CAPE TOWN – Mid-cycle refreshes are often a simple case of tweaking a design element here and there, and while this is true of the treatments doled out to the latest Kia Sportage, there’s bigger news in the guise of a considered model range re-alignment that ushers in a value-packed entry point to the Sportage stable: the Kia Sportage 1,6 GDI Ignite AT.

Look closely

At a glance, you’d be hard pressed to discern any notable cosmetic changes to the Sportage. A slightly larger take on the brand’s signature "tiger nose" grille and a mild massage of the front and rear bumpers, along with ever-so-subtle dashboard element updates, is about the tall and short of it. Kia has also introduced a new selection of alloy wheel designs in 16-, 17- and 19-inch sizes as well as a handful of new paintwork options.

Shifting the goalposts

With the aesthetic updates being as subtle as they are in this mid-cycle refresh, the big news instead regards a measured rejig of the local Sportage model line-up. Taking into account car buyers’ tendency to prioritise pricing, Kia Motors SA has dropped its more expensive variants – the SX AWD models and the 1,6 GT-Line AWD (which sat comfortably north of R500 000) – shifted the balance of its range towards more wallet-friendly offerings and trimmed the engine choices down to the well-known 2,0-litre petrol and turbodiesel units, while adding a new entry-level 1,6-litre petrol engine.

Cheap, but cheerful?

At R379 995, the Kia Sportage 1,6 GDI Ignite AT sits squarely in previously inaccessible territory occupied by the likes of Toyota’s C-HR, the Suzuki Vitara and just a few grand below the well-regarded Mazda CX-5 2,0 Active. But how does it acquit itself with a lesser-powered engine such as the naturally aspirated 1,6-litre petrol four-pot?

With less metal in its nose than the 2,0-litre models, the 1,6 Ignite feels well balanced and its handling characteristics are fluid and progressive. As most scenarios where a small engine is tasked with propelling a 1 500 kg vehicle via an automatic gearbox, performance is a mixed bag. With 97 kW and 161 N.m on tap, progress is never going to be scintillating and planting the throttle to overtake slower traffic sets the progress versus engine noise ratio firmly in the latter camp. Kia has pegged the maximum speed at 170 km/h and claims a 12,1-second zero to 100 km/h sprint (or rather jog) time. The transmission is, however, smooth in its shifts and once the speeds even out mechanical refinement improves markedly.

Perched on 16-inch rims shod with plump 70-profile tyres, the Sportage’s ride is supple and resistant to jitter on rippled road surfaces, and the handling – although channelled through segment-typical light steering – is composed and bereft of excess wallow. Our flowing route between the Winelands and Cape Town saw the front-wheel-drive 1,6 return an average (indicated) fuel consumption of 8,4 L/100 km, which is reasonable but not stellar.

What does your money net you?

In addition to a five-year/90 000 km service plan and an unlimited-kilometre warranty spanning the same timeframe, the Kia Sportage 1,6 GDI Ignite AT is reasonably well equipped. Features such as alloy rims, electric windows and side-mirrors, manual air-conditioning, rear park distance control and a Bluetooth-enabled audio system are standard fitment.

Leather upholstery is the preserve of higher-rung models, but the Ignite's seats are supportive and clad in what feels like hardwearing cloth. Fortunately, the touch points (steering wheel and gearknob) are leather-wrapped, lending a more upmarket feel to the otherwise solid but basic cabin. Despite the Ignite’s budget placement, Kia hasn’t skimped on safety equipment, with the likes of Isofix, six airbags, ABS with EBD and a suite of stability control systems included as standard.

Overall

If you can make peace with its leisurely performance, the Kia Sportage 1,6 GDI Ignite AT is a welcome addition to the sub-R400k SUV segment and certainly has the goods to lure buyers away from its aforementioned company.