of an infotainment technology did help achieve some advantage, but surely not all of it. There’s real conjecture about how much profit is left in the vehicle at that money, but buyers shouldn’t worry – they’ve
clearly identified, as well did, that a promo price $6000 below list (and $10,000 less than Hyundai asked, when Kia announced the deal, for its least expensive Tucson), was a deal too good to refuse.
The previous Sportage was previously a decent seller in its front-drive entry format, but this one has brought the brand right into centre stage – being the top-selling passenger model in April was a first-time elevation not just for this model, but for Kia itself.
It goes to show the power of an alluring sticker and, perhaps, of Kia here being a factory shop, with eligibility to enjoy pricing advantages beyond those that brands tend to avail to independent distributors. At time of launch, Kia said the special would only run to the end of April – yet, at time of writing, the deadline had come and gone and the deal still remains active. I’m told it’ll take many more months to fulfill the order bank.
The Sportage on test isn’t the $29,990 LX special that captured the national interest. I drove the Limited, which sits two grades higher and swaps the entry 2.0-litre petrol for a 2.4-litre, also fuelled by 91 octane. It’s also a four-wheel-drive edition. All this impacts on the price.
The obvious question, then, is whether at $45,990 it continues to look like such a great value pitch against a field of competitors than range from the Tucson and Toyota RAV4 to the Mazda CX-5, Honda CR-V, Nissan Qashqai and Subaru Forester?
The new Sportage couldn’t be called the shape of things to come, insofar that it is one of the last Kia models to adopt the latest main styling cues that distinguish this brand’s product from anything else on the road, the sister fare from big brother/owner Hyundai included.
However, it can be called a very shapely addition to a sector in which a surprising count of contenders still rely, as the old Sportage did, on straight and sharp edges.
Look in vain for any of those on the new shape; though perhaps the nose styling is a little too dramatic for some, overall it is an especially sleek-looking car – totally different to what went before and to anything else, the Tucson included.
Too bold? I’m not a huge fan of how the smooth-edged headlamps now appear to sit on top of the bonnet, rather than cutting across the front of it as previously, and the bow-tie grille also sites too high for my liking. It’s almost as if the car’s front end has quite literally been treated to an extreme facelift; from front-on, everything seems a touch over-stretched.
Still, that’s just one angle. Again, there’s a sense that Kia wanted to do do all it could to avoid anyone working out that this and the new Tucson are sister models. Around the sides and back, the design is more familiar and more settled; that narrow, angled window line and a short rear overhang is nicely acquitted, actually.
Kia detailing has also stepped up and, with alloy wheels, front foglamps and LED daytime running lights featuring across the brand, all versions feel just that more sophisticated than previously and enhance a pitch to signal Kia as a sportier choice for younger buyers. (Another sign of this intent is the renaming of the top Sportage model a GT-Line).
The self-assurance that so obviously drove the exterior styling isn’t quite as patent inside; there’s not as much sharing with the Tucson as you might think, and perhaps that’s actually a problem.
There’s no doubt that the quality of the trim (and technology) has kicked up a notch. The dashboard has a nice soft-touch covering for instance and the infotainment and instrument displays are pretty good in respect to rendering, layout and information delivery. Like a certain other that has had more than one mention today, it gives impression of having matured to the point where it feels it's skipped a generation.
But there are things that could be done better. While the touch-screen side doesn’t take much getting used to, it’s under-utilised until Kia takes the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity that Hyundai offers.
The primary usage is music sourcing and being able to use your phone’s mapping software to negate the need for a ‘proper’ satellite navigation system. However, because it also actively employs Apple’s Siri voice activation set-up, there’s also ability for the car to read out inbound messages and turn dictated outgoing communications into text format. How that eventually occurs in the Kia, given that it lacks the voice prompt button that Hyundai provides, is anyone’s guess. As is, every Sportage runs Bluetooth which, curiously, seems to deactivate phone calls when the vehicle is put into reverse.
Kia’s preference for a dark, predominantly charcoal and black interior trim seems solely to divert attention from some of the plastics lower down being of a texture and hardness that suggests cost-cutting. I also wonder why they so steadfastly stick to switchgear that could have been plucked from much older product. Not only does it look conservative, but it also feels uncomfortable to the touch and is sometimes awkward to use.
This is the fourth generation Sportage and it has a higher specification than its predecessor. All but the base model has dual zone air conditioning and every variant runs a 7.0-inch touchscreen that runs the view from a reversing camera.
