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Kia aims to take its popular Sportage crossover upmarket with the latest round of updates

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The previous Kia Sportage crossover was the closest thing that Kia has had to a European smash hit. It must be with considerable trepidation, therefore, that the Korean car maker has succeeded it.

Most popular of all in the final year of its lifecycle, the third-generation Sportage (2010-2016) registered more than 100,000 sales across Europe, more than a quarter of the firm’s overall volume on this continent.

The new Kia Sportage faces a tough task carrying on the success created by the third generation

It benefitted from being one of the better crossovers at a time when more people started to want such a vehicle. It’s also proof of how uncomplicated the car business can be. Offer us attractive styling, lots of practicality, creditable ride and handling and a strong value proposition and we’ll buy in our droves.

If success is that simple, of course, it shouldn’t be so difficult for Kia to repeat it with this, the fourth-generation Kia Sportage. But the more closely you investigate this new crossover, the more you realise that ‘more of the same’ isn’t quite what Kia is after.

With a broader range of engines and transmissions, more power and performance on offer, more advanced cabin and safety technology, more svelte and sporting design features and, yep, more ambitious prices, the new Sportage is clearly part of a wider effort to gradually inch Kia upmarket.

Under the bonnet, the headline addition is a 174bhp 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine, which is teamed with a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearboxes.

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Outwardly, the car’s chief selling point may well be the styling of the new GT Line and GT-Line S trims, with their added sporting flavour.

In both respects, Kia is dipping its toe into deeper and more perilous water than the Sportage has subsisted in thus far. But, for now, it expects most UK buyers to plump for a diesel engine and a more conservative trim level – as we tested here in 1.7-litre form. In 2020, this engine was replaced with a 1.6-litre unit, which arrived with 48v mild-hybrid assistance for greater efficiency and reduced emissions.

Kia Sportage engine line-up and trim levels

The Sportage line-up starts in entry-level '2' trim, which comes with 17in alloy wheels, an 8in touchscreen infotainment system with integrated satnav and smartphone mirroring, reversing camera, heated front and rear seats, and automatic lane keep assist as standard. 

Step-up '3' models gain larger 19in alloys, LED front and rear lights, black leather upholstery, power-adjustable seats, a panoramic sunroof and blind spot collision warning.

GT-Line cars get sportier exterior styling, courtesy of a bespoke front grille, 'ice cube'-style front foglights and dual exhaust pipes, as well as keyless entry and start. Flagship GT-Line S models get a powered tailgate, 360deg parking camera, 8-speaker JBL sound system and wireless smartphone charging as standard.

Powertrain options consist of a 1.6-litre petrol, in naturally-aspirated Sportage 1.6 GDI and turbocharged Sportage 1.6 T-GDI forms, but only the latter is paired with all-wheel drive. Only GT-Line and higher trims come with an automatic gearbox; '2' and '3' trims have manuals.  The sole diesel model is the Sportage 1.6CRDi with 48v mild hyrid assistance, and is available with either a six-speed manual or DCT automatic transmission.

More on the Kia Sportage

New 2021 Kia Sportage gets bespoke European version

Kia Sportage long-term test review: final report

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DESIGN & STYLING

2 Kia Sportage 2020 road test review update side pan

Whatever may be wrapped up beneath it, the Kia Sportage’s bodywork will be key in determining whether Kia can continue riding the wave of its handsome predecessor’s success in Europe.

To our eyes, the new version fails to conjure the same instant visual allure as the last model, although it’s far from unattractive.

The Sportage’s overall length has increased by 40mm with 75% of that between the axles, which explains why the rear doors look longer

And before you write it off on the basis of our test car, bear in mind that the GT Line version gets a high-gloss radiator grille, extra satin chrome body mouldings, 19in wheels, gloss black wheel arch spats and sill cladding, twin exhaust pipes and chrome skid plates to perk up its look, while the GT-Line S gets bi-xenon headlights giving it a more intimidating pose. And they do make a difference.

