FOUR-wheel drive vehicles have been transformed since the Kia Sportage first became popular as a niche vehicle in the mid 1990s.
No longer a workhorse, the 4x4 has become a feasible alternative to mainstream cars, with smaller versions having acceptable fuel costs and generally stronger residual values than upper-medium cars.
And now as Kia launches the latest vehicle to bear the Sportage name, so it is a different vehicle from the compact off-roader of a decade ago.
Kia believes that with attractive pricing, it can tempt even more people to give up their traditional cars for the higher driving position and robust appearance that 4x4s offer.
Starting at £14,495 on-the- road, the Sportage is the cheapest 4x4 in its class – it is only undercut by three-door and front-wheel drive SUVs and the tiny Daihatsu Terios.
The two petrol engines available from launch will be supplemented by a 2.0-litre common rail diesel engine in the spring, offering nearly 40mpg on the combined cycle and carbon dioxide emissions of less than 190g/km. The name is the only part of the Sportage that hasn’t changed, according to Kia, and when designing the new car the company took account of what customers like about four-wheel drive vehicles and tried to incorporate them into the Sportage.
It means 16-inch alloy wheels are standard, the spare wheel is located under the boot floor rather than on the tailgate and flared wheel arches give the Sportage a more imposing stance.
There will be two trim levels – XE and XS – with a £1,500 increase between the two. For the extra cash, customers will have automatic climate control in lieu of air conditioning, cruise control, electronic stability programme, privacy glass, leather seats, heated front seats, an electric sunroof, heated door mirror and an auto-dimming rear view mirror with integrated compass. The entry level car has none of the above but comes with traction control, four electric windows, six airbags, front fog lamps, a CD audio system with MP3 player and remote central locking with an alarm. Both have a useful folding rear seat system that allows a flat load floor.
The XS 2.7 V6 auto is also available with a premium pack for an extra £200, which also includes ‘Sienna’ brown leather trim.
The four-wheel drive system behaves as a front- wheel drive car most of the time, but sends up to 50% of torque to the rear axle when necessary and can be locked in 50/50 four-wheel drive mode for loose or slippery surfaces.
Kia plans to sell 4,000 Sportages in the UK this year which would give it a 5% share of the sector, and believes drivers of lower-medium cars will make up the majority of customers.
Lawrence Hamilton, general manager for marketing at Kia, said: ‘We are targeting customers from other segments and we would have to gain a relatively small share of another sector to reach our target.
‘The C-sector (lower-medium sector) accounts for 400,000 units in the UK while the SUV sector is about 70,000 units.’
The Sportage, and other new vehicles in the pipeline, are planned to help Kia reach 100,000 units in the UK by 2010.
Behind the wheel
THE Sportage looks and feels every bit a modern small SUV. Not too intimidating in appearance, a spacious interior and some off-road ability.
The interior is smarter than we’ve come to expect from Korean manufacturers, with upmarket-looking textures on the dashboard and metallic effect trim. Touch the dashboard and you realise it’s hard plastic, but at least it looks more expensive than it is.
Kia does seem to have made a better job of the interior than its parent company Hyundai did with the similar-sized Tucson, which has too much smooth grey plastic around the dashboard and doors. The 2.0-litre petrol engine is a useful entry point to the range at £14,495 on-the-road, but most drivers will prefer the low-to-mid-range response of the diesel when it arrives.
While the Sportage performs adequately with its 2.0-litre petrol engine with four people and luggage on the flat, heading into the hills around St Moritz led to some frequent gear-changing to ensure momentum was maintained.
Although more powerful and faster on paper, the V6, with its lazy four-speed automatic transmission, didn’t make the car feel particularly lively.
The tailgate also has a flip-up rear window for dumping smaller items in the boot without having to open the whole tailgate, while the folding action of the rear seats to liberate extra luggage space is simple and ensures the Sportage is a truly versatile vehicle.
Like many four-wheel drive vehicles, there isn’t much to say about the driving experience, with fairly direct but life-less steering and a degree of body roll when turning hard.
But it rides comfortably and many people who had perhaps spent years driving traditional hatchbacks or saloons would not take long to feel at home.
Higher specification versions take the Sportage into pricing territory where more established SUVs operate and it is there where despite the added value and extra specification people will question whether they’d rather drive a Kia than a Land Rover Freelander, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 or Nissan X-trail – all better-known brands.
THE Kia Sportage is a user-friendly 4x4 that is priced well enough to appeal to first time SUV drivers. Company car drivers might prefer to wait for the diesel, though.
|2.0||2.7 V6 auto|
|Max power (bhp/rpm)||139/6,000||173/6,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm)||136/4,500||178/4,000|
|Max speed (mph)||108||112|
|Fuel consumption (mpg)||34.4||28.2|
|CO2 emissions (g/km)||194||237|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal)||58/12.8||65/14.3|
|Transmission||5-sp man||4-sp auto|
|Service interval (miles)||10,000||10,000|