A visual highlight of the attractive new Kia Sportage is its Tiger Face grille.
A visual highlight of the attractive new Kia Sportage is its Tiger Face grille.
Overall its a more muscular, less girly design than the previous Sportage.
Overall its a more muscular, less girly design than the previous Sportage.
Kia is making great strides in interior quality and the Sportage illustrates this well.
Kia is making great strides in interior quality and the Sportage illustrates this well.

If someone told you a decade ago that some of the best-looking cars on the road in 2010 would be Korean, you’d have laughed hard enough to spill your soju (Korea’s version of witblits, for the unenlightened).

With a few exceptions early Kias were drab, dull and as inspiring as soggy lettuce – and one needed a few shots of soju to drink them even semi-pretty. Then, possibly under the influence of the same fiery beverage, Kia had the brainstorm to poach Peter Schreyer from Volkswagen in 2006 and install him as its Chief Design Officer. The same Peter Schreyer who designed none other than the iconic Audi TT.

The makeover has been of ugly duckling-to-swan proportions.

The Kia Cerato and especially the two-door Cerato Koup launched here in 2009 showed that Kia had ditched its frumpy styling and bad hair days and was ready to party. With the new third-generation Sportage SUV introduced here in August, Kia’s really swinging from the chandeliers.

Shreyer’s philosophy has been to give the brand a recognisable “face” with a signature grill called the Tiger Nose. In the new Sportage this sexy snout is combined with LED lights, outlandish mag wheels and muscular styling to create a shape that jumps out at you much like the abovementioned predatory feline. Overall it’s a more muscular, less girly design than the previous Sportage.

Apart from being better looking the third-generation Sportage is longer and slightly wider than its predecessor, and slightly lower too, giving it a more hunkered-down stance. The cabin space is quite generous and four full-sized adults won’t find themselves involuntarily close to each other. So too the boot, and the 740 litre cargo capacity is among the best in class, opening up to a gigantic 1 547 litres with the rear seats folded down.

Kia’s making great strides in interior build quality too and the Sportage has a welcoming inner sanctum with fine finishes. Although there’s black plastic everywhere (except for the seats which are leather), it seems of a good quality. It’s all very neat too, and the dash isn’t overly cluttered with buttons. The only thing spoiling the happy-camper feel was a constant rattle from our test car’s left front door.

The Sportage 2.4 petrol all-wheel drive on test here sells for R320 000 and comes with a very thorough spec sheet including a better-than-average-sounding sound system with six speakers and a sub woofer, and a front-loading 6-disc changer with aux/iPod inputs. Other boxes that get ticks are cruise control, electrically-adjustable driver seat, and keyless operation (the doors and ignition are operated without having to take the key out your pocket). A new rear-view safety camera, which transmits an image to an LCD colour display integrated into the interior rear-view mirror, is standard on all AWD models. The steering column is only tilt adjustable, however, not reach.

Traction control and ABS brakes are standard as are six airbags.

The Sportage 2.4 felt reasonably smooth and performance was more than adequate. The outputs of 130kW and 227Nm ensure easy cruising and a respectable 10.3 second 0-100km/h sprint time at Joburg altitude. Power is efficiently managed by a six-speed automatic transmission that doesn’t hunt excessively (you can also shift manually if you choose), while fuel consumption averaged a decent 9.4 litres per 100km.

The road handling’s a bit sloppy when driven on the ragged limits, with significant understeer, but in normal-to-brisk driving the Sportage feels mostly car like. Amplitude selective dampers (ASD), which soften and stiffen as road conditions change, make for a comfy ride in general. The new rack and pinion steering is speed-sensitive and the turning circle for a relatively bulky vehicle is quite tight.

Though it’s not a full-blooded offroader and ground clearance compared to its predecessor has reduced from 195mm to 172mm, the Sportage was able to negotiate a mild offroad course without getting stuck or leaving bits of its undersides scattered across the veld.

To save fuel the drivetrain by default delivers 100 percent of engine torque to the front wheels in normal conditions. With the AWD lock mode selected, the central diff lock distributes equal power between the front and rear wheels up to 40km/h, whereafter the AWD mode will deactivate. Following this, the system will engage the necessary wheel to assist in traction where needed.

HAC (Hillstart Assist Control) prevents slip-back during stop-start driving up inclines, while DBC (Downhill Brake Control) maintains a steady 8 km/h speed down steep slopes.

VERDICT:

Suddenly the word Kia can be associated with words like “image” and “dream car”. The Sportage’s beauty runs more than skin deep, however, and its versatility, space and comfort are attention grabbers too, as is its competitive pricetag.

A refreshing shot of soju.