Kia Sportage Review Photo:
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2011 Kia Sportage - First Drive Review Photo:
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Tim O'Brien | Aug, 04 2010 | 28 Comments

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The 2011 Kia Sportage: it’s not just here, it has arrived. When first seen in the metal, Kia’s newest entrant to the ‘compact SUV’ bull-pit, makes a powerful first impression.

A product of Kia’s US design studios from the pen of Italian designer Massimo Frascella, this is one sharp looking car.

Sure, style is subjective, but check it out for yourself. With a high beltline, narrow glass under a hunkered-down roof, balanced proportions and a sporty on-road stance, Kia’s Sportage is the segment’s new style leader. Kia Australia, naturally, has lofty ambitions for it.

“This is a watershed car for Kia,” National Public Relations Manager Kevin Hepworth said. “And as good as this car is, it is just the beginning of what is going to be an exciting journey (for Kia)”.

Yes, if the able Sorrento was a sign of things to come, Kia’s new Sportage takes the game to another level.

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Three models: Kia Sportage Si, SLi and Platinum

We put two from the new Sportage range through their paces around Queenstown in New Zealand – the SLi 2.4 litre petrol and Platinum 2.0 litre diesel, both six-speed automatics.

It’s also available as a sharply-priced 2WD-only 2.0 litre. This is the base model, the Si; but one we are yet to drive. (We’ll report back shortly.)

Over tarmac, gravel, corrugations and back roads, and up into the snow-line, we had ample opportunity to test the mettle of Kia’s new crossover warrior.

We came away impressed and convinced. Of weaknesses, quite simply, there are few.

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Its strengths, in particular the quality of the drive, the totality of the package and the refinement it offers, show there are strong winds of change blowing through the corridors at Kia.

In raising its own game so emphatically, Kia has also raised the bar for the sector. On the basis of this drive, the Kia Sportage is certainly among the best buys in the compact SUV sector.

Of its direct competition, those at the smaller end of the segment, half-hatch, half-wagon – like Mitsubishi’s appealing ASX, Nissan Dualis, and Hyundai ix35 – well, they’ve got a fight on their hands.

For dynamics, style, accommodation, and for on-road refinement, Kia’s Sportage shades the ASX and is a step clear of the ix35 and Dualis (and Captiva 5 for that matter).

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Interior Quality And Feel

Have a look inside. With a wide graphite metal panel running the full width of the dash, a two-tiered centre console with piano-black lower facings, neat controls and instrument layout and quality soft-feel textured surfaces throughout, this is one quality interior.

It is one that would not be out of place in any mid-range European.

The seats too, whether in fabric or leather are nicely shaped, impressively stitched and comfortable: neither too hard nor too soft.

The boot is large and square and easily accessed with a very low rear lip. It offers 740 litres of space with the seats in place, and cavernous with rear seats folded.

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And, thanks to those long rear doors, access to the rear is good, as is the legroom. Ample there for two adults - or long-legged teenage lumps - and better, considerably, than the Dualis, ASX and ix35.

The Sportage range (even the Si) also comes with a full feature list: keyless entry, cruise control, six airbags (including curtain airbags), CD player (USB/iPod interface), electric mirrors with side indicators, alloy wheels, ESP with ABS and downhill brake control and hill-start assist control.

For a full list of features across the Sportage Si, SLi and Premium models, go to model information.


How does it drive?

At the wheel there is little to fault. We’d prefer to have ‘reach’ as well as the standard rake adjustment to the multi-function steering wheel, but, ergonomically, things are fine.

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It is easy to get comfortably set, and the multi-function wheel itself is appealingly-styled with a solid ‘feel’ under the hand.

On the road, the steering may have a little more assistance than is necessary through the first ten-or-so degrees off centre.

It feels a little woolly when making those small highway corrections, but, once you start to work things through the curves, the Sportage provides good road feel and is easy to place accurately in a corner.

Unmistakable when on the road – and one of the first things you will notice – is the quality of the damping and suspension tune. McPherson struts up front and an all-new multi-link rear, it is, for a car of this type, just right.

Over broken tarmac (we went hunting for holes in the bitumen), its ability to soak up the initial shock and to dampen the rebound, is right at the head of the sector.

While there is an elasticity to the way the suspension and dampers deal with ruts and corrugations (without ‘wallowing’), it firms progressively and goes about things without thumping or transmitting any unpleasant noises into the cabin. (Something that is apparent in Mitsubishi’s ASX, which also has an otherwise well-sorted suspension.)

