The 2016 Kia Sportage has big shoes to fill. Not only does it need to live up to the widely popular outgoing model, it also has to go head to head with the impressive new Hyundai Tucson.
We get to see plenty of camouflaged prototype test mules at CarAdvice. Problem is, usually it's photos we're looking at - spy images shot from behind bushes or over fences at remote facilities, more specifically.
Recently, Kia Australia provided CarAdvice with the opportunity to get some wheel time behind the prototype 2016 Kia Sportage during the final phases of extreme hot weather testing in Death Valley, California. We also spent some time on a light-duty dedicated off-road test circuit at the impressive Hyundai/Kia proving ground in Mojave, California.
Death Valley might be a mecca for tourists, but it's both aptly named and not particularly pleasant. Towns like Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek aren't just named for marketing hype, either. It's as hot as hell in Death Valley during summer.
Despite that, you'll see scores of camouflaged test mules running round nearly every sealed road. Kia engineers are out in one of the most extreme environments on earth for one main purpose - testing the response and efficiency of the cooling system in that disgustingly hot weather - we're talking 50 degrees Celsius. On day two, we see a maximum of 51.5 degrees.
It's heat that most of us have never experienced and it truly puts the cooling systems of the new-generation Kia Sportage through the wringer. Engineers will not only monitor cabin temperatures and the response of the AC system, but also the coolant and radiator temperatures as well.
As an added bonus, one of the testing engineers is also a chassis expert, and these test mules were covered in probes and weird gadgets all aimed at delivering critical data.
Ron Murray, Kia Motors ride and handling engineer, explained that there's a delicate balance between what the experts want and what the public expects.
"We aim for what we call the 80 per cent client," Murray told CarAdvice. "We always try to aim for who we think is going to buy this car. That’s who we try to represent when we assess the suspension set up and any of the other major systems."
Death Valley's roads are impressively smooth despite the extreme environment, with hardly any surface imperfections or potholes. The Sportage rode comfortably - as you'd expect - with such a smooth surface beneath the tyres.
While the steering felt sharp and precise and the ride quality was impressive on the twistier, hilly sections, it's worth remembering our Sportage variants will all get a specific local tune. It's one of the reasons Kia's ride as impressively as they do on Australian roads, and it's a factor that has been noticed by overseas engineers.
Some markets have been so impressed with the modifications they've opted for the Australianised suspension tune, including the European-built Pro_cee'd GT.
There was wind noise deflecting off all the nasty camo gear attached to the exterior, but we expect most of that to disappear once that cladding is removed.
We were concentrating on maintaining certain speeds so the engineers could closely monitor the temperatures, because one of the torture tests requires the cabin to heat up to 50 degrees - then the Sportage can't exceed 20 miles per hour for 30 minutes. The reduced air flow through the condenser and radiator meant the compressor would have to work harder to cool the cabin. It was just one of the rigorous tests the Sportage was put through to replicate the very worst road conditions.
What impressed us the most about the Sportage was it's smooth cruising ability. The accelerator pedal and brake pedal both had the right feel at any speed, and it was easy to modulate momentum, too. Having recently driven the Hyundai Tucson, we're acutely aware of how solid the Sportage will need to be all-round to take the fight up to its sibling.
Much of the interior was heavily camouflaged as well, so we couldn't get a real feel for the in-car ambience. It was clear the AC system worked well, though, cooling the cabin down quickly despite the extreme heat outside.
"We found the old Sportage had the benchmark cooling system in the class," says John Lustre, Kia Motors senior product quality engineer. "So, we've benchmarked this new Sportage against the old one rather than another vehicle."
What was apparent inside the cabin was the excellent forward visibility from the driver's seat, as well as the general comfort of the seats. The seats are properly contoured, and there's a range of movement and adjustability that means it is easy to find a comfortable driving position.
The gauge layout directly in front of the driver has a similar feel to the Tucson, but the centre screen and control area (what we could see of it) seemed a little more cluttered and button-heavy. It's not messy, but we noticed more controls and switches than we expected.
The satellite navigation locked on quickly each time the Sportage was cranked into life. The finishes we could see had a premium look to them, and the satellite navigation screen itself was large and clear.
In what we think will be the top-specification Sportage, there were heated and cooled seats and a heated steering wheel. The lower-specification Sportage we drove briefly had no satellite navigation and a very basic screen design, but all final Australian specifications will be announced closer to launch.
Aside from the aforementioned extra wind noise, the cabin was quiet. There was plenty of dust and dirt inside the cabin from all the testing, and yet there were no squeaks, rattles or loose trim pieces. The test vehicles' odometers showed between 20,000 and 30,000 miles, so they'd covered plenty of distance - much of it not particularly sympathetic, either. Yet they seemed to be holding together well.
After leaving Death Valley, we went to the proving ground in Mojave a few hours away. At the proving ground, we got to spend some time on the dirt off-road track, which gave us a brief window into the Sportage's abilities off sealed roads.
It's debatable how many Sportage owners are ever likely to subject their SUV to off-road work, but the Sportage, particularly the all-wheel-drive model, performed well enough to give it the title of a 'light duty 4WD' in our opinion.
Both vehicles we drove were AWD models, but one of them had the rear wheels deactivated so it was driving through the front wheels only. The engineers were unwilling to tell us why the system had been tweaked, but the front-wheel-drive version struggled over the nastier inclines (as you'd expect), scrabbling for grip and requiring plenty of throttle pedal to get over the climb.
The top-spec model we tested off-road had a centre diff lock as well, which meant it tackled the basic off-road course with ease.
Over lengthy sections of rutted dirt, the dusty proving ground tracks couldn't elicit any noises from inside the cabin either. That same feeling of insulation and composure we experienced on sealed roads remained. It's that premium feel that will be integral to the Sportage's success locally, especially now the Hyundai Tucson has impressed as much as it has from launch.
Our drive time was short and heavily compromised, but we had enough wheel time to understand some of the strong points of the new Sportage. We're looking forward to testing it locally when it lands in Australia, especially with the usually excellent local suspension tune.