Forget badge prejudices and cut straight to the chase – the Kia Sportage diesel is worth more than a second look.
Don’t dismiss the new Sportage as merely another lower-medium SUV four-wheel drive in an already crowded market segment. For this 4.3m long five-door has one thing its rivals – like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Nissan X-Trail and Hyundai Tucson – don’t. Now that the Grand Vitara is no longer available with a diesel engine, none of the opposition offers, save the much more expensive Land Rover Freelander, a diesel alternative.
The lack of diesel choices seems an anomaly in this class but reflects new car buyer apathy in New Zealand rather than reluctance on the part of importers to offer this economical alternative. Certainly Suzuki New Zealand would like a diesel Grand Vitara but currently faces a supply agreement problem with engine supplier Renault. Though the Sportage has a unique body shape and interior design, it’s built on the Tucson floor pan owned by parent company Hyundai.
Prospective buyers will look at both the Sportage and the Hyundai before deciding because prices are virtually the same, and each marque offers 2.0-litre four-cylinder and 2.7-litre V6 petrol motors. Only the Sportage, however, has the 1991cc turbo diesel that is at least 20 percent more economical than the V6. Diesels work so well with SUVs that they seem the most appropriate power source, either on or off-road.
The 16-valve, common rail CRDi Hyundai oil-burner in the Kia is essentially the Getz diesel with an extra cylinder. It turns the Sportage into a plodder rather than a performer but I’m not sure this really matters – except when there’s a need for brisk overtaking on the open road. Then you do feel a little more urge would clearly be reassuring, not to mention safer. This is especially so in the case of the four-stage automatic version which smoothes some of the rough edges off the diesel engine but dulls its performance.
The Kia needs 15.8 seconds to accelerate to 100km/h – a full two seconds slower than the diesel with manual gearbox. The V6 version does the same run in 10.5 seconds. The diesel’s 160km/h top speed is just a handful of kilometres down on the manual Sportage, but it takes a long time to reach peak velocity.
The Sportage diesel averages 7.1 litres/100km (39.8mpg) on the combined cycle, a substantial advantage over the V6’s 11.0 litres/100km (25.7mpg). The diesel produces 83kW of power at a modest 4000rpm, and a healthy 245Nm of torque at a low 1800 revs and maintains it through to 2500rpm. It’s this ample torque combined with the automatic that provides lazy, flexible progress, although the transmission is fussy at times, with unnecessary downward changes that are noisy and not always smooth.
Not surprisingly, the diesel delivers the best torque of the three Sportage power units, even out-gunning the 241Nm V6. We’d expect a Kia to offer good value for money and this machine doesn’t disappoint, with an imppressive level of equipment. In this class only the Sportage and Tucson offer an electronic stability programme (ESP) as standard, despite the trim pricing.
Where some rivals make do with rear drum brakes, the Sportage has four-wheel discs, ventilated up front, and the ABS is a four sensor, four-channel system. Cruise control is also standard, along with traction control, electric windows front and rear, and five-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels shod with 235/60 series rubber.
Most will consider the Kia a full-time four-wheel drive, although most of the time just two wheels are doing the driving. When the system senses the front wheels are losing grip, it automatically diverts up to 50 percent of engine power to the rear. Alternatively, when the going gets rough, the driver can select 4WD lock to permanently engage four-wheel drive. Suspension is conventional, with an independent set-up all round. MacPherson struts and coil springs are used at the front, with a dual link and coil spring arrangement at the rear.
The Sportage drive is no memorable experience, but nor does the Kia profess to be an agile handler. Indifferent road surfaces are well sorted even if the car makes some noise of it all. Over modest off-road obstacles, the 1683kg vehicle is inclined to cock a wheel, but the approach and departure angles of 29 degrees indicate the level of competence when needs must. Flash back to the unmemorable first generation Sportage to find a separate chassis, unlike the latest version with more car-like unitary construction.
The two models are poles apart in terms of dynamics but even so the much-improved car’s less than sharp driving manners will never be on the awards list.
Overall finish isn’t too bad, although some of the interior plastics are sadly too plasticky and cheap to the touch. From a practical standpoint, the interior space is class leading. Sitting on a 2630mm wheelbase, there are absolutely no complaints about the amount of legroom front and rear. Though the driver’s seat may offer height adjustment, seat comfort and support are poor which detracts from the Sportage’s long distance cruising ability. Support for those in the back is just as bad although there is a rear seat rake adjuster.
Still, there’s a lot going for this Kia. A clever drop and fold seat mechanism provides a completely flat load floor when reclined and the front passenger seat also folds down fully – a rare advantage. In manual form, the Sportage diesel retails at $30,995, a price penalty of just $695 over the 2.0-litre petrol version. Compare this with a hefty $4500 differential between the same two models in Britain. The auto transmission bumps the price of the Sportage diesel up to $32,400 which you can’t compare to any other model since there’s nothing else like it.
Hyundai may run Kia, but it’s still a proud Korean company that started out 60 years ago making bicycle parts. There’s a good argument to be made for the Sportage diesel, despite the lingering shadow of high depreciation.