The previous Sportage crossover was the closest thing that Kia has had to a European smash hit. It must be with considerable trepidation, therefore, that the Korean car maker has succeeded it. Most popular of all in the final year of its lifecycle, the third-generation Sportage registered more than 100,000 sales across Europe last year, more than a quarter of the firm’s overall volume on this continent.
It benefitted from being one of the better crossovers at a time when more people started to want such a vehicle. It’s also proof of how uncomplicated the car business can be. Offer us attractive styling, lots of practicality, creditable ride and handling and a strong value proposition and we’ll buy in our droves.
If success is that simple, of course, it shouldn’t be so difficult for Kia to repeat it with this, the fourth-generation Sportage. But the more closely you investigate this new crossover, the more you realise that ‘more of the same’ isn’t quite what Kia is after. With a broader range of engines and transmissions, more power and performance on offer, more advanced cabin and safety technology, more svelte and sporting design features and, yep, more ambitious prices, the new Sportage is clearly part of a wider effort to gradually inch Kia upmarket.
Under the bonnet, the headline addition is a 174bhp 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine, which is teamed with a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearboxes. Outwardly, the car’s chief selling point may well be the styling of the new GT Line trim, with its added sporting flavour. In both respects, Kia is dipping its toe into deeper and more perilous water than the Sportage has subsisted in thus far. But, for now, it expects most UK buyers to plump for a 1.7-litre diesel engine and a more conservative trim level – as we’re testing it here.
DESIGN AND ENGINEERING: 3.5/5
Whatever may be wrapped up beneath it, the Sportage’s bodywork will be key in determining whether Kia can continue riding the wave of its handsome predecessor’s success in Europe. To our eyes, the new version fails to conjure the same instant visual allure as the last model, although it’s far from unattractive.
And before you write it off on the basis of our test car, bear in mind that the GT Line version gets a high-gloss radiator grille, extra satin chrome body mouldings, 19in wheels, gloss black wheel arch spats and sill cladding, twin exhaust pipes and chrome skid plates to perk up its look. And they do make a difference. The all-new platform is made of more than 50% advanced high-strength steel and is 39% more rigid than that of the previous car, as well as being 40mm longer (30mm of which has gone into the wheelbase).
The other major structural change is to the floor height, which is 40mm lower than before – permitting the seats to be lowered and entry and exit to be made more convenient. Suspension is via struts up front and multi-links at the rear, just as it was, although several key efforts have been made to improve both ride refinement and handling dynamism. A new geometry features at the rear, as well as a new bushed subframe, and other bushings have been firmed up and new rebound damper settings applied to improve the car’s ride on rough roads.
The biggest change at the front of the car, meanwhile, is the R-MDPS electromechanical power steering system mounted directly onto the steering rack rather than onto the column, for better stiffness and response. It appeared on the new
Sorento last year and is about to be fitted to the Optima. The engine range includes 1.7-litre and 2.0-litre diesels offering 114bhp, 134bhp and 182bhp, and 1.6-litre petrols with 130bhp and a turboassisted 174bhp. Clutch-based four-wheel drive is available on all but the bottom-rung petrol and diesel options.
Although greater improvements to power, torque and emissions have been delivered on the European-engineered 2.0-litre diesel than on the Korean-developed 1.7, the lesser four-cylinder gets a lighter iron cylinder block, a new oil cooler bypass valve, new high strength valve springs, a higher-pressure fuel injection system and a slightly lower compression ratio compared with its predecessor. Emissions of CO2 from 119g/km still aren’t particularly competitive, though.
So this is Kia’s brave new world: new heights on perceived quality, material richness and fit and finish, it says. They’re not exactly dizzy heights, although the overall ambience of the Sportage’s cabin is pleasant enough. Our impressions were grounded somewhat by our test car’s 2 trim level, which misses out on the leather upholstery, contrast stitching and high-gloss trim of ritzier models.
Even so, Kia could have done more to mitigate the sense of enveloping gloom caused by the profusion of dark plastics on the fascia. The matt chrome finishers around the air vents, ventilation controls, steering wheel boss and gearlever look and feel quite expensive yet add little cheer to the ambience. Kia is clearly aiming for smart and clean instead, but the fascia looks and feels solid and robust but plain.
The promises of increased leg and head room in both rows and a bigger boot have been delivered. The second-row seats in particular feel more roomy. And compared with its opposition, the Sportage also provides some good news for owners. A Nissan Qashqai, our class-leading crossover, grants only a couple of centimetres more front-row head room than the Kia, identical secondrow head room and just a solitary centimetre more second-row knee room. On boot length, meanwhile, the Sportage has both the Qashqai and even a BMW X1 beaten.
A versatile family car is about much more than space, of course. Drilling down into the details, there are things we like here (a dedicated under-floor cubby to stow the load bay cover when you take it out) and omissions we regret (no bootaccessible remote release handles for the folding back seats). Broadly, the Sportage does what a crossover needs to on practicality, quality and comfort, but it still somehow fails to leave a lasting impression.
