ALTHOUGH Kia’s press-kit claim that the original Sportage had reached iconic status reaches the upper limits of optimism, it was certainly the vehicle that put this Korean marque on the map. First generation Sportage was launched internationally during 1993, reached South Africa in 1997, and by the time of the new model’s arrival late last year, about half a million had been sold worldwide.

With the old model having been on sale for more than a decade, this new Sportage has certainly been long overdue. In the last 12 years, the compact SUV market has become a crowded place, and most manufacturers have realised that style and car-like on-road behaviour are far more important than off-road ability. Which is why new Sportage has discarded the old vehicle’s ladder-frame chassis in favour of unibody construction with all-wheel independent suspension. This doesn’t mean that the Sportage no longer has offroad ambitions; it has a part-time four-wheel drive system with an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch that only sends power to the rear wheels when traction is lost at the front, or when the driver presses the “4WD-lock” button on the facia. Further evidence that the Sportage was designed with some off-road ability in mind are really good approach and departure angles. Ride height is, at 195 mm, comparable with its rivals. Interestingly, the Subaru Forester, which looks to be a lower vehicle, actually has a higher ground clearance (200 mm) because its underbody is almost completely flat.

For the majority of buyers in this segment, however, style is the most important consideration. Here, the Sportage scores very well. Courtesy of its long wheelbase (2 630 mm) and small front and rear overhangs, it is a very compact and sporty looking SUV, with smart detailing (witness aggressive double exhaust outlets). It’s also unlikely to date quickly.

The interior benefits from the relatively long wheelbase in that rear accommodation is surprisingly generous. However, the short overall length has impinged on luggage space, which measures only 288 dm³. A useful feature is the rear window, which can be opened separately from the tailgate. The rear seats fold forward to extend total utility space to a class-leading 1 272 dm³. The rear seats also have reclining backrests, further improving passenger comfort.

One of the vehicle’s worst features must be the fiddly rear parcel shelf. It is impossible to operate with one hand, and the clips fastening the shelf to the rear seat backrests pop off without much provocation, leaving the luggage exposed.

The front seats were rated as comfortable by all our testers, although some initially wanted more height adjustment for the driver’s chair. Finding a comfy driving position is generally not too difficult, but it would have been better still if the steering wheel was also adjustable for reach, and not only rake.

It is hard to fault the design of the simple, almost American-looking facia. The hangdown section groups the controls for the audio and climate control systems. Large circular knobs stand proud of the facia, making them easy to use, but remote audio controls would have been welcome. Instrumentation is simple, with a large central speedo taking pride of place.

Build quality is certainly leaps ahead of the previous model, but on the facia in particular there are some bits of plastic that look cheap. And the front passenger grab handle, mounted on the facia, looks a bit like an afterthought. There are many storage spaces – the door pockets are usefully sized, there is a large double level lidded box between the seats, a tray under the front passenger seat, sunglasses holder in the overhead console, and moulded drinkholders just under the hangdown section.

But where the Sportage really excels is with its standard features list. It has digital climate control, radio/CD front loader, leather upholstery, cruise control, trip computer, auto-on headlights, electric windows, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and front foglights. The safety package includes dual front airbags, front seatbelt load limiters, ABS with EBD, and a stability program.

Under the bonnet is Kia’s 2,7-litre V6 “Delta” powerplant, which is shared with the Hyundai Tucson. It has an aluminium block, four camshafts, four valves per cylinder and a variable length induction system. Power is 129 kW at 6 000 r/min, and 241 N.m of torque is developed at 4 000. Based on these on-paper specifications you would therefore expect the Sportage to give its fourcylinder Subaru and Mitsubishi rivals a royal whipping. Sadly, this is not the case…

The Sportage clocked a leisurely 12,2 seconds 0-100 km/h-sprint time and recorded a 181 km/h top speed. We are aware that robot races are unlikely to be a top priority, but were nevertheless expecting more. Things did not improve during our overtaking acceleration tests, where the Outlander (slightly lighter, less power and torque) manages to be quicker in all the time splits. Another negative is that the Kia’s V6 engine uses more fuel than the Subaru – our index figure of 11,77 litres/100 km translates to 8,5 km per litre.

Where the Korean does score, however, is on refinement. With the H-matic four-speed automatic gearbox, progress is always smooth. By moving the gearlever to the left, the driver can also execute “manual” shifts by tapping the lever up- or downward.

On the road, the Sportage is one of the most polished vehicles in its class to drive. Much of that sense of refinement comes from little details such as triple sealing on the doors. This gives the Sportage’s cabin an almost luxury car-like quietness at cruising speeds. Ride quality is quite firm, but well damped on smooth roads, but becomes choppy over broken surfaces. These types of vehicles are unlikely to ever offer carlike handling and steering because of their higher centres of gravity, but for what it is, the Sportage does a good job. The firm suspension keeps body roll pretty much in check, and it grips well when cornering, with understeer predictably setting in at the limit, which is easy to counter.

In off-road conditions the Sportage will do most of the things its rivals can and, in some cases, even a little more. We’ve already mentioned its approach and departure angle advantages. When going off-road, the driver can manually engage the four-wheel drive system, which apportions up to 50 per cent of the torque to the rear wheels. When the vehicle’s speed reaches 30 km/h, however, the system will start sending less torque to the rear wheels, and at 40 km/h it will be in full front-wheel drive mode again.

Test summary

When you look at the Sportage’s on paper specification and features you can’t help but think the competition is in for a nasty surprise. The Kia offers a bigger, more powerful engine, is loaded with kit and is priced aggressively. Our experience with the Sportage also showed it to be a comfortable, refined and luxurious everyday driving tool with occasional off-road ability. Our only real gripes are its lethargic performance (considering its engine power), small boot, and the few mentioned rough trim edges. And, of course, hopefully the brand will perform better in next year’s J D power customer satisfaction survey. For extra peace of mind, however, the Sportage has a 4 years/100 000 km maintenance plan, which is unmatched in this class.