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Ten years ago, not many people would have recommended a Kia to their mates. For years the Korean brand was seen as your run-of-the-mill budget box on wheels, similar to parent company Hyundai.
Before becoming an automotive journalist I was your average uni student, driving everywhere from classes to work to home and then repeating the cycle all over again.
My family and I love our white Sportage. It’s quiet, comfortable, looks good, and the fit and finish is right up there with the best of its competitors.
Only months after 'Wanda' was parked in our driveway, the all-new Sportage was revealed, and I remember not being too fond of the design – while I liked the rear, the front almost looked like an alien.
Then in January, I saw it for the first time at the Australian Open (I volunteer there every year) and changed my mind once I saw it in the metal – yes it’s polarising, but I like it.
Even though some of my colleagues find SUVs ‘boring’ or ‘dull’ compared to the premium sedans and exotic sports cars they’ve had the privilege of driving, I was actually quite excited to get behind the wheel of the new Sportage and compare it to our family's previous-gen model.
On test car is the mid-spec petrol-powered Kia Sportage SLi, which starts at $33,990 plus on-road costs. For an extra $5000 you can have a turbo-diesel with all-wheel drive.
Equipment highlights include 18-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime-running lights and LED tail-lights, 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with satellite navigation, gloss-black exterior highlights, leather trim, tyre pressure monitoring system, 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat and eight-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, automatic lights and wipers, the list goes on...
Safety-wise, the 2016 model features six airbags, stability and traction control, hill descent control, ABS, electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and brake assist.
Active safety features like autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning and forward collision warning are all reserved for the flagship Platinum variant (not even optional on lower-spec models), which is a shame because you shouldn't have to spend top dollar for safety equipment – Kia needs to take a note from Mazda's book.
By comparison, our previous-gen Sportage Si Premium retailed for $29,990 and does without LED tail-lights, sat nav, the TFT driver’s instrument display, tyre pressure monitor and electric adjustment for the front seats. It also has partial-leather seats with textile inserts, and rides on smaller 17-inch alloy wheels.
On looks alone, I think the new model is a little more daring, and more muscular. It appears to sit wider on the road and looks more aggressive. I love the LED tail-light design and the larger machined-face alloy wheels too, they really make the Sportage look more expensive than it is.
I’m not a fan, however, of the new LED daytime-running light signature – if you’d even call it that. Something I loved about our model is that the strip of LEDs along the bottom of the headlights made the Sportage look more premium and mature, and I feel like the barrel-shaped units on the new car look more like an afterthought.
Inside, the new Sportage features a more cockpit-like design, with the dashboard more upright and the main controls slightly angled towards the driver.
Soft-touch plastics adorn the top half of the dash and the front doors, though lower down cheaper-feeling hard plastics aren’t as nice to touch as the softer and rubber-textured surfaces in our previous-gen.
This difference could be down to the fact the new model is sourced from the company’s home market of South Korea, while our model was built in Slovakia alongside European-market versions. However, the new car still feels solidly built, with the heavier doors closing with a nice thud, while the cabin is nice and quiet on the move.
In terms of size, the new Sportage is 40mm longer, 5mm taller and has a 30mm longer wheelbase than the previous generation.
While it does feel bigger inside – particularly in terms of rear passenger legroom – you’ll struggle to fit three adults in the back probably due to the fact no gains have been made in width.
But your rear passengers will be more comfortable thanks to the addition of rear air vents.
Oddly, the quoted luggage capacity for the new model is 466L, almost 100L less than its predecessor. Despite this, the load area feels on par if not larger than the old car.
Out on the road, the Sportage feels pretty familiar. It handles well, rides a little on the firm side, even the engine sound is similar to the previous generation.
There are some noticeable differences though, the first being the less responsive engine. For the new model, Kia swapped out the 122kW/205Nm 2.0-litre direct-injection petrol engine in my car for a less-powerful 114kW/192Nm multi-point injection unit.
Also available in SLi spec is a 136kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine shared with the Hyundai Tucson. Meanwhile, the top-spec Platinum is available with the same diesel or a larger 135kW/237Nm naturally-aspirated petrol engine.
Peak power comes in just before the redline at 6200rpm, while the full complement of torque is available from a still-high 4000rpm.
Shifting gears is a six-speed automatic transmission, fitted as standard, which is pretty smooth and responsive. It seems to hold the first gear a little longer than the previous car – probably to make up for having less power on tap.
Couple the reduced outputs with a 100kg increase in kerb weight (1606kg vs. 1508kg), the new car feels sluggish and less nimble compared to its predecessor.
Make no mistake though, the new car is still pretty fun to fling around corners despite being a big ol' SUV. The steering is tight, direct and offers more feedback than the model before it. The new Sportage also feels more planted on the road – helped by the lowered driving position which makes you feel like you’re sitting in the car rather than on it – just don’t expect to get anywhere quickly.
Once up to speed, the Sportage is very comfortable and quiet, with little wind and tyre noise entering the cabin. The Australian-tuned suspension – like the previous car – irons out the lumps and bumps nicely while still maintaining a firm-ish ride.
I called on my parents for some extra input, as they too have spent a lot of time with our previous-generation Sportage.
Both mum and dad liked the extra tech like navigation, TFT driver’s display and front parking sensors that our car lacks.
However, both felt like the driving position was too low in the new model, and they weren’t huge fans of the more upright dash design, along with the harder plastics lower down in the cabin.
I have to agree that the cabin layout of the previous car is more airy and less dull than the squared-off design of the new model, and the greater use of soft-touch and textured plastics in the old-gen gives a superior cabin ambience.
On the road, they said the older car is nicer to drive, as it feels lighter on its feet (or tyres) and accelerates with a little more urgency.
While the previous model does feel quicker and more agile, the new Sportage is very settled at high speeds and feels like you're in a much bigger car, but in a good way. It feels more planted on the road, and doesn't let as much tyre and wind noise enter the cabin.
Claimed fuel consumption is 7.9L/100km on the combined cycle, though you’d be lucky to get anywhere near that in real-world driving. With mainly highway cruising the trip computer indicated around the low 8s, which then ballooned to the high 12s with more city driving.
Other shortcomings include the lacklustre petrol powertrain, some average cabin plastics lower down and the dull black-on-black interior colour scheme.
On one occasion the navigation system even froze on a random position and didn’t fix itself for about 15 minutes. It may have only happened once, but it’s still worth making note of.
Like the rest of Kia's line-up, the Sportage is offered with the company's unbeatable seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, which is bundled with seven years of capped-price servicing and roadside assistance.
Maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km, with services averaging $420 a pop. Over the first seven years of ownership the petrol-powered Sportage will set you back $2942.
While the petrol engine is far more affordable, the new Sportage is best-served with the turbo-diesel. The powerplant is effortless in its performance thanks to the extra torque and extremely refined, in addition to offering better fuel consumption than the petrol.
The 2.0-litre petrol available in the Si and SLi grades is just a little lacklustre, especially considering the previous car had more power and is around 100kg lighter. While it will do the job for most people, it can also be really thirsty around town.
If you can’t stretch to $39,000 for the SLi diesel, the base Si diesel starts at the same $33,990 as this SLi petrol, and while you may miss out on some kit like navigation, leather, and those sexy alloys, the entry-level oiler is still great value, will be cheaper to run and is a more relaxing drive.
It may not be as exciting as a Mazda CX-5 or feel as upmarket as a Volkswagen Tiguan, but the Kia will be more affordable to own, has a more striking design, and is covered by a market-leading warranty for that extra peace of mind.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.