The 1.7-litre diesel engine feels like it’s from a time when entry-level oil-burners seldom transcended their humble beginnings. Unfortunately for Kia, several of those kinds of engines now do have transcendent talents – Honda’s 1.6 i-DTEC, PSA Peugeot-Citroën’s BlueHDi 1.6, BMW’s three-cylinder 1.5 and Mazda’s Skyactiv 1.5 to name a few. The Kia’s engine has only a meek answer for the flexibility, refinement and economy of any of them.
It will serve the Sportage well enough to escape the ire of most owners, but it does very little to provide a real selling point – or to do justice to Kia’s broader attempt at repositioning the car. Roused to a prickly idle, the motor wastes no time at all in introducing its biggest failing: coarseness. Although it’s tolerably smooth, the engine is always noisy, even under light throttle openings and at low crank speeds. On pedal response and tractability, it’s much less vulnerable to criticism, pulling from low revs fairly cleanly and without the rush of boost evident from the Renault-Nissan 1.5 dCi. At high revs, it feels asthmatic, but so do most of its direct rivals.
So on outright performance, there’s a mixed, undistinguished picture to report. A Qashqai 1.5 dCi accelerates slightly more quickly to 60mph from rest but is slightly less flexible from 30mph to 70mph in fourth gear. On refinement, aside from the engine noise, the Sportage suffers with a fair bit of road roar, too, although suspension noise is tolerably well controlled. Average wind isolation completes a showing that Kia will need to improve if it wants people to take its upwardly mobile status seriously.
In other ways, though, the Sportage does show signs that its driving experience has been laboured over. The shift action of the six-speed manual gearbox is positive and nicely weighted and pedal weights match the substantial heft of the steering. Credit where’s it due, then, but still plenty of room for improvement.
RIDE AND HANDLING: 3.5/5
The outgoing Sportage was a straight-dealing, unaffected sort of drive. By and large, it was how you might have hoped and expected to find a jacked-up family hatch in 2010: a touch soft-handling and only a moderately keen feel, but compliant, coherent and quite easy-going with it.
The new version is, of course, up against higher expectations and tougher class standards – to the extent that repeating the same compromise six years later would never have cut the mustard. But it’s apparent that, in responding to the challenge, Kia may have lost sight of the sense of becalmed dynamic measure and maturity that made the previous Sportage feel less like a hatchback and more like a downsized SUV to drive – and all the more likable for it.
The new Sportage has contracted the ‘sportiness’ that some at Kia may imagine suits its identity, a bit like an opening batsman getting the yips. Where once relaxed spring rates brought long-striding compliance, there is now a more insistent, highfrequency firmness in the ride, and a pursuit of level equilibrium that more often than not makes the car somewhat restless on UK roads. The same firmness has undeniably allowed the handling to take some large objective strides. There is much greater high-speed stability delivered by this suspension than that of the previous car, as well as the kind of agility and lateral grip of which any crossover would be proud.
It’s a shame, therefore, that the fidgeting, conductive ride prevents you from enjoying the game handling where uneven surfaces are concerned. It’s equally regrettable, too, that Kia’s new power steering system confuses changeable, cloying weight and apparent friction with genuine feedback, making the car a trying thing to steer at times when it ought to be fluent and precise.
BUYING AND OWNING: 4/5
The market is now well used to the value proposition that Kia routinely offers: simplicity of specification, a certain generosity with equipment and a renowned munificence with its seven years and 100,000 miles of transferable warranty cover for a competitive price, although no longer a genuinely exceptional one.
What’s more, the market likes it and has responded with some very creditable residual values for the Sportage. If you want cheap and cheerful from the new Sportage, you can still have it. While the new high-end derivatives trumpet self-parking and wireless smartphone charging solutions in a way that might attract the odd convert from the European semi-premium brands, a bogbasic Sportage offers alloy wheels, cornering foglights, heated mirrors, cruise control and a DAB radio all as standard – and it will cost you less than £18,000.
Kia even offers fixedprice servicing deals to complement its seven-year warranty package to make the ownership experience even easier to budget for. In light of all of which, you might be inclined to overlook a couple of minor shortcomings on fuel economy and CO2 emissions – although we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t shine at least a flicker of light on them in passing. The Sportage 1.7 CRDi returned an average of 50.1mpg for our True MPG testers, about 10% poorer than you’ll get from an equivalent Qashqai or Honda HR-V.
Fleet drivers, meanwhile, will rack up company car tax on up to 4% more of the car’s P11D value than they might with one of its rivals, which is certainly enough to feel in the pocket.
Mixed-up crossover reboot fails to recapture its forebear’s likable character
The previous Sportage didn’t need a lot of fixing, yet the new one surprises you with how altered it seems: on styling theme, mechanical content and dynamic compromise. Like the outgoing model, the new Sportage is practical and good value. Unlike the last one, it hits a sufficiently high mark on grip and agility, material quality and equipment specification to feel almost as sophisticated as any European volume-brand rival.
Despite that, the car’s appeal relative to its peers has probably waned slightly, partly due to an increasingly packed segment but at least as much because of Kia’s questionable redesign and misjudged retuning efforts. Other engines and trim levels may tell a different story, of course. But between its overly firm ride, numb steering, undernourished engine and copycat looks, it’s hard to see how the Sportage we tested is a big improvement on what went before.