Alvin Thomas finds that the Kia Sportage is a small, sassy South Korean SUV that has its pricier German rivals in its sights.
The term ‘resilience’ is not one that we usually associate with cars. It goes well with us humans: for instance, Martin Luther King was a resilient man who led the Civil Rights movement in the US; JK Rowling is a resilient woman who overcame her struggles to become one of the most successful writers of our time (with the Harry Potter novels, of course); Connor McGregor is a resilient MMA fighter, who will (undoubtedly) knock out Floyd Mayweather in their fight next month, and those who think otherwise can – as Floyd would say –“go home”.
You get where I’m going with this, right? There’s no real car that I can pin-point as being thrown into the wood chipper (figuratively) and bouncing back into the market as a better product.
But, as it turns out, I was wrong. The answer is, yes; and the vehicle I’m talking about is the Kia Sportage.
You see, the Sportage has quite a bit of tragic history: Kia credit themselves to be the inventors of the whole crossover SUV segment, as they were a whole year ahead of their competitors from Japan in revealing the Sportage. Impressive? Yes.
Sadly, however, the vehicle was better-known for scoring 1-star in crash test ratings, being fitted with faulty seatbelts and recalls for wheels coming off while driving among a flurry of other defects.
All of this meant the Japanese were successful in appropriating the kudos for becoming the inventors of the crossover SUV.
But Kia didn’t give up. Fast-forward two decades and the Kia Sportage now earns five-star ratings in crash tests, scores top points in the J.D. Power ratings, comes pre-loaded with good tech and – above all – has an almost cult-like following.
Heck, Kia Sportage is also among the top-sellers in this segment of cars. And, if that isn’t resilience then I don’t know what is.
In any case, my test car, the fourth-generation Kia Sportage, keeps in line with what its successful predecessor has done – tell its competitors what Kia is capable of.
Just take a look at this thing: granted, it may have a love-it or hate-it design, but I couldn’t help but ogle the curvy body and the vivacious stance.
The front headlamps may look generic but there’s a lot going on inside them. For instance, you get three separate LED lights for the low-beam lamps, a Xenon projector for the high-beam, and your usual amber turn signal lamp. It looks truly unique.
If that weren’t enough, Kia chucks in four separate cube-shaped LED foglights (eight in total!); a chunky, accentuated bonnet and a gorgeous-looking “tiger nose” grille to round off the Sportage’s facade.
This wave of Avant-Garde-ness translates to the rear as well: my top ‘GT Line’ variant came with beautifully crafted LED tail lamps adjoined by a light strip (non-functional) and oval-shaped dual exhaust tips. However, the sides profile is devoid of any styling elements.
The interior of the Kia Sportage is a step up from many of its Asian competitors, today. It may be awfully similar to the one you will find in Kia’s own Cadenza and Optima sedans sans the fancy A/C controls, but it is definitely a step up from its previous version.
My top-spec tester came with faux-leather and soft-touch surfaces on the door handles and dashboard. But, hard plastics take up the rest of the cabin, as is the case with most cars at this price-point.
The dual-tone dashboard – broken neatly into black and piano black – is neatly laid out with an array of buttons, and adorned with a responsive and easy-to-use 20cm touchscreen. The latter is one of the best systems that we have used in a vehicle in recent times, too, and supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Meanwhile, the seats are well bolstered with plenty of thigh and back support, and as an added treat, are also ventilated.
My ‘GT Line’-variant also came packed with goodies such as a JBL audio system – with plenty of low-end base and excellent treble – only hampered by plastic body panels that do not propagate the waves enough, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a flat-bottom steering wheel with paddle shifters (!), driver information display and eight-way power passenger seats with accented stitching.
You also get your usual blind-spot monitoring, rear-cross traffic alert, lane departure warning and other knick-knacks, as standard in the ‘GT Line’ trim.
Space upfront is excellent, but the footwell on the passenger side is taken up by a fire extinguisher. Still, space is still up there with that of industry leaders.
Where the Sportage shines, however, is in the rear space. Even with the front seats pushed all the way back, there’s plenty of knee and head room for those who are taller than 182cm. The exhaust hump in the middle is prominent, but three full-sized adults could travel comfortably without making any compromises… or losing their dignity.
Oh, and before I forget: keeping in line with that ‘sporty’ culture, Kia throws in numerous (more than five, if I’m not mistaken) USB charging ports throughout the car.
There’s plenty of space in the boot and the base is quite low, meaning, you don’t have to expend much energy when loading goods. If you’re into a more active lifestyle, however, and need to carry large equipment like a small kayak or a bicycle (if you’re into that sort of a lifestyle), you can fold the rear seats down flat.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the bits that matter: the powertrain. Underneath the hood lies a 2.4-litre in-line four-cylinder pot banger, cranking out a reasonable 175hp and 227Nm of torque that sends power to all four-wheels.
While the numbers may not be particularly awe-inspiring, the Sportage still sprints to 100kph from a standstill in about 12 seconds. As I have mentioned before, the reason for the lacklustre timing is due to the extreme summer heat here. I’m sure the Sportage can better (or at least stay within) the 10-second mark in the cooler months.
The traditional six-speed automatic transmission is quick to respond, and (thankfully) stays in the right gears at most times. Shifting down only requires a slight push on the throttle, and there’s a steady wave of torque to propel you forward in tricky situations on the road – even past the 100kph mark.
You won’t ever require the steering-mounted paddle shifters in normal traffic, but it’s there, should you need it. It holds gears well, and can be used to extract as much power from the engine when required.
You also get ‘Eco’, ‘Normal’ and ‘Sport’ driving modes, which alter variables such as the throttle response and gear shift pattern to give you a different driving feel. I didn’t feel the motor-driven power steering get heavier though.
On the plus side, though, the steering is fantastic. It is very responsive, and provides ample feedback; something most cars of today fail to do. It is also well-weighted on the highways and light in the city, thereby aiding manoeuvring.
The brakes are linear in stopping power, and deal with the heft easily. I did push the Sportage to its limits at the Al Amerat heights, where it performed very well.
Furthermore, the Sportage is also quite an engaging SUV to drive in most circumstances: the brilliant steering and the unobtrusive electronic nannies make way for a sporty ride.
Mind you, it still manages to glide over bumps without much haste, either, despite the humungous 51cms alloys. The Korean tyres are grippy but do squeal upon when taking corners hard.
All of this only made me push the SUV harder. And upon doing that, I was able to uncover a hint of understeer. Mind you, it wasn’t as bad as what I encountered in one Japanese crossover (which I shall not name), recently.
Still, should you find yourself in trouble, the stability control will take care of your slip-up by mildly braking your inside tyres and subsequently pulling you back in line.
The more time I spent with the Sportage, the more I pushed it hard, and the more I fell in love with it.
It’s easy to classify the Sportage as an SUV for a family of five, but there’s more to it than just that, as I learnt throughout the length of my test drive. The Kia Sportage is by far a superior SUV than most of its competitors in this segment, and maybe closer to its pricier German rivals than we snobbish, know-it-all motoring journalists might think.
And you know what? It deserves a lot more respect than it already does. I never thought I would say this: kudos, Kia!