The all-new platform is made of more than 50 percent advanced high-strength steel and is 39 percent more rigid than that of the previous car, as well as being 40mm longer (30mm of which has gone into the wheelbase). The other major structural change is to the floor height, which is 40mm lower than before – permitting the seats to be lowered and entry and exit to be made more convenient.

Suspension is via struts up front and multi-links at the rear, just as it was, although several key efforts have been made to improve both ride refinement and handling dynamism.

A new geometry features at the rear, as well as a new bushed subframe, and other bushings have been firmed up and new rebound damper settings applied to improve the car’s ride on rough roads. The biggest change at the front of the car, meanwhile, is the R-MDPS electromechanical power steering system mounted directly onto the steering rack rather than onto the column, for better stiffness and response. It has also appeared on the latest generation Kia Sorento and Kia Optima.

The engine range includes two variants of both the 1.7-litre and Sportage 2.0-litre diesels, with the former available with 114bhp and 139bhp, and the latter in 134bhp and 182bhp guises. A pair of 1.6-litre petrols complete the range, with 130bhp and turbo-assisted 174bhp power outputs on offer. Clutch-based four-wheel drive is available on all but the bottom-rung petrol and diesel options.

Although greater improvements to power, torque and emissions have been delivered on the European-engineered 2.0-litre diesel than on the Korean-developed 1.7, the lesser four-cylinder gets a lighter iron cylinder block, a new oil cooler bypass valve, new high-strength valve springs, a higher-pressure fuel injection system and a slightly lower compression ratio compared with its predecessor. Emissions of CO2 from 119g/km still aren’t particularly competitive, though.

INTERIOR

9 Kia Sportage 2020 road test review update cabin

So this is Kia’s brave new world: new heights on perceived quality, material richness and fit and finish, it says. They’re not exactly dizzy heights, although the overall ambience of the Kia Sportage’s cabin is pleasant enough.

Our impressions were grounded somewhat by our test car’s KX-2 trim level, which misses out on the leather upholstery, contrast stitching and high-gloss trim of ritzier models. On the equipment front, there are seven levels to choose from: 1, 2/KX-2, 3/KX-3, 4/KX-4, KX-5, GT-Line and GT-Line S.

Turn-off the sat nav instructions on the Sportage, and it annoyingly turn them back on when the car is restarted

The entry-level Sportage comes equipped with 16in alloys, front foglights, hill start assist and descent control as standard, while inside there is air conditioning, USB and Bluetooth connectivity, DAB radio and cruise control.

Upgrade to the trim adorning our test car and you will find 17in alloys, roof rails, rear parking sensors, automatic wipers and lights, and Kia's safety systems, while inside there is dual-zone climate control, a reversing camera and Kia's 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with sat nav and smartphone integration.

Sportage's kitted out in '3/KX-3' equipment gain luxuries such as an 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system, a panoramic sunroof and a eight speaker JBL audio system, while paying a bit more simply adds ventilated seats, heated steering wheel, electrically adjustable front seats, front parking sensors, adaptive bi-xenon headlights, and keyless entry and start, along with Kia's autonomous braking system and blind spot detection system.

The KX-5 models gain a smart opening tailgate, automatic parking assist, a wireless phone charging system and two tone leather upholstery, while the GT-Line models add an aggressive-styled bodykit, numerous GT-Line decals and inserts, a twin exhaust and Kia's signature LED front foglights. The GT-Line S adds numerous features found as standard on the KX-5 Sportage, including Kia's 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system, JBL sound system, panoramic sunroof and adaptive bi-xenon headlights.

Our test car had the 7.0in touchscreen infotainment and navigation set-up that’s standard on 2 trim. The system paired with an iPhone quickly and maintained a reliable connection, and although call quality seemed a bit muffled, the media streaming was clear.

The audio system sounded a little on the tinny side in its default mode, but adequately powerful when its background noise compensation mode was enabled.

