As more buyers move into SUVs, there are plenty of calls for diesel options, even in some of the more compact models on the market. That’s where these two cars come in – the Kia Sportage and Mitsubishi ASX.
These two feature-packed diesel SUVs straddle the line between small and mid-sized, and are situated in a similar price bracket to larger all-wheel drive petrol SUVs such as the Toyota RAV4 and Nissan X-Trail. The size of these two may be slightly smaller, but their equipment lists are larger than you’ll find in the next category up.
Both the Kia and the Mitsubishi have also been updated recently, which is one of the chief reasons we’ve decided to pitch them up against one another. Having recently tested both the AWD petrol Sportage in our SUV mega-test and the pre-facelift ASX petrol and finding both fell short of their competitors, we’ve come to the conclusion that the diesel versions of both of these models are the ones to go for.
The Mitsubishi ASX’s MY14.5 update saw a number of changes, including a fresh new front bumper with attractive LED daytime running lights. All ASX models now get more gear, too, with 17-inch alloys, reversing sensors and a rear-view camera standard across the refreshed range.
The Sportage similarly saw a mild spruce earlier this year. On top of a revised model range with a new value-packed Si Premium petrol model, the car saw some minor cosmetic changes, with a new grille, new wheel designs and revised tail-light inlays.
These two match up quite closely in the trim levels we’ve opted for. Both the ASX XLS ($36,490 plus costs) and the Sportage SLi ($37,790 plus costs) are offered with leather trim (part-leather in the Kia), 17-inch alloy wheels, touchscreen media systems with satellite navigation and reverse-view camera with 7.0-inch displays, and auto-dimming rear-vision mirrors.
Items unique to the ASX include an electrically adjustable driver's seat, heated front seats, keyless auto entry and push-button start, an SD card input for the audio system and voice control for phone functions, and a huge panoramic glass roof with LED mood lighting.
The Kia’s differences include a full-size alloy spare wheel (space-saver in the ASX) and front and rear parking sensors (ASX has rear only), a cooled glovebox, dual-zone climate control, and an upscale Infinity stereo system with subwoofer and amp.
Both cars have five-star crash ratings, and the Kia has six airbags (dual front, front-side, full-length curtain) while the ASX has seven including a driver’s knee airbag.
Under the bonnet of the Sportage is a 2.0-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder engine producing 135kW of power and 392Nm of torque.
The Sportage’s peak torque kicks in from 1800rpm-2500rpm, with peak power hit at just 4000rpm. There’s a slight hesitation to the power kicking in at low revs, and if the conditions are damp the wheels can spin and cause the traction control system to kick in.
For the most part, though, the engine is relatively smooth revving once in its power band, with brisk response to sudden throttle prods for overtaking moves.
The six-speed automatic gearbox has previously been one of the highlights of the revised Sportage package, but in our test car there was some noticeable stumbling at times. Upon ascending a steep hill, for example, the transmission proved too eager to jump down a couple of gears rather than rely upon the engine’s wealth of torque. We also noted confused shifts in urban commuting.
The Mitsubishi is powered by a larger 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel, though it offers less power (110kW) and torque (360Nm) than the Kia.
There’s some low-rev turbo lag in the ASX, but when it hits the 1500-2750rpm torque band progress is swift and the pace can get away from you unless you keep an eye on the speedo, aided no doubt by the ASX’s lower kerb weight (1530 kilograms against 1580kg for the Sportage).
Peak power is reached at just 3500rpm, and there’s little benefit in revving any higher than that.
We found the ASX’s gearbox did a more commendable job of using the engine’s torque than the Kia's, and its shifts were smoother in general. The paddleshifters on the steering wheel may look the part, but their accuracy and usefulness is questionable.
In terms of fuel consumption, indicated figures for both cars during our two test loop legs (one highway-biased, one urban) were 6.9 litres per 100km for the ASX and 8.1L/100km for the Sportage. There’s a clear winner there, though both were higher than their official usage numbers: the ASX claims 5.8L; the Sportage 7.2L.
While the fuel consumption is acceptable on both accounts, the road manners of each SUV left a little to be desired.
On the highway the Kia can be easily upset by sharper bumps: in particular, the rear can buck on big dips or potholes, which can be disconcerting at 110km/h.
Around town the ride is simply too hard - seemingly firmer than we experienced with the petrol Sportage - with the wheels pitter-pattering across smaller inconsistencies and translating the bumps into the cabin rather than riding over them. It also fails to settle down after hitting dips or lumps in its path, rebounding with ferocity that is simply too much for a family SUV like this.
The ASX doesn’t offer nearly as firm a ride, but there is some wobbliness over softer bumps around town. Sharper edges would cause the wheels to crash and jar in the urban environment, but it proved more adept and comfortable as a highway cruiser.
Through corners there was notably more body roll in the ASX, even at lower speeds are longer sweeping bends, while the Kia’s firm suspension paid off with its handling prowess easily exceeding that of the ASX.
The steering of the ASX is also behind the Kia in terms of its driver-friendliness. More effort is required to perform simple cornering manoeuvres, and there’s a lifelessness to it on centre.
The Kia’s steering is more direct and responsive, and quite enjoyable to use in more demanding situations. It, too, however, has its issues – some may find it too heavy, particularly in urban commuting.
