It might be true that about half of UK fleets don’t even allow four-wheel drive vehicles on their books, but the indications are that the SUV sector is expected to grow in Europe to one million cars a year by 2008, with 35% of them expected to be compact SUVs.
For retail customers the attraction is a combination of the perceived safety of being higher off the road and further away from danger, the better view of the road ahead from the elevated driving position afforded by the extra ground clearance and the enhanced traction on the rare occasions when most of these vehicles are actually running in four-wheel drive.
For user-chooser fleets, the likely higher fuel and maintenance costs of an SUV can be balanced with better residual values so in many cases a four-wheel drive car can make a reasonable running costs proposition.
Another factor in the user-chooser market is that the appalling badge snobbery that often affects other sectors is less pronounced.
Kia has enjoyed some success with its Sorento SUV – a car that looks good among the Land Rover Freelanders and Mercedes-Benz MLs on the school run – and is about to break into the mainstream compact SUV sector with the new Sportage.
The Korean company is on a product offensive in the UK, having introduced the Picanto city car in late spring, followed by the Cerato saloon and hatchback. From January, the company will also have an all-new Sportage SUV to add to its product line-up.
UK sales of the original Sportage amounted to 11,540 units between 1995 and 2003.
However, the new model is expected to achieve 5,000 sales a year, as Kia’s bosses have the target of taking a 5.3% share of 2005’s SUV sector with its combined volumes of the Sportage and Sorento models. For 2006, the importer plans to increase that share to 7.5%.
According to Kia Motors’ UK managing director Paul Williams, it will achieve this by stealing custom from all other brands. A key weapon in its armoury is what Williams describes as ‘giving more for less’ – to undercut lesser-equipped rivals.
According to Jean-Charles Lievens, vice-president of Kia Motors Europe, the Sportage will offer three vehicles in one: ‘Passenger car refinement, SUV access and traction, plus estate-like versatility and cargo space. The Sportage name also has all the right vibes for Kia’s young and sporty brand aspirations.’
Three engine variants will be offered: 2.0-litre and 2.7-litre petrol units and a 2.0-litre common rail turbodiesel. Four-speed automatic transmission, standard on the 2.7, is an option on the turbodiesel but will not be offered on the 2.0 petrol model.
Although two-wheel drive four cylinder versions will be offered in some markets, the Kia will only sell four-wheel drive versions in the UK. However, the 4WD system behaves like a front wheel drive car unless is detects wheelspin at the front before engaging up to 50% of drive to the rear wheels.
Specifications are not yet finalised for the UK market, but two trim levels will be available, with the entry-level LX offering traction control, a centre console storage box, electric front and rear windows, twin roof bars, 16-inch alloy wheels, two power outlets, four two-way audio speakers, and three-point seatbelts for all five occupants.
The higher spec EX model is likely to offer ESP, front fog lights, electrically-heated front windscreen, body-colour door handles, door mirrors and rear tailgate trim, dashboard passenger grab handle, luggage net, remote central locking and theft alarm, cabin air filter and ‘puddle lights’ in the front doors.
Behind the wheel
KIA proved with the Sorento that it could build an attractive and competent vehicle that looked at home alongside more upmarket rivals.
Completely different from the old Sportage that stopped appearing on price lists a couple of years ago – that was very much an ‘old-school’ 4x4 – the new model is expected to have broader appeal with better road manners.
Resembling its predecessor in name only – Kia decided to use the name to save the time and money of raising awareness of a completely new model name – the Sportage has appealing styling and doesn’t look as aggressive as some SUVs.
Kia expects the 2.0 CRDi to be the biggest selling Sportage in the UK as even retail customers appreciate the better drivability from modern diesels, and is bound to be the favourite for user-choosers perhaps sampling a Kia for the firtst time.
Although the Sportage has full-time four-wheel drive, in normal conditions it operates as a front-wheel drive to optimise economy. However, up to 50% of engine power will be diverted automatically to the rear wheels when sensors detect a loss of grip at either front wheel.
Off-road, you select a 4WD button which divides power evenly between front and rear wheels, however this only remains active up to 19mph, after which it will automatically revert to front wheel drive.
Its behaviour on-road is reassuring and composed. Firm damping helps minimise body roll and wallowing and the steering is quite well weighted although a touch indirect.
Unfortunately the car’s road-biased damping is a slight disadvantage off-road, because although the Sportage is capable of tackling the rough stuff, it seems a little too rigid for comfort.
The Koreans are learning about what appeals to European customers when it comes to car interiors, giving the Sportage an integrated audio system and more expensive looking materials than we are used to.
The interior is also exceptionally versatile – as well as the rear seats having a split and fold facility, the front passenger seat also folds forward to accommodate longer items. The rear window can be opened independently of the tailgate to drop in smaller items without opening up the rear door.
KIA SPORTAGE FACT FILE
|2.0||2.7 V6 AUTO||2.0 CRDI|
|MAX POWER (BHP/RPM):||140/6,000||173/6,000||110/4,000|
|MAX TORQUE (LB-FT/RPM):||136/4,500||178/4,000||181/1,800|
|MAX SPEED (MPH):||110||113||104/AUTO: 101|
|FUEL CONSUMPTION (MPG):||34.4||28.2||39.8/35.3|
|CO2 EMISSIONS (G/KM):||194||237||187/210|
|FUEL TANK CAPACITY (L/GAL):||58/12.8||65/14.3||58/12.8|
|TRANSMISSION:||5-SP MAN||4-SP AUTO||5-SP MAN/4-SP AUTO|
|SERVICE INTERVAL (MILES):||10,000|