Kia has used a midlife facelift to reconsider its local Sportage line-up. Has it delivered a new entry-level sweet spot?
Based on the impressive growing global sales of Sportage models since 1993, culminating in the hugely popular third generation leading Kia’s market-share charge both internationally and on the local front, you could forgive the brand for its somewhat ballsy approach when it introduced the current fourth-generation Sportage late in 2016.
Indeed, our road tests of both the top-of-the-range diesel derivative (2,0 CRDi SX AWD) and flagship petrol model (1,6 T-GDI GT-Line AWD) – replete with 19-inch alloys, chrome accents, full leather upholstery and comprehensive touchscreen infotainment systems – that year showed just how far Kia’s bestselling global model had come. The trouble was, in adopting a relatively aggressive marketing strategy where the bulk of the range was positioned above the R500 000 price point while the Sportage’s equally impressive Hyundai Tucson cousin boasted a significantly broader local range (with only one model costing more than half a million), Kia SA risked losing touch with its value-hungry buying audience.
Whereas a relatively prompt reshuffle of the local Sportage range in 2017 introduced a notably broader portfolio that included a mid-level Ignite Plus specification, it’s the arrival of this vehicle’s mid-cycle facelift that has offered the brand the opportunity for a more thorough rethink of this important model’s market positioning.
Gone are the two flagship models we tested originally – with the new top-of-the-range 2,0 CRDi EX Plus priced round R550 000 – and in comes a revised line-up of engine and transmission options, as well as an intriguing new entry-level offering (tested here) aimed at increasing foot traffic through local Kia dealership doors.
Adding further distinction to the Sportage’s unmistakable front-end, the updated range gains an even more prominent Tiger Nose grille as well as larger foglamp housings (that look clumsy when not fitted with actual foglamps, as is the case in Ignite specification). While the updates to the rest of the exterior design remain subtle, Kia has introduced a selection of new alloy-wheel designs (16-, 17- or 19-inch) aimed at further distinguishing the new car from the old.
With fond memories of our since-discontinued long-term Sportage 1,7 CRDi Ignite Plus still fresh (a wrap-up report was published in our December 2018 issue), the uncomplicated interior finishes found in the new 1,6 GDI Ignite were met with a welcome sense of familiarity by our team of testers. While we applaud Kia’s decision to now include a leather-bound steering wheel and gearshift lever throughout the Sportage range, we also have no complaints about the retention of impressively comfortable cloth-covered seating in the most affordable models.
It didn’t help that we also had an updated Rio 1,4 TEC hatch, complete with one of Kia’s latest infotainment systems, on test at the same time as this Sportage but, as we found with our long-termer, there’s pleasure to be found in the simplicity (while including Bluetooth and a multifunction steering wheel) of Kia’s somewhat dated analogue audio system.
Appreciated during our time spent with the long-termer was both the impressive ride quality (especially on the smallest wheels) offered by the fourth-generation Sportage, as well as generous levels of rear-passenger comfort with above-average luggage space. That said, we remember our CRDi-powered unit’s electrically assisted steering offering more weight than experienced in this new petrol-powered derivative.
While the Sportage package remains as impressive as ever overall, it’s the decision to introduce the brand’s ageing naturally aspirated 1,6-litre Gamma engine to the party that may prove a more difficult sell. Mated with a well-sorted six-speed automatic transmission, in this 1 479 kg derivative you’re constantly aware (whether audibly or via the fast-approaching traffic in your rear-view mirror) that the claimed 161 N.m of maximum torque is available only at 4 850 r/min.
Compare this with the workings of a modern turbopetrol drivetrain and it’s soon clear it requires careful consideration before attempting either motorway-overtaking manoeuvres or fully laden hill climbs, particularly at altitude. To this end, it helps to use the manual override function (steering wheel-mounted paddles would have been a boon) to both pre-empt downshifts and, indeed, hold onto an optimal gear.
Driven with the aforementioned consideration to keeping this drivetrain working within its ideal range (while careful to not simultaneously forsake fuel consumption), there is a lot to appreciate about the new entry-level Sportage, not least its competitive pricing against the likes of the Nissan Qashqai and Mazda CX-5.
That said, while there’s good value, solid engineering and an impressive aftersales package to be found in the updated Sportage range, we would look to the turbodiesel drivetrain in the 2,0 CRDi Ignite Plus to better complement Kia’s midsize SUV’s myriad attributes.
ROAD TEST SCORE
See Full Kia Sportage price and specs here