A fact before we start: Kia now commands three per cent of the UK’s 4x4 market. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but Jeep has only a two per cent slice. It’s evidence that the Korean brand is shaking off its old budget-car stigma at an impressively rapid rate – especially where off-roaders are concerned, with its successful Sorento.
Market share, though, is hardly a rationale for allying yourself to a product or brand – so Kia is hoping the new Sportage will tickle the taste buds of small SUV enthusiasts.
With a price tag starting at about £14,500 and plentiful standard kit, the Sportage is certainly in the sweet spot to provide a better-value alternative to the Land Rover Freelander, Toyota RAV4 and even sister company Hyundai’s new Tucson, with which it shares a monocoque platform and some behind-the-scenes mechanicals.
Visually, the Sportage has no links to the Tucson, though like that car it can’t teach rivals anything about eye-catching looks. Still it’s a tidy piece of work in the metal, with some nicely restrained off-roader cues, especially when viewed from the rear three- quarters. And we’ll be charitable enough to say the similarity of the rear to the Volvo XC90’s is just coincidence.
Inside, there’s little visual drama, but priority has obviously been given to practicality and passing muster with families. The rear compartment is spacious enough to accommodate three adults and either side of the split rear seat will fold completely flat with just one lever. There are other neat touches, too, including under-floor stowage and a host of nets and hooks.
Up front, all-round visibility is good, as is the driving position, though it would be better still if Kia offered a steering wheel that adjusts for reach as well as height. You will at least be looking at and using a handsome and well-ordered dash, though it’s constructed from hard plastics rather than the more upmarket soft-touch ‘slush’ mouldings. But quality of construction can’t be faulted, and the fascia is lifted by plenty of aluminium-like facings.
The Sportage’s engine range is identical to the Tucson’s. That means there’s a choice of two petrols (141bhp 2.0-litre and 174bhp 2.7-litre V6) and a 111bhp 2.0-litre common-rail turbodiesel. The petrols hit the showroom in January, but we’ll have to wait until March for the oil-burner.
We only got to test the diesel, which thanks to its torque and fuel economy is likely to be the most popular version. Like the rest of the line-up it’s normally a front-driver, only sending power to the rear wheels when it detects traction loss, though it can be locked in four-wheel drive via a button on the dash.
We were disappointed when we drove the Hyundai Tucson, and so expected the worst from its sister car, but Kia has tuned the chassis with more success. It’s still only average at smothering road imperfections but feels better tied down. The diesel engine doesn’t cause quite so many unwelcome intrusions on your peace and quiet as it does in the Tuscson, either. With only 111bhp the Sportage lacks the lustiness of some rivals, but feels perfectly adequate once you’ve reached cruising pace.
The new Sportage not only shows that (once again) Kia is outgunning Hyundai; it also shows that it has much to offer in an already crowded sector. Having said that, if you can afford it, the Toyota RAV4 remains a superior SUV.