Based on the Kue concept car, Kia's new Sportage appears to drive as well as it looks, writes DAVE MOORE.
While the last few new Kia offerings have shown some influence from former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, the new Sportage, released in New Zealand from October 1, is the first car from the Korean concern to be totally designed under his aegis.
Schreyer was there to oversee former Ford man Massimo Fruschella from Kia's California design studio, who was the man who penned the Sportage per se.
The design is based on his "Kue" show car from the 2007 Detroit car show which was designed to gauge public response.
This is a strikingly chiselled design that works from all angles, with its clamshell engine cover's edges coursing back to the car's A-pillars and flanks with solid authority. The slim glasshouse, finishing with a reversed C-pillar angle, offers a crisp side profile signature, and the headlights and auxiliary lamps up front are sculpted to create a wide-set face for the car. At the rear, brake and marker lights repeated in a sliver of lenses at each lower corner punctuate a concave full-width scallop just above them.
Even in dull airforce blue, my car at the vehicle's launch last week looked good, with a gleaming rim to its Schreyer grille and a scooped side treatment to catch the light.
Compared with its less dynamically styled predecessors, this third-generation Sportage has grown considerably. It is 90mm longer and 15mm wider than the outgoing KM model, has a 60mm lower roof height, and offers less clearance underneath than the old car, at 172mm, perhaps hinting at the car's more domestic, less arduous intentions.
Although the car has a high waist line, the new Sportage's cabin is noticeably larger than the old model's, thanks to a wheelbase increase of 10mm and wider front and rear tracks. Pushing the screen base forward has provided an open and uncluttered view for the driver. There are interior design cues, like the stereo switchgear and three-dial instrument cluster hinting at the Soul and Sorento models, but the double-level fascia is unique to the Sportage and its textures are classy and convincing.
Up front, the driving and front passenger spaces understandably offer the best seats and views to be had, but the rear bench, which offers good enough leg room for me - 1.88m - to sit easily behind my driving setting does not seem like a relegation area, while the extra length of the car over its predecessor appears to have given the load area a huge boost.
Seats up, Kia says there's 740 litres of volume, while with the rear bench folded, that expands by another 807 litres.
Good news is the larger, roomier new car's loss of weight. The base petrol two-wheel-drive models is 1385kg, while the top diesel four-wheel-drive version tips the scales at 1609kg, which means the range on average has lost the equivalent of a large passenger to lug around, and 91kg is not to be sneezed at.
When its full range is available in New Zealand, it will consist of three engine choices. From October 1, 2.0-litre 122kW/197Nm and 2.4-litre 130kW/227Nm petrol fours will be listed, with a 2.0-litre 135kW/392Nm turbodiesel arriving in the new year.
The delay with the diesel car can be laid at the feet of the British market, which has snapped up every diesel car with right-hand drive that Kia can make.
It's a pity that it's not available from the get-go, for this lusty unit is the star of the Sportage's show, running with great flexibility through Kia's new six-speed automatic and not making as much racket as other diesels when doing so.
Mind you, the 2.4-litre petrol four that will be fitted to all-wheel- driven Sportages is no slug, and it displays remarkable refinement levels with less than 2000rpm required at 100kmh, and although it needs revs to give of its best when overtaking, it does so with no fuss at all.
Bringing up the entry point for the Sportage range will be two- wheel-drive models for those who go for the height, space and perceived safety of an SUV, but without the weight of all-wheel- drive, its costs and complexity. The 2WD Sportage will be powered by the 2.0-litre motor and like all models for our market, it will work through that six-speed automatic.
A brief run in the 2WD car revealed a willing, but hardly blistering performer, although I'd never complain about its smoothness and relative quiet.
The Sportage's underpinnings were tuned and refined specifically for the Australian and New Zealand markets.
Kia's engineers started off with the European spec chassis, which was seen as displaying the most desirable traits for our markets, and then finessed it to take into consideration the surface differences and textures drivers were likely to encounter here.
The chassis itself is a fairly generic one with MacPherson struts at the front and multi-links at the rear, and Kia has eschewed electric power steering for our markets, using instead a conventional rack-and-pinion hydraulic setup for its advantages in terms of feel and directness.
The lower down the pecking order, the better the Sportage rides. On the 16 and 17-inch rims New Zealand will get, the car rides relatively quietly and without shock or harshness over bumps, although some road noise does intrude in the rear. On the 18-inch wheels used by some Australian specification cars, the sportage feels firmer and less comfortable, but no-one can really complain about how any of the cars handle.
The Sportage is no hot hatch, but it behaves very competently even on the compacted mud and frozen snow of our test route and its wide-tracked stance makes for a very stable driving platform.
In four-wheel-drive form, the Sportage is the first car anywhere to use Magna Powertrain's flexible all-wheel-drive system, dubbed Dynamax. It uses a control unit to analyse data about slip and torque and power distribution requirements by way of wheel speed, and accelerator angle and reacts through a multi-plate clutch, actuated electro- hydraulically.
The system can be locked into a 50:50 slit by way of a dash switch for difficult low-traction conditions. As well as Dynamax, the Sportage has ABS, ESC and cornering brake control. The ESC also works to provide downhill brake control and hill-start assist.
Kia's distributors expect the car to gain a Euro and Australian NCAP crash safety rating of five stars when it is tested.
For its October 1 public launch, the Sportage will offer two levels of specification for its two-wheel- drive and four-wheel-drive petrol models. Unfortunately, pricing has not been settled, with the new GST level to be included and some intransigence from its Korean makers. However, Kia hopes to have its Urban two-wheel-drive models priced at $33,00 to $35,000 for the LX, and $37,000 to $39,000 for the posher EX.
The EX spec will be the starting point for the 2.4-litre petrol all- wheel-driven model, with a $42,000 to $44,000 sticker expected, while a leather and all-the-fruit Limited version might slide in between $44,000 and $48,000.
Either way, compared with similarly stickered Japanese models, the Sportage's talent makes it worth the outlay, even at the upper rates.
Aesthetically, it looks more modern than anything else out there. It has a spatial advantage over most five-seaters too, while dynamically, it's a huge advance, feeling far more responsive and generally grown up than its predecessor.
* Drivetrains: 2WD - 1998cc injected petrol, 122kW at 6200rpm, 197Nm at 4600rpm, 8.7L/100km, 207g/km CO2. 4WD - 1995cc turbodiesel, 130kW at 4000rpm and 392Nm from 1800-2500rpm, 7.5L/100km, 198g/km CO2. 4WD - 2359cc injected petrol, 130kW at 6000rpm and 227Nm at 4000rpm, 9.2L/100km, 219g/km CO2. All models with six-speed automatic transmissions.
* Dimensions: L 4445mm, W 1855mm, H 1636mm, W/base 2640mm, weight 1492kg to 1588kg, fuel 55L.
* Pricing: Yet to be finalised - see text.
* Hot: Slick style; excellent dynamics; responsive diesel; roomy cabin and load area.
* Not: Absence of 2WD diesel options; road noise in rear.
* Verdict: Kia has reset the parameters for SUVs, and makes the Japanese designs look very old.