Jumping between the two cars on the identical urban loop, the most disappointing aspect for the ASX was its noise, vibration and harshness levels. The company claims it has improved NVH with this latest iteration, and there’s no denying it is quieter and marginally more refined the pre-update version (particularly that old 1.8-litre turbo diesel). However, it was considerably louder inside than the Kia in terms of wind and road noise, and the level of thrumming and clatter from the engine.
Both vehicles offer all-wheel drive, and while our test loop didn’t take any off-roading into account, the conditions were damp on the test day, and the ASX felt more secure on the slipperier surfaces we encountered. That in part comes down to the tyres: the ASX’s Dunlop SP Sports proving nicely sticky, where the level of tyre grip from the Kia’s Hankook Optimo tread was disappointing.
The ASX has a 4WD mode switch that can be operated at speeds up to 100km/h, and which has three modes: 2WD, 4WD auto (controlled by sensors that can detect slippage), and 4WD Lock, which sends power to all four wheels.
The Sportage’s system is entirely automated, switching between 2WD and 4WD as the situation warrants. There is a lock mode, and the Sportage also offers a hill-descent control mode. Both cars have hill-hold and electronic stability control.
For those who do find themselves venturing to the great outdoors, it could be worth noting that the ASX has greater - though not exceptional - ground clearance of 180mm, while the Kia sits lower to the ground with 167mm clearance.
The Kia has an advantage when it comes to towing: along with being the only car here with a trailer stability control function, the Kia offers a superior braked towing capacity of 1600kg – 200kg more than the Mitsubishi.
The ASX is smaller in every regard (besides engine capacity!). It measures 4.30 metres long, 1.77m wide and 1.62m high, whereas the larger Sportage measures 4.44m long, 1.86m wide and 1.64m tall. It has a slightly shorter wheelbase, though, at 2.64m – the ASX, being based on the previous-generation Outlander family SUV, has more length between the front and rear wheels at 2.67m.
There’s a big gap between these two in terms of interior presentation and practicality, and it's the Kia that shines.
The clear, clean, simple lines of the dash stand out when compared to the ASX, which looks older and more old-school in most of its controls. The manual rotary switches for the climate control system, for example, aren’t as elegant as the Kia’s dual-zone digital system.
On ventilation, buyers with young ones should note that neither has dedicated rear-seat air vents.
The rear seat of the ASX sees occupants sit lower and flatter, with a church pew-like bench that can’t match the comfort of the Kia. However, because the seat isn’t as sculpted, it is easier to fit broader-shouldered passengers across the second row. That flat seat also makes child seat fitment easier than in the Sportage, with its more contoured outer seats. Both cars have three top-tether points and outboard ISOFIX points.
Both are relatively well suited to carrying adults in the back, though the ASX’s enormous roof pane does eat into headroom, and anyone above six-foot tall may need to crook their neck. The Kia’s headroom is fine, on the other hand, and it offers marginally more knee-room but less toe-wiggle room.
Littlies may appreciate the slightly higher seating position in the Kia, and they’ll need to sit up high to see much through the slim glasshouse. That more elevated position could be a pain for mums and dads when loading them in.
The Kia also monsters the Mitsubishi for interior storage. It has large door pockets with bottle holsters front and rear, where the ASX has only magazine-width pockets up front with a bottle caddy that would struggle to fit most larger receptacles. The Kia has more loose item storage areas up front, a bigger centre console, and its cooled glovebox is good for keeping snacks from melting. It also has twin mesh map pockets in the rear, where the ASX has a single, lined compartment; and both have flip-down central armrests with cupholders.
We mentioned earlier that both cars have a 7.0-inch media system, but again the Kia wins in this regard.
Despite the Mitsubishi’s media unit having been updated, it remains considerably less intuitive than the benchmark Kia system. There are small buttons littered either side of the screen, where are a more intuitive menu system would absolve the need for such items.
The Kia, on the other hand, has a spiffing menu system, and the screen resolution is of a notably higher quality and offers more clarity.
Both offer Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, and both connected without hassle – though the Kia again had a simpler setup to deal with.
The boot of each car is reasonable for their size, and the Mitsubishi wins a few points back here for its boot aperture, which is wider and means loading in awkward items is slightly simpler. It also has recessed loose item bins in the boot, and the area is better suited to fitting bulkier bits and bobs due to its lower floor. Both cars have 60:40 split-fold rear seats for stowing longer items, too.
The close calls keep coming in terms of ownership. The ASX has a five-year/100,000km warranty, four-year capped price servicing – which an annual average cost of $455 over the program - and five-year roadside assistance.
The Kia betters the Mitsubishi if you do more distance or intend to hold on to the car for a longer term. It has a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, not to mention a five-year capped-price servicing scheme that averages out at $442 per annum, slightly lower than the ASX. However, Kia only offers one year of roadside assistance as part of the sale package.
All in all, this was a close contest. Both cars have lists of good points, and each has some issues that would benefit from being rectified. As such, it’s fair to say that neither are class-leading, but both are worthy of consideration for buyers in the market for a diesel small SUV.
While the ASX is now a better-equipped and more enticing proposition than it probably ever has been, it simply can’t match the more fresh-feeling Kia on many fronts.
We’d encourage potential buyers to make sure they put the diesel Sportage through its paces on a bumpy road when test-driving, or even consider the smoother-riding petrol Sportage Si Premium, as we’d understand if the ride was enough to put you off. If you can live with it, the Kia’s more likeable and usable interior, not to mention its slightly better ownership credentials, means the Sportage comes up trumps in this test – but only just.