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If you’re in the market for a relatively affordable mid-size SUV, and who isn’t these days, there’s always the danger of being tempted by lower-end offerings from some of the more premium brands.
Examples of some of this low-hanging fruit might include Land Rover’s entry-level Discovery Sport, itself an entry-level model in the Land Rover range. Prices start from $56,595 plus on-roads for the TD4 110 SE, with a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel married up to a nine-speed auto making a thoroughly credible 110kW and 400Nm of torque to all four wheels.
Or, what about the Lexus NX300 Luxury from a slightly lower $54,800, but it only gets you a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol engine mated to a six-speed auto producing 175kW and 350Nm to the front wheels only. Lexus doesn’t do diesels, but if you want more go there’s the Hybrid, though you’ll need to cough up 90-grand plus for the privilege.
And, there are plenty more tempting examples of low-end luxury rides in this segment from all the European manufacturers. None of which can hope to offer the kind of value-for-money bargains from the Japanese and Korean carmakers, not to mention the killer seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty offered by Kia.
Take the Sportage we drove recently. We pretty much had the base-model Si CRDi (denoting the diesel). Its list price is $35,390 plus on-roads, but our tester also included ‘premium metallic paint’ – a $520 option that looks and feels as good as any luxury-brand paint job. And that was the extent of the options on this vehicle.
Therein opens up another trap for those buyers tempted by an upscale badge – options. And there are plenty of them, which can easily send the final drive-away price skyrocketing off the charts and into dangerous territory. Trust me, I know, I’ve been there – on more than one occasion. You’d think I’d learn.
That’s where the more affordable brands make so much more fiscal sense, which is why the likes of Kia, Hyundai, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Nissan tend to tick all the right boxes for those on a tighter budget.
And it’s not that the cheaper makes are completely devoid of style, substance or gadgetry either. Visually, I’ve always thought the Sportage was a smart-looking thing from almost all angles, except front on. It’s the fish face-like grille I was never quite sold on. It just seemed a bit awkward and not as handsome as its Tucson cousin.
Obviously, I wasn’t the only one, because the latest version gets a smart (if not slight) front-end face lift – apparently the result of feedback from Kia customers along the very same lines. More masculinity is what they demanded.
The effect is a toughening up of the front bumper by going deeper with the apron and incorporating some wings and intakes into the design. And it looks better for it – now a more mature and polished treatment that should appeal to a wider group of buyers.
At first glance, the Sportage looks dimensionally smaller that its closest rivals, especially up against the Volkswagen Tiguan, but there’s almost nothing in it bar a millimetre or two. There’s good useable load space too – 466 litres behind the rear seats, expanding to 1455L when folded almost flat.
Moreover, there’s a full-size spare wheel under the floor, with sufficient room to hide a few odds and ends for extra security if you had to. I’m more than likely nitpicking here, but it’s not that well lit back there in the cargo space, and simply doesn’t provide sufficient light if you’re foraging about for keys or your gym card in my case.
However, there’s a stack of rear head and leg room, and you can easily slide your feet under the front seats for better long-haul comfort for passengers.
And, while leather is nice, the cloth trim in the Si is very comfortable and more of an asset for those hot summer days or chilly mornings. The seats themselves provide more than sufficient side and seat bolster that only adds to their comfort. No complaints whatsoever.
Rear-seat passengers make do with only a single USB port and 12V adapter, but there’s decent ventilation back there. Mind you, there are plenty of hard plastics back there, especially on the door cards, but at least there are enough metal-look accents to brighten things up a bit.
More base-level signs include the manual key (thankfully the barrel surround is lit) and old-school handbrake lever, but frankly I don’t mind either and you soon get used to both.
Up front, there are a lot more niceties, with a neat driver-centric dash and a stack of those metallic highlights that offer a touch of class to the base-trimmed Sportage. Even the control knobs are knurled, albeit in rubber, and while the 7.0-inch infotainment screen is down an inch in size on the unit found in the Si Premium grade and up, it’s got improved clarity and counts Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard.
In fact, the Si still gets a stack of features including auto headlights and wipers, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, as well as an exceptionally good six-speaker stereo system that surprised everyone.
No shortage of safety kit, either, with the likes of autonomous emergency braking (AEB) with forward collision warning, lane-keep assist, high-beam assist, and rear parking sensors with rear-view camera featuring dynamic guidelines rounding out the leading inventory. In all honesty, I didn’t really want for anything the Sportage didn’t have.
And while the diesel version is nearly five-and-a-half grand more than its petrol equivalent in the same Si trim, there’s plenty of justification for the premium paid too.
For starters, the 2.0-litre diesel is a real gem. Armed with a healthy 136kW and 400Nm of torque from just 1750rpm, it easily trumps the meagre outputs of both its 2.0-litre (192Nm) and 2.4-litre (237Nm) petrol siblings.
Mind you, there’s some momentary lag if you’re a tad too eager with the throttle thanks to a single turbo doing all the work, but on the whole the diesel Sportage offers excellent throttle response throughout the rev range. There really is quite a lot of pull with this engine – meaning you’re unlikely to be disappointed with its forward progress.
Truth is, it’s actually a fun thing to drive, which might sound a little off topic given we’re talking about a mid-size, budget-priced SUV here, but that’s always been the case the Sportage – only, it’s better again with this latest update.
Part of that is down to a new eight-speed auto developed in-house by Kia, and it is able to send drive to all four wheels when the on-board computers deem it necessary for maximum traction. Otherwise, drive is to the front axle, which simply adds to the vehicle’s general fuel efficiency and claimed 6.4L/100km fuel consumption.
It never wants for grip, either. There’s always plenty on call regardless of the road surface (even on coarse chip in the wet) and weather conditions.
No torque steer, either, given its front-wheel-drive bias. In fact, steering feel and response are big plusses with the Sportage, with just the right level of weighting dialled into the electric power-steering system for it to feel quite natural on turn-in.
But where this low-level Kia Sportage really starts to shine is when you add in the exceptional ride compliance, thanks to Kia’s long-held policy of local suspension tuning and its smallish 17-inch wheel and tyre package.
Shod with 225/60 aspect tyres, there’s plenty of give in those sidewalls for what is a thoroughly cushioned ride over all but the largest potholes. And it does so without compromising the relatively sharp handling.
Funny thing is, it feels better than many adaptive damping systems from the premium brands, which is also a testament to just how much effort went into chassis development by Kia.
Honestly, don’t be at all put off by its entry-level position in the Sportage range, because the Si CRDi ticks all the boxes that really count, and it won’t hurt your bank balance nearly as much as the Si Premium.