For much of the highway drive, we were on coarse-chip ‘snow line’ bitumen. While we might have expected road-roar to be an issue, it wasn’t.

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In this too, Kia has done its homework. NVH, road and wind noise is also among the best in the sector and better than both ASX and Outlander.

But it is the AWD system and suspension set-up that is the ace in the deck for the Sportage. Although we get the English suspension ‘bits’, the damping and suspension set-up is the result of the work of Australian testing and tuning engineering.

And yes, it’s true, we have seen some pretty ordinary Korean suspensions over the past ten years, but this is not one of them.

It is as good as the best in the compact all-wheel-drive SUV segment. By that I mean it is as capable, comfortable and well-balanced over rough tarmac and gravel corrugations as Honda’s CR-V and Mazda’s class-leading CX-7.

Key to its on-road performance is its latest-tech Dynamax electronic all-wheel-drive system. Operating at 150mHz, it provides instantly variable traction control (torque vectoring) across all four wheels and up to 40 percent to the rear wheels when grip is marginal.

It’s unique to Kia - a system not shared with Hyundai (and consequently different to the AWD system on the iX35). As we found, in everyday driving it is transparent to the driver, but very apparent when extra grip is called for.

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For delivering traction where needed, it is difficult to fault and near impossible to ‘wrong foot’. When attempting a handbrake turn on a slippery switch-back, the yaw sensors intervened instantly, halting the slide mid-corner.

It is a quality system and really showed its colours when descending at speed through steep corners on the slippery damp gravel road.

In these conditions, there is an occasional ‘machine-gun’ rattle from the ABS as it reels things in and some left-right switching of traction, but it provides astonishing instantaneous grip and security.

Perhaps, if there is any complaint with the traction control, it is that it is too slow to return control to the driver, the engine management cutting fuel until the ESC is perfectly happy. That half-second post corner with a ‘dead pedal’ means that it’s difficult to maintain momentum in press-on driving. But safety is the name of the game here.

The operation of the Sportage’s electronic all-wheel-drive is for dealing with the unexpected: for getting the family safely to the snow over icy roads, for getting away from it all along a muddy trail, or when suddenly finding a pool of water on a slippery street.

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What’s under the bonnet?

Another ace in the deck, and certainly putting the Sportage among the stronger performers in the segment, is the choice of engines and six-speed auto transmission.

The diesel is the standout. Of just two litres, the chain-driven DOHC 16-valve all-alloy unit produces 135kW and a very hefty 393Nm of torque. While having to move 1609kg, it simply goes like a shower.

Mated to the six-speed auto, it is effortless under load uphill, and picks up its skirts and bolts when overtaking. As we found, acceleration from 80kmh to 160kmh is very strong (and will happily keep on climbing).

In anyone’s language, the Sportage diesel is an effortlessly swift compact family wagon. Even better, the modern diesel goes about things without intrusive clatter or harsh vibrations. It’s as smooth as you will find and it goes about the business while returning an average fuel consumption of 7.5 l/100km.

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The 2.4 litre all-aluminium petrol engine, also mated to a six-speed auto, is similarly impressive. Its power and torque of 130kW and 227Nm may be nothing to write home about, but it too has no trouble moving the Sportage along swiftly (0-100km/h in a claimed 10.0 seconds).

Its fuel consumption is also among the best in the sector among petrol engines, returning an average 9.2 l/100km.

The 2WD Si model comes with a 122kW 2.0 litre five-speed manual, with the six-speed auto in the options box. While we didn’t drive this model on this test, on paper it matches the Dualis, Captiva 5 and Hyundai ix35. (A full test will tell the tale.)


TMR First Drive Verdict

You have probably worked it out: Kia’s stylish new Sportage is one very impressive small wagon.

Kia has pulled a rabbit out of the hat with this car and, with a range starting at $25,990 (plus on-roads), it will send shock waves through the sector.

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We will have another close look at each of the models, but, for price, economy, features, style, interior trim and the quality of the drive, the Sportage is certainly among the best compact SUVs in showrooms at the moment – whatever the badge.

Of the three model range, we particularly like the value in the SLi. It is coming soon in diesel configuration ($31,990 petrol, $34,990 diesel plus on-roads). And, of any in the range, what is there not to like about the styling? Korean cars are not supposed to look this good.

Add in a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty and, dollar for dollar, Kia’s new Sportage is simply super buying.

For full pricing details, go to the model information.

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