We’ve been looking at the 4x4 - or SUVs, as they’re now more commonly known - in many recent reviews. Although it’s been knocking about for a couple of years, we didn’t think it was fair to leave Kia’s Sportage out of the round.
In many respects, Kia’s a brand that has been playing catch-up. Always leading on value and its long warranty, it’s only with the latest cars that Kia’s really pulled level with, and in some cases overtaken, the established opposition such as Ford, Vauxhall, Renault et al. But there’s one area in which it’s always led – and that's 4x4s.
The Sportage nameplate’s been around for longer than VW or BMW have been making SUVs, period. And you need only to speak for more than five minutes to someone who does a lot of towing for the name of the Sportage’s bigger sister, Sorento, to come up.
So in a funny little automotive roll reversal, can established SUV-maker Kia fend off the truck-load of competition that there now is in this market?
Another Schreyer special
To badly paraphrase Roland Barthes, car designers are like the modern-day builders of cathedrals. The opposite of the modern celebrity, you’ve likely never heard of any, nor would you recognise one in the street if they passed you. But if you’ve heard of one, it might be Peter Schreyer, Kia’s design chief. He designed the original TT while at Audi, the Mk4 Golf and as poached by Kia in 2006, since when he’s put in train a design revolution that’s clear to see from the latest Kia-badged cars that ply our roads.
And we reckon the Sportage is one of his better efforts. Can you recall what the model that went before it looked like? No, neither can we. But we bet you’ll recognise the car in these pictures, with its handsome distinctiveness from most angles. Those wraparound lamps with their little rows of jewel-like LEDs make the rear view mirror appearance distinctive to the point of menacing, and the rest of the body’s got a slightly pumped-up, butch style that suits its SUV pretensions just right. Even at the rear, where most SUVs have – to quote our own Ian Morris, "a fat arse" - the Sportage manages a degree of pertness, with neat little tail lamps rounding off a fine piece of design.
Get inside though, and it’s not quite so rosy, looking like a shrine to plastic on the inside - even if most of that plastic is soft to the touch and of reasonable quality. No small part of this effect is due to our car’s greyish-beige colour scheme. We’ve sat in a Sportage with a black interior and although it felt like more of a cave, it looked way nicer than this one. Even the leather seats are a kind of grey that made them look and feel a good deal cheaper than they actually are.
But get the colour scheme right in here and it’s not too bad a place to be. You get a big and super-clear instrument cluster, complete with Kia’s trademark digital screen in the middle of the speedo, which can fling various bits of trip-related data at you in its incessantly red hue.
Some of the little touches we really liked. The fact that the centre bin has a slot to put the key fob in is handy, it stops it rattling round in the centre console - although you can just leave it in your pocket and pull open the door without touching it, so you might argue it’s a superfluous feature. And we liked the back-up camera’s guides with their red-yellow-green graduated zones to help you work out just how far away you are from clouting that bollard. It’s just as well you have a camera and sensors front and rear, too, as the rising belt line, thick C-pillar and tight rear window make reversing the Sportage into tight spaces a bollard-avoidance challenge. And while there’s the odd nice touch like the ones mentioned above, there’s less of the really clever engineering stuff or things that help out when you’ve got a family, as there are in the Honda CR-V we reviewed last week.
Dripping with tech
We specifically asked Kia to send us this KX-4, the top-of-the-range model. The company has an interesting options policy in the UK, which means that pretty much the only thing you can add to a model at a given trim level is metallic paint and an automatic gearbox. Kia’s argument is that, at a certain price level, it gives you more than the competition for the same money, and if you want extra toys you can upgrade to the next trim level for not a great deal extra. It’s kind of the antithesis to the way the premium brands work, but scrutinise the spec sheets and you’re likely to be won over. For most people, KX-3 or KX-3 Sat Nav will offer plenty of kit, but our KX4 adds a system which allows the car to parallel park itself, an engine stop/start button in combination with that keyless entry system and is the only model where you can option the higher power, 181 bhp 2.0 diesel engine.
Everything else you care to name - heated leather seats, a 7-inch touchscreen with navigation, a full length panoramic roof, cruise control and Bluetooth connectivity with audio streaming - is standard here, as it is on the KX-3 model. Given the generous spec, unless you’re terrible at parking, our advice would be to drop down to the KX-3 Sat Nav model and save yourself the best part of two grand.
Does that self-parking system work? You bet. You still have to work the accelerator and brake but like the systems from other makers, it steers the car into a space for you – and it seems to need less margin than others we’ve used – it squeezed us into a space barely eight inches longer than the car at either end. It’s only in getting it to activate in the first place that we’d quibble. We found that you had to drive along sufficiently slowly, having pressed the button where it’ll hunt for a space, that on a busy shopping street we reckon you’d get beeped for holding up traffic – which kind of defeats the point a bit, doesn’t it?
Punching above its weight
We were a bit surprised when we saw our Sportage had 181 bhp on the spec sheet when it arrived, because most models in this price bracket and of this size, typically come with 130-160 bhp, so it sounded like a lot. And if you’re worried about moving into the world of the SUV and it feeling underpowered after your regular car, this is the engine to allay your fears. We won’t bore you or waste the space on the official performance figures, but instead tell you that, even with four wheel drive, it wasn’t hard to spin the wheels pulling away on a damp surface for the first half a second. But then the Sportage would hook up and frankly rocket you up the road.
Where it really scores is when you’re, say, climbing a steep hill or needing to do a quick overtake, where a lot of the SUVs we’ve tested have either needed to be dropped down a gear to keep the pace up, or proven noisy and clattery as they huffed and puffed their way up inclines. Not the Sportage though, which has bags of grunt and makes easy progress even when you’re loaded with family and kit. It means it stays refined and quiet most of the time too. And we’d bet it makes it a great towing vehicle.
Kia’s not forgotten about the eco side of the bargain either, so the manual version, which we had, emits just 158 g/km and features a stop-start system which kept working even when the temperature hit zero degrees. Just watch out if you go for the auto gearbox, which bumps up the CO2 several tax brackets, at 189g/km.
Get over that grey interior - or better still, go for black, which is standard on the KX-3 model and with other exterior colours on the KX-4 - and the Sportage is really not a bad place to spend time. It’s comfortable, fast and loaded with all the toys you’re likely to need. And that’s before we get to the fact that, even in this top-spec trim it’s around two-grand cheaper than the opposition, better looking and comes with that world-beating seven-year warranty.
But design’s not just about looks, and compared to cars such as the Mazda CX-5 and new Honda CR-V, the Sportage misses out on tricks like the one-pull folding rear seats, has a slightly less clever and intuitive Sat Nav and just feels a little less clever. It’s not as roomy as the Honda either and, despite that warranty, it feels like less of a quality product.
So you pays your money and you takes your choice. The Mazda CX-5’s the best to drive and likely to be most economical, the Honda CR-V feels like the best thought-out for families, is the most spacious and feels the best built, while the Kia offers more toys per pound, is faster with this engine and we think is the best looking from the outside. All three are solid four-star cars.