New Kia Sportage even better

By Matt Greenop

Smart Sportage has come a long way from its humble beginnings

The smart new Sportage is helping to boost Kia's sales figures.
The smart new Sportage is helping to boost Kia's sales figures.

Everything really does seem to move in cycles. About 20 years ago, I remember watching a friend in Australia violently slam the door of her recently acquired, exceptionally cheap, brand new Korean hatchback.

Gen 1 Kia Sportage.
Gen 1 Kia Sportage.

We were on the way to a barbecue and we had made the most of it by relentlessly winding her up. To be fair, it was not a very good car at all. So she slammed the door with "shock and awe" force, and the passenger side wing mirror fell off.

The car was sold next day amid a cloud of shame and regret.

Those days are obviously long gone. Korean brands like Kia and Hyundai have shrugged off the image created by years of not quite getting it right.

Nothing is more true than Kia's Sportage which, depending on what you'd class as an SUV, may or may not have created the category.

Kia probably was the first player in the SUV game - its Sportage appeared 21 years ago, before the Toyota RAV4 that others, especially Toyota, call the pioneer.

But the Sportage in those earlier years wasn't exactly the refined medium-sized crossover that we now see - facelifted and in its third generation.

It was an ugly-duckling back then - available as an awkwardly shaped boxy wagon or as an odd ute that only a mother could love.

One big move by the South Korean manufacturer, stablemate to the ever-growing Hyundai, has driven a huge change of fortunes in recent times. The Sportage is now considered well-built, extremely well-designed and a sharply priced contender. It didn't happen overnight, but it's now bang on.

The secret weapon was Peter Schreyer, the ex-VW Group design head poached by Kia and then, probably due to some kind of sibling jealousy, morphed into Hyundai-Kia design head.

You can't fault Hyundai for wanting a bit of the action - one only need look back through the Kia family album to know that there was an obvious change to the gene pool when Schreyer's name was screwed to an office door in Seoul.

Up with the play ... the Sportage facelift makes changes inside and out.
Up with the play ... the Sportage facelift makes changes inside and out.

The growth has since gained pace, the brand has generally been accepted into the mainstream, and the Chinese and Indian makes have become the new target of snipes, whether fair or not.

It does pay to remember that Chinese development of everything is neck-snappingly fast, although its cars still are not; and that Jaguar and Land Rover have now moved to the colonies.

Kia isn't restricted to Korea, either - all New Zealand's Sportages are built at its very expensive new factory in Slovakia.

Kia New Zealand general manager Todd McDonald admits that there have been huge supply problems in recent years and Sportage sales have suffered greatly. They're still up 8 per cent, but the global growth is around 30 per cent.

"If we've got them, they're sold," says McDonald. "At one point in 2011 we had a 10-month waiting list. Now it's the best we've had in four years - the Sportage is already in the dealerships, and more are arriving at the end of the month.

He's confident enough that buyer demand will be satisfied that he's targeting another 13 per cent gain this year over last. "It's challenging, but we'll give it a good go."

While a facelift model doesn't quite pack the sales punch as a whole new generation, McDonald is right in making the big call. The Sportage is definitely better than its predecessor, which has just topped the sales sheets and in March helped Kia to its best month in New Zealand.

The facelift adds two new models to the range to reflect changes in market tastes since the Gen III's appearance in 2011. During that time the demand for two-wheel-drive models has captured half of the medium SUV space, and 90 per cent of those are petrol- powered. Diesel buyers in the 4x4 models are now more than 40 per cent. Larger SUV buyers are more enthused by diesel and 4WD, while smaller models sell better as 2WD.

Two new engines have arrived to power the range, improving efficiency, emissions and performance over the last.

The first is a two-litre GDi (petrol), with 122kW, 205Nm and 200g/km, which drops fuel consumption to 8.4L/100km over the outgoing unit.

The other is a new version of the 2.2-litre R-series turbodiesel, which makes 135kW and a solid 392Nm for its 7.2L/100km, 189g of CO2 per kilometre. Both are mated to a six-speed auto with manual shift facility - even racy paddle shifters on the fanciest Limited models.

These are the models to have, though, and include a new 4x2 Limited petrol with LED tail lights, six-way electric drivers seats and an Infinity sound system.

At the other end of the scale is the new LX, which joins the EX and the Limited diesels.

Front and rear parking sensors are on every model bar the LX (rear only) and reversing cameras are on everything bar the LX petrol.

Driver assist technologies add to the high safety spec, with descent control, hill start assist and a stability control system that now includes software to mitigate trailer sway. The orange mono displays on the stereo systems in the lower-spec models look dated, but at the Limited level the Sportage has entered the smartphone era with a well-rendered 7-inch touchscreen TFT display. As well as giving added functionality, the new infotainment system lifts the overall look of the interior simply by being more in line with expectation.

Kia's signature tiger-nose grille has been updated to match the rest of the range, and wheel sizes have been bumped up an inch to a maximum 18in rim.

Up with the play ... the Sportage facelift makes changes inside and out.
Up with the play ... the Sportage facelift makes changes inside and out.

But the best changes are the invisible ones. Noise, vibration and harshness have been reduced sharply by rubber subframe mounts and acoustic film in the laminated glass cuts road noise, especially on coarse chip.

The steering set-up has been significantly refined - although suspension remains unchanged - and all models feel more stable, because of better weighting at different speeds.

The ever-present SUV understeer is toned down by sharper turn-in and handling is light enough to make parking and slow manoeuvres less taxing than in earlier models.

There's no doubt that this model evolution has significantly improved the already capable Sportage. And while growth in this tough sector is, as McDonald says, a challenge, it's more than up to the task.

- NZ Herald

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