IAIN ROBERTSON

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Recently upgraded, although you need to look closely to see the details, highlights Iain Robertson, the latest Kia Sportage serves to reinforce an image that is presently irrefutable but, importantly, the changes do make a good car even better.

When Kia first introduced a Sportage model to its fledgling UK model range, in 1993, it was a rounded and user-friendly family estate car that was based on a Mazda platform, because Kia had a working relationship with the Japanese firm at the time. The second generation (2004) followed the collapse of the Asia-Pacific economy in the late-1990s, which had brought Kia to its knees. Rescued by the more financially secure Hyundai, its products were initially a badge-engineered exercise until Kia was returned to good health.

IMGThe third generation model of 2010 provided the engaging outline of today’s Sportage and, thanks to the arrival of former Audi stylist, Peter Schreyer, as Kia’s new design boss, plus the opening of a new technical centre in Frankfurt and a factory at Zilina, in Slovakia, it was a strongly Europeanised model that took off in sales terms. While the latest Sportage is quite different to the 3rd-generation, the styling similarities are present.

It is worth noting that Kia (and its parent Hyundai for that matter) is a company that seldom sits still. Immensely reactive to critique, displaying the highest principles of Kaizen engineering, if changes are deemed essential to a model’s on-going appeal, they will be introduced without adherence to the tenets of consistent model life cycles, which tend to be four to five years normally. As a result, the fourth-generation of the Sportage, which was introduced as recently as 2015, has already undergone a number of minor changes during its current life cycle.

IMGAccepting that SUVs have a genuinely purposeful role to fulfil, which more than justifies their increasing numbers on our roads (to be frank, not a factor that I adhered to for several years), it is intriguing to note that Kia is addressing the present ‘anti-diesel’ issues by leading its latest Sportage range with a turbo-petrol model. I should highlight that turbo-diesel models are still available across Kia’s model ranges, including the latest Sportage, but with consistent reductions in new diesel registrations, the value of the latest version is underscored clearly. Yet, the Sportage is not exactly the smallest, or most lightweight (1,637kgs) of SUV contenders, which makes its performance envelope all the more outstanding.

In GT-Line S automated gearbox all-wheel drive form, priced (pre-discount at dealerships) at £32,120, it is truly an all-singing-and-dancing, go almost anywhere, family car. However, its engine is Kia’s direct injection, turbo-petrol unit, displacing 1,591cc, which is not exactly the largest in the class. Yet, it develops a more than adequate 174bhp (with 195lbs ft of torque, which is great for towing up to 1.6-tonnes and tackling all manner of terrain) and drives through a deliciously fluent 7-speed, twin-clutch, automated-manual transmission, complete with sporty paddle-shifters. In fact, its delivery is eager enough to despatch the 0-60mph sprint in a zippy 8.8s, before hitting a maximum speed of 125mph. It is far more ‘warm hatchback’ than I believed was possible from a car of its dimensions.

IMGAs to those detail changes, a markedly improved driving position has been achieved within a grey leather-lined, sportingly red-stitched cabin that feels delightfully upmarket, with its ‘stitched’ and ‘soft-touch’ dashboard. The range of seat and steering column adjustment is immense, which means that the driving position will be accommodating of almost any size of driver. The seating is comfortable and supportive, thanks to pertinent side bolstering and excellent thigh and spine support. Yes, the seats are better than before. Crystal clear instrumentation is supported by high-quality switchgear and a touchscreen positioned in the right place at the top-centre of the dash. A useful information graphic screen is located between the analogue speedometer and rev-counter in the main binnacle. There is nothing ‘missing’ for button fans and a satisfying lack of complexity and logic exists for the rows of pushbuttons and switchable driver aids.

Externally, revised LED lighting at both the front and rear of the Sportage, as well as a softened radiator grille shape, give it a Porsche-esque appeal (it looks similar to a Cayenne model on approach), with its main headlamp units surrounded by a cluster of four LED units. An additional array of LEDs (‘Ice-Cube’) sits in both front corners of the car to provide fog-lighting. Subtle applications of chrome and shiny metal trim are balanced by new 19.0-inch diameter alloy wheels that look the absolute business. Of course, Kia has used this opportunity to bolster the number of electronic driver and safety aids fitted to the car, as well as improving connectivity (Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Bluetooth) to keep up to date with the latest developments. As I stated earlier, it is a button-pusher’s delight.

IMGAlthough the engineering of Sportage remains essentially the same as before, I feel that both suspension and sound-deadening have been doctored mildly, because not only are the ride quality and handling capabilities of the new model improved but the car feels more refined overall. Its straight-line stability is superb and there is a good weight to the main controls, which gifts the Sportage a pleasant and visceral meatiness. Geared to pull just over 31mph/1,000rpm, the new Sportage’s cruising ability is satisfyingly relaxed and also improved (making 70mph an easy just-over 2,250rpm cruise) and, thanks to a moderately slippery outline, it cleaves through the air very well on only a whisker of throttle, which means that 36.2mpg is eminently achievable, although its 174g/km CO2 emissions does equate to a first year road tax bill of £830 (£145 annually thereafter).

Conclusion:      I am a great fan of Kia, because it is a carmaker that seems to second-guess precisely what most motorists desire. The latest Sportage is probably one of the best mid-size SUVs currently on sale and it represents good value, thanks to a high equipment level.