The system also offers live traffic information via TomTom, routed directly into the navigation, provided your mobile phone’s data connection is enabled. Weather forecasts, local Google search and speed camera detection are also available through Kia Connected Services.

Kia could have done more to mitigate the sense of enveloping gloom caused by the profusion of dark plastics on the fascia. The matt chrome finishers around the air vents, ventilation controls, steering wheel boss and gearlever look and feel quite expensive, yet add little cheer to the ambience. Kia is clearly aiming for smart and clean instead, but the fascia looks and feels solid and robust but plain.

The promises of increased leg and head room in both rows and a bigger boot have been delivered. The second-row seats in particular feel more roomy.

And compared with its opposition, the Sportage also provides some good news for owners. A Nissan Qashqai, our class-leading crossover, grants only a couple of centimetres more front-row head room than the Kia, identical second-row head room and just a solitary centimetre more second-row knee room. On boot length, meanwhile, the Sportage has both the Qashqai and even a BMW X1 beaten.

A versatile family car is about much more than space, of course. Drilling down into the details, there are things we like here (a dedicated under-floor cubby to stow the load bay cover when you take it out) and omissions we regret (no boot-accessible remote release handles for the folding back seats).

Broadly, the Sportage does what a crossover needs to on practicality, quality and comfort, but it still somehow fails to leave a lasting impression.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

18 Kia Sportage 2020 road test review update engine

The 1.7-litre diesel engine in the Kia Sportage feels like it’s from a time when entry-level oil-burners seldom transcended their humble beginnings.

Unfortunately for Kia, several of those kinds of engines now do have transcendent talents – Honda’s 1.6 i-DTEC, PSA Peugeot-Citroën’s BlueHDi 1.6, BMW’s three-cylinder 1.5 and Mazda’s Skyactiv 1.5 to name a few.

The speed limit recognition on the Kia is given a discreet prominence that doesn’t bug you. Top marks

The Kia’s engine has only a meek answer for the flexibility, refinement and economy of any of them. It will serve the Sportage well enough to escape the ire of most owners, but it does very little to provide a real selling point – or to do justice to Kia’s broader attempt at repositioning the car.

Roused to a prickly idle, the motor wastes no time at all in introducing its biggest failing: coarseness. Although it’s tolerably smooth, the engine is always noisy, even under light throttle openings and at low crank speeds.

On pedal response and tractability, it’s much less vulnerable to criticism, pulling from low revs fairly cleanly and without the rush of boost evident from the Renault-Nissan 1.5 dCi.

At high revs, it feels asthmatic, but so do most of its direct rivals. So on outright performance, there’s a mixed, undistinguished picture to report. A Nissan Qashqai 1.5 dCi accelerates slightly more quickly to 60mph from rest but is slightly less flexible from 30mph to 70mph in fourth gear.

On refinement, aside from the engine noise, the Sportage suffers with a fair bit of road roar, too, although suspension noise is tolerably well controlled. Average wind isolation completes a showing that Kia will need to improve if it wants people to take its upwardly mobile status seriously.

In other ways, though, the Sportage does show signs that its driving experience has been laboured over. The shift action of the six-speed manual gearbox is positive and nicely weighted and pedal weights match the substantial heft of the steering. Credit where’s it due, then, but still plenty of room for improvement.

RIDE & HANDLING

19 Kia Sportage 2020 road test review update cornering front

The outgoing Kia Sportage (2010-2016) was a straight-dealing, unaffected sort of drive. By and large, it was how you might have hoped and expected to find a jacked-up family hatch in 2010: a touch soft-handling and only a moderately keen feel, but compliant, coherent and quite easy-going with it.

The new version for the Kia Sportage is, of course, up against higher expectations and tougher class standards – to the extent that repeating the same compromise six years later would never have cut the mustard.

Chassis rates are firm and damping is poor if you charge hard over transmission bumps

But it’s apparent that, in responding to the challenge, Kia may have lost sight of the sense of becalmed dynamic measure and maturity that made the previous Sportage feel less like a hatchback and more like a downsized SUV to drive – and all the more likable for it.

