From its initial humble beginnings locally as a small, quirky off-roader, the Kia Sportage has grown both in size and in character to be a significant player in the SUV market, albeit not at the kind of low price level it once enjoyed.
Price, however, was not the only reason the early Sportage earned its stripes – endearing itself to many because of its surprisingly (given perceptions at the time of Korean product) robust nature and off-road ability that certainly equalled a number of already established brands.
With the influence of designer Peter Schreyer and now, Pierre Leclerq, the Sportage has morphed from caterpillar to moth, with the latest iteration (fourth generation) a rather handsome devil crafted by Kia’s European design studio in Frankfurt, Germany, with input from the brand’s Namyang, Korea and Irvine, California design centres.
The ‘face’ of the Sportage features the biggest change to the car’s design over the outgoing model, with Kia’s hallmark ‘tiger-nose’ grille and the car’s headlamps separated for the new model. The headlamps are now positioned higher, sweeping back along the outer edges of the sharply detailed bonnet.
A lower, wider grille – enlarged to support greater engine cooling – adds more volume to the lower half of the Sportage’s face. The result is a more imposing appearance and a more stable-looking stance, despite the new model retaining the same 1 855 mm width as its predecessor.
As with most new generation designs, the Sportage grew compared to the model it replaced and the latest version has a 30 mm longer wheelbase (now 2 670 mm), 40 mm greater overall vehicle length (to 4 480 mm) and longer, more aerodynamic rear spoiler resulting in a more swept-back shape.
Longer front overhangs (up by 20 mm) and shorter rear overhangs (reduced by 10 mm) add to the car’s more raked profile.
At the rear, and inspired by the 2013 Kia Provo concept, slim combination lamps running along a horizontal parallel are joined together by a strip that runs the width of the rear, while the turn signals and reversing lights are separate, located lower down to add more visual weight to the lower half.
The new design also makes this the most aerodynamic Sportage to date, with drag reduced from 0,35 to 0,33 Cd.
At launch, the Sportage 2.0 CRDI EX was the only mid-spec offering in the range, paired to Kia’s 2,0-litre turbo-diesel engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.
This recently changed with the addition of the subject of this test, the 2,0-litre petrol option.
The EX specification grade offers all of the features included in the Ignite grade, but adds significant additions such as an electric parking brake, front park distance control, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, a Smart Key with Start/Stop button, leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob, and electric folding side mirrors with integrated indicators.
The exterior aesthetics were not the only changes and the interior of the Sportage boasts a cabin that offers a wide, driver-oriented dashboard with a simple, modern design.
Material quality is improved and there is a far greater proportion of soft-touch materials and the use of cloth, leather and stitching creating the ambience (model dependent).
The lateral design of the dashboard divides it into two clear zones – ‘display’ and ‘control’. The ‘display’ zone is focused purely on delivering information to occupants in the clearest way possible via the driver’s instrument binnacle and the entertainment and HMI (human-machine interface) system in the centre of the dashboard.
Below a clear line, running the length of the dashboard is the ‘control’ zone, with the central console cascading downwards and tilted 10 degrees towards the driver.
Passenger space is increased, with headroom rising to 997 mm (+5 mm) and 993 mm (+16 mm) for front and rear passengers respectively, while maximum legroom has expanded to 1 129 mm (+ 19 mm) and 970 mm (+7 mm).
In the front, there are stiffer seat frames, with varying densities of foam chosen for different areas of the seat in order to maximize occupant comfort.
In the rear, a 40 mm lower interior floor – without sacrificing exterior ground clearance – and 30 mm higher rear bench hip point mean second-row passengers benefit from a more natural and comfortable seating posture and improved under-thigh support.
Primary reasons for choosing a SUV include the raised ride height and improved forward visibility. However, lateral and rear vision has often been compromised in some chunky ‘macho’ design style and Kia took cognisance of this with the Sportage.
Forward visibility is aided by a lowered A-pillar base, while the A-pillar itself has been made thinner. Side mirrors sit slightly lower on the door without impairing the driver’s rear view – this is further aided by the new thinner C-pillars (62 mm thinner compared to the third-generation Sportage) and taller rear glass (+30 mm).
All that becomes evident when trying to squeeze into those ridiculously small public parking bays at shopping centres and airports.
The new body’s larger dimensions mean cargo space has expanded from 465 litres to 503 litres the fuel tank increasing from 58 litres to 62.
A criticism of the previous generation was related to road and wind noise and this has been addressed in the latest version through new bushing in the rear suspension and more sound-absorbent materials throughout the Sportage’s wheel arches. Wind noise is also reduced because of thicker front windshield glass, a new dual lip seal for the panoramic sunroof and additional soundproofing in the doors.
Six air bags are standard, while ISOFIX child-seat tether and anchor points are fitted to the second row of seats.
Pedestrian safety is improved with a lower leading edge on the bonnet and a larger impact absorption area, which has been revised with greater use of highly-absorbent safety foam and synthetic rubber.
The fully-independent front suspension carries over the format of the outgoing model, but features a range of modifications to make the best use of the new body shell. The new setup achieves better ride quality, while also delivering sharper handling.
Modifications include revised bushing mount positions for greater stability and more natural responses to changing road surfaces, as well as stiffer wheel bearings and bushings resulting in more direct handling and greater stability in all conditions. The steering gearbox is also mounted further forward on the axle for smoother steering inputs.
For the rear suspension – also fully-independent, including the adoption of dual lower-arm multi-link suspension for two-wheel and all-wheel drive models – there is a stiffer cross member to cut road noise and vibrations from intruding into the cabin.
My test unit came equipped with a 7-inch colour touchscreen with integrated satellite navigation as standard along with a rear-view parking camera, with dynamic parking lines displayed on the larger screen to assist when reversing into or out of a parking space.
The 2,0-litre ‘Nu’ MPI engine, produces 114 kW at 6 200 r/min and 192 Nm torque at 4 000 r/min. While the engine is carried over from the third-generation Sportage, it has been significantly revised to improve efficiency, including the addition of advanced continuous variable valve timing (CVVT) and a new variable induction system.
The six speed automatic transmission, originally fitted only to the diesel variant, did not enthral me and, while efficient enough, often sounded like a CVT gearbox as it hunted for a suitable ratio – and this, in each of the three drive modes, Normal, Eco and Sport.
I would venture it is sorely in need to upgrading to a seven speed gearbox at least to provide that additional ratio and to allow for better cog spacing that would transform the drive experience.
Other than my niggle with the gearbox, the ride quality is top drawer and the Sportage barrels along confidently on both highway, rural and dirt roads with the suspension nicely ironing out the ripples and bumps.
In the 4X2 guise of the test car, it tracked accurately and the electric power steering gave positive feedback and pointed exactly where I wanted it go – never heavy and light enough to make intricate manoeuvring something that did not require an Iron Man contestant.
It comes standard with a 5-year / Unlimited Kilometre Warranty, as well as a 5-year / 90 000 km Service Plan.