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THE Kia Sportage arrives. I loved the last Kia Sportage, it was more stylish than it really needed to be, great to drive an absolute bargain. This new one seems to have gone a bit “Porsche Cayenne” with that gaping mouth and its headlights set high but, from some angles, it’s still a very nice thing to behold. Especially from side-on, it actually looks really classy, particularly with my test model’s huge 19in wheels and black-on white trim. Did I just say that? A classy Kia? Actually, yes. Gone are the days when the name Kia was synonymous with cheap and nasty A-to-B motoring. This is a car which would raise the eyelids of a Range Rover Evoque driver, particularly in my First Edition top-spec test car. That said, this version costs more than £30,000. Yes, you can buy one for around £18,000, but I’ve been sent the top-notch version with all the bells and whistles. I reiterate: £30,000. This had better be good.

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I’VE got a long journey ahead of me today so plenty of time behind the wheel to get the measure of the new Sportage. First impressions are that the inside is a lovely place to sit. I’ve got comfy leather seats, a good driving position, plenty of visibility and lots of useful storage. I’ve even got some clever gadgets to play with. There’s a big touch-screen, power sockets for USB and 12v plugs, the little pointy socket I can never remember the name of and a surprisingly meaty stereo. It doesn’t stop there, either. In the First Edition I’ve also got heated seats, a heated steering wheel, very simple climate control, and my rear seat passengers have got their own bum-warmers to play with too. There’s even – and this is the best bit – some very clever driver’s aids. Lane Keep Assist is there, along with self-park and adaptive cruise control. For a moment, I had to step out and remind myself it was a Kia. You might have to pay £30,000 for this top-spec version, but Kia certainly makes you feel you’ve got enough bang for your buck.

Truth be told, there are some cheap plastics if you dig around for them, but it’s generally very well built. I’m impressed.

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THE Sportage is an easy car to drive thanks to the good visibility, light steering and SUV driving height, but it’s not until you push on a bit that you notice a few flaws. It’s by no means ungainly compared to some of its rivals but it doesn’t feel as planted as something like a Mazda CX5. That said, this is a car you’re not going to buy for its handling prowess. And, when all’s said and done, it’s no buffoon.

I am starting to tire of the engine noise though. At idle it’s a bit noisy, not unforgivably so, but it’s when you really push on in my two-litre diesel that things become a tad annoying. It’ll cruise happily at low revs without too much fuss, but it does become harsh when you want to give it some hoof. The flip-side of this, however, is that I’ve been returning just under 40mpg. That’s rather good. And, to be honest, the Evoque is also harsh at high revs. And so is a Mercedes diesel. Obviously, there are petrol options, but the diesel versions will be the popular choices.

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I’VE noticed the automatic gearbox can be a bit lethargic. Especially shooting off the line, it takes a while to engage. I find these days auto boxes are either very clever and instantaneous, or feel like they’ve been plucked from an old Ford Granada. This one falls into the latter camp, sadly.

That said, it does have some thoroughly modern modes that help it tow things, and go down things and and a setting that helps it avoid bumping into things. So it’s not all bad news. And most of the time the gearbox shifts ratios in a slick and unfussy way.

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SHOPPING trip today, and time to make use of the Sportage’s excellent boot. Mine’s got an electric boot-lift device which I usually hate, but this one’s reasonably quick. It’s also got a wonderfully large luggage area and the seats are easy to drop. The back seats, incidentally, are a brilliant size and the transmission tunnel is quite low, so there’s plenty of room for three adults.

However, I’ve noticed today, while nearly breaking a bottle of French dressing that had rolled out of the shopping bag, that the ride is a bit firm. It’s not jarring, but it’s not as soft as you’d like in what otherwise feels like a very luxurious SUV.

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TODAY I inadvertantly parked the Sportage next to its predecessor in a public car park. Up until this point its looks were growing on me, but now I realise that the new Sportage is nowhere near as pretty. The old one was actually quite dramatic; it made people realise Kia was deadly serious about moving its game on. This one looks a bit half-hearted in comparison. It’s not dull, but it’s a shame they couldn’t have carried on making it look spectacular and exciting.

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THE Sportage goes back today and I’m taking delivery of the new Mercedes GLA. For a few hours while waiting for the Kia to be picked up I take a look at the two cars side by side. The Mercedes is, obviously, exquisite inside and out when it comes to details and build quality, but the Kia is not as far away from it as you’d think. And, importantly, the Mercedes costs an extra £10,000 over the Kia and I’m not convinced there’s that much to show for it. For starters, there are less gadgets on the Mercedes.

Also, you don’t get a seven-year warranty on a Merc; you can’t have a base model for £18,000 and the Kia is actually a lot more spacious and comfortable.

But here’s the thing. If you want to buy a car with a three-pointed star on the front, with all the prestige that goes with it, you’d stump up and buy a Mercedes Benz. If you’re not bothered about all that bling and brand-snobbery, you’ll probably buy the Kia.

And good on you. I actually think you’re making a wiser choice. You’re getting more for your money without making any significant sacrifices. It might not be as pretty as its predecessor, but it feels more modern, better built and has all the bells and whistles you’d find in a car twice its price.

Compared to the Mercedes the Kia Sportage is an out-and-out bargain. And I’ve always loved a bargain.


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