The new Sportage has contracted the ‘sportiness’ that some at Kia may imagine suits its identity, a bit like an opening batsman getting the yips.

Where once relaxed spring rates brought long-striding compliance, there is now a more insistent, high-frequency firmness in the ride, and a pursuit of level equilibrium that more often than not makes the car somewhat restless on UK roads.

The same firmness has undeniably allowed the handling to take some large objective strides. There is much greater high-speed stability delivered by this suspension than that of the previous car, as well as the kind of agility and lateral grip of which any crossover would be proud.

It’s a shame, therefore, that the fidgeting, conductive ride prevents you from enjoying the game handling where uneven surfaces are concerned. It’s equally regrettable, too, that Kia’s new power steering system confuses changeable, cloying weight and apparent friction with genuine feedback, making the car a trying thing to steer at times when it ought to be fluent and precise.

Although it may not have been entirely called for on a diesel crossover, the healthy dose of added purposefulness dialled in by the suspension makeover has certainly polished the Sportage’s dynamic act and pushed out its adhesive limits quite a long way.

The chassis now develops quite a lot more lateral grip than its modest diesel engine will allow you to explore without plenty of commitment.

Although the damper tuning could be more progressive, body control is well checked when cornering hard, and the steered axle is permitted to retain a strong and lasting authority over your intended path.

Handling balance is fairly keen, with understeer presenting eventually but not before you’ve goaded and harried the car pretty hard.  

Leaden steering does a consistently poor job of communicating how much grip remains under those front wheels.

But at normal speeds, the answer is usually plenty and the traction control does a handy job of preventing issues disrupting what there is under power.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Kia Sportage 2020 road test review update lead

The market is now well used to the value proposition that Kia routinely offers: simplicity of specification, a certain generosity with equipment and a renowned munificence with its seven years and 100,000 miles of transferable warranty cover for a competitive price, although no longer a genuinely exceptional one.

What’s more, the market likes it and has responded with some very creditable residual values for the Kia Sportage.

Used markets were very keen on the old Sportage, which means the new Kia’s residuals are forecasted to be competitive

If you want cheap and cheerful from the new Sportage, you can still have it. While the new high-end derivatives trumpet self-parking and wireless smartphone charging solutions in a way that might attract the odd convert from the European semi-premium brands, a bog-basic Sportage offers alloy wheels, cornering foglights, heated mirrors, cruise control and a DAB radio all as standard – and it will cost you less than £18,000.

Kia even offers fixed-price servicing deals to complement its seven-year warranty package to make the ownership experience even easier to budget for.

In light of all of which, you might be inclined to overlook a couple of minor shortcomings on fuel economy and CO2 emissions – although we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t shine at least a flicker of light on them in passing.

The Sportage 1.7 CRDi returned an average of 50.1mpg for our True MPG testers, about 10% poorer than you’ll get from an equivalent Nissan Qashqai or Honda HR-V.

Fleet drivers, meanwhile, will rack up company car tax on up to 4 percent more of the car’s P11D value than they might with one of its rivals, which is certainly enough to feel in the pocket.

 

VERDICT

21 Kia Sportage 2020 road test review update static

The previous Sportage didn’t need a lot of fixing, yet the new one surprises you with how altered it seems: on styling theme, mechanical content and dynamic compromise.

Like the outgoing model, the new Sportage is practical and good value. Unlike the last one, it hits a sufficiently high mark on grip and agility, material quality and equipment specification to feel almost as sophisticated as any European volume-brand rival.

Despite that, the car’s appeal relative to its peers has probably waned slightly, partly due to an increasingly packed segment but at least as much because of Kia’s questionable redesign and misjudged retuning efforts.

But between its overly firm ride, numb steering, undernourished engine and copycat looks, it’s hard to see how the Sportage we tested is a big improvement on what went before.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Kia Sportage 2016-2021 First drives