Road Review – Kia Sportage 1.6 GDI Auto

The assembled mass of large four-wheel drive vehicles was intimidating to say the least. Behemoth monsters in truck and sedan form with large engines and plenty of power surrounded the little Kia Sportage I was driving.

The occasion – a leisurely trip over one of the tougher 4×4 trails South Africa has to offer. Just a social day out having some off-road fun.

However, the owner of the biggest and most brutal of the vehicles assembled there was the first to growl at me: “That piece of !@#& will never make it and I’m not wasting my day pulling you out. You get stuck, it’s your problem.”

Well into the technical trail, it took the threat of the withdrawal of conjugal rights for life by my wife to force me to go around that vehicle where it was stuck in a deep donga (hole) rather than simply driving over its roof and out the other side.

Such was the ability of the original Kia Sportage, launched in South Africa at a time when Korean vehicles were viewed with much disdain as soft, cheap and generally nasty – until the Sportage changed that.

However, to be fair, the Sportage did have its ups and downs over the years. The first-generation Kia Sportage was developed with a Mazda Bongo engineering base platform and shared many mechanical components with Mazda.

Launched in 1993 and spanning four generations since, Sportage is undoubtedly the most successful model in Kia’s history. From 1995 to 1998, the Sportage was built by Karmann in Germany; thus, European buyers received German-built versions between these years, while the rest of the world received South Korean-built versions.

This first-generation model (1993–2002) sold in low numbers even domestically in South Korea and post-Hyundai takeover models (1997–2002) were recalled twice for rear wheels dismounting while driving. The Kia Sportage scored the lowest possible result in the Australian ANCAP crash tests – one star out of five. As well as a failure of the seat belts, the vehicle structure collapsed.

When Hyundai took over Kia things started to change and the model-year 2005 Sportage returned, sharing its Elantra-based platform with the 2005 Hyundai Tucson. Critics and fans of the original, pre-Hyundai Sportage complained about the size and the fact it was no longer a proper 4×4.

Undoubtedly a better looking vehicle than the original, the 2009 version Kia Sportage ranked second in the ‘20 least expensive 2009 vehicles to insure’ list by Insure.com and earned a top rating of five stars in crash tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Now, just two years after the launch of the Peter Schreyer designed fourth generation, I got to drive the latest ‘refreshed’ example in the form of the base Kia Sportage 1.6 GDI Ignite (6-Speed Auto).

The fourth and current generation Sportage, which debuted globally late in 2015, is considered the most popular Sportage yet, reaching the 1-million-unit sales mark after only two years in production.

The refresh for the 2019 model year sees a slightly revised, more prominent ‘tiger nose’ grille. A new bumper design gives Sportage a more aggressive visage.

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At the rear, Sportage also gains a revised bumper that emphasises the car’s width while giving it a more planted stance. The rear taillights retain their original shape – with a connecting strip between the lights – but feature a new lighting signature that also assists in emphasising the vehicle’s width.

Other enhancements include a new selection of alloy wheel designs in 16-inch, 17-inch or 19-inch sizes (model dependent), as well as a range of new colour options.

As part of the Sportage’s mid-life enhancement, Kia Motors South Africa also revised the model line-up of the local range, discontinuing the SX AWD and GT Line specification grades while increasing the specification and value offering of the existing line-up.

Although the Ignite is the entry point into the Sportage range, new standard specification includes air-conditioning (manual), automatic headlamp control (incorporating ‘Welcome Home’ and ‘Escort’ lighting), electrically operated side mirrors with integrated indicator lamps, a centre console armrest with integrated storage box, Bluetooth connectivity, a radio with six speakers, power windows front and rear, rear park distance control and high performance dampers.

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New to the range is the 1,6-litre GDI (Gasoline Direct Injection) engine, utilised exclusively in the Sportage Ignite. This new-generation 1 591 cc ‘Gamma’ engine produces 97 kW of power, with 161 Nm of torque available from 4 850 r/min. It reaches the 100 km/h mark in 12,1 seconds and is capable of a top speed of 170 km/h, with CO2 emissions of 175 g/km.

The Schreyer inspiration that has seen all Kia (and Hyundai) models transform into carefully considered design styles, mean the current Sportage can stand its ground proudly against any of the opposition SUV models of similar size.

Ignite models feature fabric upholstery, as well as a new leather-wrapped steering wheel with remote controls for audio, telephony and cruise control, and a new leather-wrapped gearshift. Newly designed 16-inch alloy wheels with 215/70 R16 rubber complete the picture, along with standard LED Daytime Running Lights.

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In pretty much every respect, it is a comfortable, practical and easy to drive vehicle. The suspension deals efficiently with our rippled roads; it offers excellent all-round visibility, turns on the proverbial tickey and has an overall fuel consumption of 9,2 l/100 km.

If any reader senses a ‘but’ in the offing, they are correct. My ‘but’ is the 6-speed auto gearbox. To me, it felt as if the ratios were all wrong and it hunted frantically trying to find the right gear at all the wrong times, particularly in the period between a slow crawl in traffic to getting up to highway speed.

That 1,6-litre engine should be more fuel-efficient than our figures suggest and I would venture a contributing factor is the gearbox.

It features a full complement of safety and driver assistance systems, including anti-lock brakes with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), six crash bags and ISOFIX child seat anchors as standard.

Vehicle safety is ensured through the standard inclusion of central locking, as well as an alarm, immobiliser and Data Dot.

Other benefits include benefit from Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Hill-start Assist (HAC), Downhill Brake Control (DBC) and Park Distance Control at the rear.

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Even with my reservations about the gearbox, the Sportage 1.6 GDI remains a high value proposition with plenty of plus points going for it.

Standard is an unlimited kilometre, five-year warranty, as well as a standard 5-year/900 000 km service plan and 5 years of roadside assistance.

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