Kia Sportage

TAKE special note of Kia’s new Sportage. It represents the most complete example yet of the Korean company’s innovative, European-influenced, design face that so clearly attempts to elevate the brand’s appeal.

Significant, too, that the third-generation Sportage happily ignores the need for true off-road ability and, instead, walks the crossover path.

In its new role as an ‘urban-friendly’ SUV, the Sportage is longer (90mm), wider (15mm), notably lower (60mm) and more car-like (the entry-level Si is front-drive) than its nondescript predecessor.

It’s destined for a metropolitan life, not the Tanami Track. Rivals include the Holden Captiva, Mazda CX-7 and Nissan Dualis but, inevitably, the closest competitor is Hyundai’s ix35.

Both are built on the same architecture, share important dimensions like the 2640mm wheelbase, and employ an identical line-up of two petrol engines and one diesel, and five-speed manual and six-speed automatic transmissions.

The only major mechanical difference is Kia’s more advanced Dynamax torque-vectoring system that can send power to each wheel individually.

The Sportage’s cabin is roomy, even by class standards, and the dashboard impresses with plenty of premium materials that are mostly soft to the touch and look classy. There’s also plenty of space for two adults in the rear seat, while the boot is massive.

Despite the Sportage name, this is not a car you can drive hard. Australia has adopted the European suspension tuning, but with hydraulic (rather than electric) power steering.

Even so, the Sportage prefers a sedate driving style. The steering offers hope by being quick immediately off-centre, but then understeer intrudes (or is it a lack of grip from the Hankook Optimo rubber?) and maintaining a line demands far larger than expected wheel movements.

I went looking for bumps and irregularities on New Zealand’s fine roads, but failed. Only local testing will reveal if steering kick-back, a habitual Kia (and Hyundai) flaw, is an issue.

Any thoughts that the base front-drive version – at 1385kg, 74kg lighter than the AWD model – could be the pick of the range quickly evaporated. The 122kW 2.0-litre engine struggles to overcome the mass, and the dynamics proved less competent, with intrusive tyre squeal, even more understeer and a raucous engine when pushed towards the 6000rpm redline.

No complaints concerning the ride, at least on the standard 17-inch alloys, though body control is inconsistent. Over low-frequency undulations a lack of rebound control is obvious and a fast change of direction provokes notable bodyroll. Yet, there are occasions when the body is taut and feels positively European.

Both traits are exaggerated on the 18s, and the ride can be edgy. Supply issues mean the diesel engine is currently only offered on the $38,990 Platinum. The oiler Sportage feels far smoother and more responsive than the petrol variants, with strong performance across a wide rev range and change-up set at 4200rpm.

While acceleration is brisk enough from the auto-only 130kW 2.4-litre petrol, the character of the Sportage seems better balanced as a diesel. Sportage prices start $1K below the equivalent ix35, giving the Kia a clear advantage.

Superbly equipped and finished, the roomy and handsome Sportage looks fine value for those who don’t place a high premium on class-leading dynamics.

Engine: 2359 4cyl, dohc, 16v
Max Power: 130kW @ 6000rpm
Max Torque: 227Nm @ 4600rpm
Transmission: 6-speed auto
0-100km/h: 10.0sec (claimed)
Price: $31,990
On sale: Now

Sign up here to receive the latest round-up of Wheels news, reviews and video highlights straight to your inbox each week.

Want free access to 5 years of Wheels archive content? Sign up now!