What is it?
Kia has undergone a significant transformation over the past decade. Once the manufacturer of worthy but dull cars, the input of German designer - and current president - Peter Schreyer has helped the Korean brand become much more desirable.
The Sportage SUV has played a large part in this change of fortune. When it was unveiled back in 2010, it was a big departure from the awkward-looking 4x4 that preceded it.
It's no surprise that Kia has worked hard to improve performance and reduce emissions on this fourth generation car. More interestingly for fans of zesty petrol power, there’s also a new 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine available in more aggressively styled GT-Line trim. We try it in the UK for the first time.
What's it like?
The 1.6 T-GDi petrol engine comes with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard. The combination gives respectable performance, with 0-60mph taking a claimed 9.2sec and a top speed of 126mph achievable with a long enough stretch of road.
You can opt for a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox for a £1300 premium (which also knocks 0.4secs off the 0-62mph time), but one thing you can’t have is front-wheel drive, because this engine only comes on models with all of their wheels driven. Up to 40% of the engine’s torque can be shuffled to the back axle, although there’s a 4WD lock mode that splits torque 50/50.
Performance may seem decent enough on paper, but in the real world the 1.6 T-GDi feels more pedestrian. Those figures are believable, but achieving them requires you to explore the upper reaches of the rev range. The engine does at least prove smooth and not too coarse if you do stretch it.
The manual gearbox is precise but long of throw and the Sportage's handling doesn’t really encourage enthusiastic cornering. There’s plenty of grip from the sizable tyres fitted to standard 19in wheels, but there’s also a fair bit of body roll.
The steering is accurate enough while cornering, but it suffers from vagueness in a straight line. This means you spend a fair amount of time correcting its trajectory on motorways. As for feedback, it’s virtually non-existent.
Push hard and you’re treated to a nose that will always wash wide before the rear tyres relinquish their grip. Overall then, it’s safe, secure and grippy. Exactly what you’d want from a family-friendly SUV, but not a vehicle you'll ever drive for the sake of driving.
It’s also not the most comfortable of small SUVs; the suspension doesn’t feel as sophisticated as you’d get in a Nissan Qashqai and the big wheels mean you feel a lot of the road’s surface beneath you. It isn’t terrible, but it isn’t the most relaxing vehicle to pilot across our terrible UK Tarmac.
Step inside and you’re treated to an interior that is both easy on the eye and built with plenty of pleasing plastics. The top of the dash and doors are both hewn from squishy materials and all the controls work in a precise manner.
Look below the level of the steering wheel and there are harder plastics that are less well finished. However, considering the Sportage is considerably cheaper than rivals from Toyota and Honda, it's a cost-cutting exercise that's easy to forgive.
All bar entry-level 1-spec models get a sat-nav, and this GT-Line model comes with a 7.0in display as part of the touchscreen infotainment system. It may not be the most visually stunning screen on the market, but it’s clear, easy to navigate and free from lag.
Rear seat passengers are also unlikely to have any complaints. Even with a six-foot-tall driver, there’s a generous amount of leg room and head room. Furthermore, the 491-litre boot will swallow multiple suitcases with the rear seats in place.
Should I buy one?
It’s unlikely the engine we sampled will be a big seller here in the UK. With CO2 emissions of 177g/km and claimed combined economy of 37.2mpg, families will be better served opting for the greater fuel economy and lower emissions of diesel power.
Not only will a diesel prove much cheaper to run, but its more flexible performance also suits the Sportage better. Ultimately we’d suggest sampling the Sportage's oil-burning variants first should you be in the market for a small SUV.
If you really must have petrol power, then the 1.6-litre turbo version of the Qashqai can offer similar performance, but with much lower emissions. It may not look quite as sporty, but the Qashqai still remains the car to beat in this segment.
Kia Sportage 1.6 T-GDi GT-Line
Location West Sussex; On sale Now; Price £24,350; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1591cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 174bhp at 5500rpm;Torque 195Ib ft at 1500-4500rpm; Kerb weight 1733kg; Gearbox 6-spd manual; 0-60mph 9.2s; Top speed 126mph; Economy 37.2mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 177g/km, 30%