Fifth-generation Sportage has fresh appeal

·5-min read

Quick quiz: which model has been part of Kia's Australian model range for the longest time?

The Rio? Nope.

How about the Carnival? Sorry, wrong again.

It's the Kia Sportage.

First launched Down Under way back in 1993, the sturdy little urban SUV has been a worthy flagbearer for the Korean manufacturer for almost three decades.

Now in its fifth generation, the Sportage pretty much reflects the fortunes of its maker over those three decades - a fairly chequered journey to say the least.

As a "compact crossover" in those early days, it was first built on the underpinnings of the Mazda Bongo (yes, seriously) - while from 1995 to 1998 it was produced by German manufacturer Karmann (better known for making a jazzed-up version of the VW beetle).

The Sportage model was even discontinued for a couple of years until the nameplate was resurrected, very convincingly, with the handsome and image-changing third-generation model that came to define the car. Times have certainly changed.

Just a matter of weeks after this latest, fifth generation version was released in Australia, it had collected the coveted Drive Car of the Year Award.

It missed winning the double, with the iconic Wheels Car of the Year judges opting for its electric stablemate, the Kia EV6, with the Sportage as runner-up.

It could be called 'synchronised winning' (with apologies to the Commonwealth Games) - but two cars from the one maker taking out the quinella of major awards is a rare feat. But it gets better.

The EV6's twin, the Hyundai Ioniq5, came runner-up in both awards, just to emphasise how excellent these Korean brands are becoming. And the Hyundai's equivalent to the Sportage, called the Tucson, cleaned up the same awards last year.

It's an extraordinary story, born of Korea's technological and engineering excellence. The Sportage's 30 years of constant evolution have manifested themselves into this - a car that perfectly suits the wants and needs of just about every Australian family.

The Sportage is oozing style and dripping with technology.

With its crisp, modern and confident styling, its luxurious and high-tech interior and its impressive driving habits combine to make it hard to knock a chip off the Kia.

If there's one criticism it's that the buyer has too much choice: a very broad model range which verges on being confusing.

There are four trim levels - S, SX, SX+ and the flagship GT Line, as tested. Having negotiated the line up, there's a choice of three engines (a 2-litre petrol or 2-litre turbodiesel; plus a 1.6L turbo petrol). Then there's six-speed manual or automatic shifters; eight-speed auto, seven-speed DCT (dual clutch) and finally, the option of all-wheel-drive on the top-spec model. Phew!!

Prices are almost as well-spaced, from the $32,445 entry-level S front-wheel-drive manual, maxing out with the GT-Line diesel ($52,370 plus on road costs). The turbo petrol is very near as fuel efficient but costs three grand less than the oil-burner (not to mention the 40-odd cents per litre saved by not buying diesel at current prices).

Key rivals include the Mazda CX-5 Akera ($52,380), Volkswagen Tiguan R-Line ($55.290) and Toyota RAV4 Hybrid ($52,320). This is a bitterly-fought part of the market made all the more remarkable, then, that the Kia should emerge as such a clear winner on the awards front.

It's hard not to be impressed by the Sportage. It instantly demands attention with a Mercedes-like, single-panel infotainment and cockpit screen which stretches from the driver's door almost across to the passenger's glove box.

It brings every possible function, and every piece of relevant information, instantly to the driver's fingertips.

Not to mention the supple leather seats (electrically adjusted, of course - as well as heated and ventilated). And yes, the car costs less than $50,000, until government and dealer delivery fees are added on.

It sits roughly midway through the burgeoning Kia SUV range - bigger and more sophisticated than the smart Seltos and baby Stonic and not as big, or as expensive, as the flagship Sorento.

While it shares most of its major components with its siamese twin, the Hyundai Tucson, the Kia does a considerably better job for roughly the same money. That starts with its external design, where the Sportage looks like a vehicle costing twice as much, while the heavily-styled Tucson has as many sharp creases as a badly ironed business shirt.

That theme continues inside where the Tucson appears to be trying slightly too hard to impress, while the Sportage commands attention from the moment the door slams shut with a reassuring thud.

But enough of the Tucson comparisons - the Sportage deserves some space all of its own.

Dynamically the Sportage has taken a step or two forward with this new model.

Powered by that crisp, free-spinning four-cylinder, turbocharged engine that brings 132 kW and 265Nm, perfectly suited to the job of hauling this compact, but growing, SUV around the place.

It does so while sipping just 7.2L/100km, although it got very close to 5L/100km on an extended drive.

Helping achieve that magic is the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission which does an excellent job of keeping the engine on song. The drivetrain is whisper-quiet in highway driving, too - one of the big dynamic improvements on the capable and very popular model it replaces.

Most noticeable is the size, both inside and out, that marks this as a brilliantly balanced and conceived family machine.

KIA SPORTAGE GT-LINE

* HOW BIG? As well as a complete restyle, the fifth-generation Sportage has grown in dimensions and interior space.

* HOW FAST: The 1.6-litre, four-cylinder turbo is surprisingly capable dragging around a big piece of metal.

* HOW THIRSTY: Official figures are 7.2L/100km - the diesel is slightly better.

* HOW MUCH: The penultimate model in the range, the GT-Line, costs a scratch under $50,000.

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