I CAME across the latest version of the Sportage sports utility vehicle a few months ago at a driving event and found myself surprised that it stood out in the pack.
Time to give it a proper trial and, what do you know, first impressions were correct. Against the opposition – and their prices – this is a highly-competitive and attractive compact SUV.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised because, for a couple of years now, Kia has been on a roll, with a series of cars which have notched up some high approval ratings.
Actually, an SUV is right up the Koreans’ street, a vehicle where expertise in engineering and functionality is more important than Euro style. I’m not a huge fan of SUVs, but if you are going to have them, the Sportage makes sense.
For a start, it’s not huge, being just over 4.3 metres long, and not so tall that you need to be a gymnast to get aboard.
Nevertheless it provides a raised seating position and good visibility, and a strong sense of protection, often key factors for buyers choosing this sort of vehicle. The neat dimensions also mean that it is a practical form of transport in town and car parks.
Compact it may be, but there’s generous room in the Sportage for both people and luggage. The rear area will swallow up three adults with oodles of leg room (and a choice of seatback angles delivers comfort) and, if it's cargo you are carrying, the system which provides a flat floor when the seats are folded over ensures capacious, useable capacity.The split-opening rear hatch is good for drop-in items; fully open there is a flat, unobstructed boot.
Enough of practicality and functionality – you’ll have to live with some budget wipe-down plastics, but so be it.
As for engineering, this particular version of the Sportage is powered by a two-litre common rail diesel engine, which may take its time on acceleration but which pulls relentlessly even at very low revs, a factor which significantly reduces wear and tear on the six-speed manual transmission and, indeed, on the driver.
There’s some diesel rattle initially but, in its stride, the engine smoothes out in both volume and vibration. Top speed is said to be not much more than a ton, yet it copes with motorway outer-lane speeds with seeming ease.
The suspension and steering are both set in the middle ground and, during a long journey, I concluded that the Sportage is one of the most comfortable and easy-driving SUVs for distance driving that I’ve come across.
The relaxing ride is possible because you are not going to do any seriously-rough off-roading in the car. But it does offer you 4x4 drive at the press of a button and I took on some storm-swamped country lanes that would have stopped an ordinary vehicle and the Sportage just kept on going.
Summers like this could rocket sales for the Sportage, and I haven’t even mentioned the value for money yet. This particular XE version will cost you well under £17,000, and features you get for that include air conditioning, front, side and curtain airbags, front and rear electric windows and electric mirrors, traction control, 16in alloys, roof rails and a CD audio system with MP3 player. If you want more, there’s an XS version.
What you don’t get a lot of is in-car stowage space, although there is a container in the central arm rest, and I would have liked reach adjustment of the steering wheel. But there is some height and angle variation of the driver’s seat to partly compensate.
Suffice it to say that the Sportage has picked up a prestigious Best Value SUV award against some very big-name competition.
Maybe it won’t give you the street cred of some of those rivals, but you can enjoy giving yourself a knowing smile of satisfaction at your choice.