It’s easy to talk about a new version of a car being an important step for its manufacturer - every new model should be a step forward for a brand - but some really are a big deal.
Like the new Kia Sportage.
This fifth generation of its family SUV is an important one for a few reasons. Firstly, the Sportage is the brand’s best-selling model here in the UK, in Europe and globally, so the new model needs to maintain that performance.
Secondly, for the first time, Europe is getting its own bespoke model designed and engineered for our roads and tastes.
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Thirdly, after gradually working its way up from leftfield budget option to a solid also-ran, this latest model could challenge the best in its segment.
Rather than an evolution of the previous generation, the latest Sportage is built on a new platform and is longer, wider and taller. It’s also far more dramatic looking.
Perhaps it’s a sign of Kia’s ever-growing confidence as a major brand but the new Sportage’s design is bold and aggressive, with a prominent full-width honeycomb grille, boomerang-shaped running lights that wrap around the LED headlights and prominent gaps beneath the bonnet’s leading edge. It’s possibly even more striking to look at than the closely related Hyundai Tucson, especially with its angular tail lights and full-width rear light bar inspired by the brand’s EV6 electric car.
Inside, Kia’s march towards serious mainstream player continues with a vastly improved cabin. The material quality and layout is a noticeable step forwards compared with the fourth-generation car and it’s more than a match for rivals like the Ford Kuga, Nissan Qashqai and Vauxhall Grandland. The mix of gloss black plastic and metal-effect trim is so common that it no longer feels premium but the Sportage does it as well as any rival and the interior is enhanced by subtle ambient lighting.
Dominating the dashboard on all but entry-level cars are a pair of sharp, customisable 12.3-inch displays housing the instruments and infotainment system. Beneath the central screen an intriguing arrangement sees the heating and media functions share the same set of slimline controls, with users switching between them with the press of a single button. It’s an interesting way to reduce clutter while retaining easy-to-find and operate controls, including proper dials for the dual-zone climate control. Elsewhere, USB ports built into the front seats and coat/bag hooks integrated into the headrests are among other clever user-friendly touches.
While rear space is improved on the previous generation it’s still not as generous as the best in class, although wide opening doors and the SUV’s taller ride height mean getting the very young or very old in is straightforward.
In times when I’m no longer surprised by a £40k Ford Kuga, to find that my high-spec test car came in at less than £31,000 really pulled the rug from under me. Part of that is because it has a straightforward petrol engine rather than a hybrid setup but even the full hybrid version is less than £35,000 and the range starts at just over £27,000.
Once again, Kia has managed to cram in more features for less money than many rivals, with everything from those twin 12.3-inch displays to heated rear seats standard on this ‘3’ level car. It does miss out on some features - wireless phone charging/mirroring, for example - but there’s nothing you’d miss on a daily basis. What’s more, even basic cars get pedestrian and cyclist detecting collision warning, lane keep assist and front and rear sensors, plus a reversing camera.
As mentioned, my test car was the entry-level 1.6-litre petrol with a six-speed manual gearbox. With 148bhp, the engine feels punchy enough for day-to-day use and is pretty refined, getting just a bit growly at higher revs. Mid-40s economy would once have been considered witchcraft from a petrol SUV, now it’s acceptable but not outstanding. Choosing this engine with an auto transmission adds mild hybrid assistance, good for an extra 2mpg and a 6g/km reduction in emissions.
Also now on sale are full hybrid and plug-in hybrids. The FHEV offers 226bhp and 48.7mg while, officially, the PHEV will cover up to 43 miles on a charge and return 252mpg. That’s better than a plug-in Kuga, Vauxhall Grandland or Peugeot 3008, while the FHEV is slightly down on efficiency compared with the Kuga or Nissan’s unusual range-extender Qashqai.
Part of the aim of the Europe-specific Sportage was to better match the car to our roads and driving, and the new model feels more secure and controlled than its predecessor. Handling is decent but not spectacular but more importantly, the ride comfort is very, very good. It’s certainly better than a Kuga or Ateca and as good as a Qashqai or Honda CR-V but with better body control.
That’s true of virtually every facet of the Sportage, from driving experience to design, quality and value - it’s as good or better than any of its major rivals and deserves to be considered one of the best mainstream options in its class.
Kia Sportage ‘3’
Price: £30,945; Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol; Power: 148bhp; Torque: 184lb ft; Transmission: Six-speed manual; Top speed: 113mph; 0-62mph: 9.9 seconds; Economy: 41.5mpg; CO2 emissions: 154g/km