More expensive models such as this add 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat, leather trim, LED tail-lights, swap from 17 to 18 or 19 inch alloys and adopt rain-sensing wipers, sat-nav, heated and ventilated front seats, an electric tailgate, paddle shifters, panoramic sunroof, bi-Xenon headlights, and a wireless mobile device charger.
Active safety systems adopt from EX level upward. Kia can offer autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning, blind-spot detection, a lane-change assist warning, high-beam assist and a self-parking system and parking sensors.
Sportage also equals Tucson in achieving a five-star score in crash testing.
While Sportage and Tucson differ in look, they are pretty much equals in interior dimension, which is good. The new body contribute to a small but appreciated uptick in interior space that particularly benefits front and rear seat head and leg room. Kia also provides an adjustable rear-seat backrest offering seven steps of adjustment ranging from 23 to 37 degrees.
Cargo space of 466 litres is good for the class and is expandable to 1455 litres with the 60:40 split-fold seats flipped down. The cargo cover stows to one side when not in use and there are tie-down hooks for securing loads. But if there’s facility to flip the rear seats from the boot, I couldn’t find it.
Engine selection is the big area of difference between the Sportage and its Hyundai equivalent; it also reminds that the Tucson’s maker gets first dibs on technology choice, since the Kia takes petrol powerplants that are less advanced than those in its near-twin.
That’s especially the case of the 2.4-litre direct-injected four-cylinder petrol here. It’s an engine that has almost been completely retired from the parent’s SUV lineup, in preference for smaller-capacity and higher-tech alternates.
Still, when it comes to actual get up and go, you might have cause to wonder why this 135kW/237Nm Theta II mill doesn’t still have a job with the owner brand. The power delivery seems to be reasonable and, though its torque band is a little narrow, there’s still some decent muscularity as long as you are prepared to work it.
However, that kind of driving is also going to bring out behaviours that are not quite as commendable. For one, it’s not an especially refined engine by today’s standards. The more revs it is given, the louder and coarser it sounds. Secondly, the harder you hit the pedal, the harder it hits the sauce. Kia’s claimed optimum economy of 8.5L/100km was a pipe dream on a test that put the vehicle through a mix of urban and country driving, some light-footed, some less so. The trip computer cited an overall consumption for the period of 10.4L/100km, which I thought was pretty good.
All in all, it’s still not a bad engine. But neither is it the best in this class nor, for that matter, the best running this platform or behind the six-speed automatic. I’d cite the 2.0-litre diesel –which is common to the sister brands – or the Tucson’s 1.6-litre GDI, which doesn’t come to Kia (same goes for its automated manual gearbox), as being better picks.
The ‘sports’ part of SUV has been given special treatment by Kia. The Sportage felt taut and very secure on roads that I generally only use to test out performance cars. The Kia hasn’t the capability to be considered one of those – it’s still a tall item and the drivetrain just doesn’t want to play at that level – yet it certainly came across as being a markedly better drive than its predecessor, regardless that the suspension design is pretty much unaltered.
Steering that still seems overlight at urban speed not only weights up nicely at 100kmh or thereabouts but also improves in sharpness and communication. Though there’s inevitably some body roll, you really have to be pushing hard to find it; within the acceptable norms there’s a sense of confidence that really impresses.
You’d wonder if that was at the expense of the ride, and yes, it is a bit firm, yet not unduly so. Even though the vast majority of compact SUVs and crossovers are set to spend their time in the city or on the sealed road, taking it on gravel was a good exercise. Though the lowish-profile 245/45 rubber occasionally scrabbled for grip, the four-wheel-drive system was pretty good at judging conditions and it was quite settled over the ruts and ripples, with nicely sorted stability/traction control intervention.
Styling this strongly-flavoured is always going to cause some degree of disagreement; personally I there are other category contenders that do the job better, but would agree that at least the Sportage is more than a design indulgence.
One big plus about the nose shape is that, in falling away at the extremities, it provides better outward vision than is availed by more bluff-edged product. Rear vision isn’t too bad, either, though of course that’s not to say the rear-view camera isn’t useful.
As a family choice, the Sportage stands up quite solidly. There’s a far degree of interior room, it’s quite comfortable – save that the front swat squabs are a bit short for the tall – and it is well-equipped: Though the CarPlay update will make it all the better.
I think the 2.0-litre petrol and diesel engines are better than 2.4; if, or when, Kia takes the even more advanced powertrains that Hyundai has, then it’ll step up even further.
Overall, though, it’s a very solid pitch. Kia’s aggressive pricing is clearly a pretty good incentive, but even it it didn’t have that dollar advantage, it would still be a clear contender for class honours.