Many of the Korean brands were not taken seriously by the SUV-loving fraternity. In fact, Kia's Sportage, which debuted in 1996, was at best described as innocuous when compared with the more menacing, oversized SUVs in the market. Big was beautiful then. But no longer so. Today, rising fuel prices and concern for the environment have shifted equations, and bigger is not always better.
That said, Kia has gone against the grain with the new Sportage - it is 8.75cm longer than its 2010 iteration. But not without cause: this increase adds 10 per cent more cargo space.
The biggest change, as with Kia's other models, is in its looks. The Sportage has been completely redesigned, the blandness evident in most aspects of the previous model giving way to something almost radical in CUVs (crossover utility vehicle). To use a term not often used in conjunction with a Kia, it is exciting.
Yes, this one is a head-turner alright. The attendant at the petrol station kept looking at it, and when he caught my eye, grinned sheepishly, saying, "It looks really good, doesn't it?" At the parking lot of a mall, one gentleman came over to me after I parked the car and started peppering me with questions about its power and performance.
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Certainly, its exterior proves crossovers don't have to be boring. Sharp, raked lines, contoured flanks, smoothly flared wheel arches and bright LED headlight liners give it the appearance of a sportier European SUV. No surprise then, as Kia's lead designer Peter Schreyer worked with Audi earlier.
The impression doesn't dim when you get inside the car. Outward visibility is pretty good, the seating just right for the ‘king of the road' feeling. The rear view, though, is compromised slightly by large rear ‘C' roof pillars. But then this is a common issue with crossovers.
The placement of gauges is ergonomic, and they can be read easily at a glance. Large, clear buttons make operation a breeze.
There is an abundance of storage options throughout the Sportage's cabin. It includes a larger glovebox (with cooling function as an option), a larger six-litre centre console (up from three litres), and four door pockets. There are many deep cupholders, which can hold a variety of beverage containers firmly, even during cornering.
One thing that struck me: the USB/iPod input jack could be moved from the centre console to a more secure location so your dash does not look cluttered.
The base 2-litre model comes with power windows, electric mirrors with indicators, keyless entry, fog lamps, rear spoiler, roof rails, CD/MP3 stereo with six speakers and USB/AUX inputs, 17-inch steel wheels, and ABS... As the trim levels go up, so do the goodies.
The 2.4-litre all-wheel drive comes with dual-zone automatic air conditioning, panoramic glass roof, cruise control, smart key with starter button, leather upholstery, power driver's seat, stereo with subwoofer and iPod cable, rear sensors and camera, chrome door handles, electric folding mirrors, 18-inch alloy wheels, and improved safety features such as ABS with stability control, active headrests and airbags all around.
The hard plastics don't look cheap, and most touch points are adequately padded. All the interior elements appear to be well assembled, and general fit and finish is pretty good. The seats are large and roomy.
Wind and road noise is noticeable only at high speeds, but does not seem intrusive.
Our top-line EX test car had an attractive interior combination of black leather with orange top-stitching.
While the physical dimensions have gone up, Kia has downsized the Sportage's engine. The locally available ones come with a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine that develops 175 hp, as opposed to the 2.7-litre V6 that the previous model boasted. Yet, it matches the power of the outgoing V6 power plant and also achieves better fuel economy. A 2-litre version that makes 164bhp is also available. Both are mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox.
We drove the 2.4-litre model and found that the inline-4 is only adequate for this substantial car. According to Kia, the 2.4-litre 2WD automatic transmission accelerates from 0-100kph in 9.5 seconds, while the AWD version takes ten seconds.
The two-litre manual transmission version does the 100kph dash in 10.4 seconds while the automatic takes 10.6 seconds.
The idea with downsizing the engines is to produce V6 power with four-cylinder fuel economy. The 175 hp and 227Nm of torque (at 4,000rpm) is respectable power from a four-cylinder of this displacement, but it proves merely adequate to get this crossover moving. The six-speed automatic, however, makes the most of what's available.
While the numbers aren't much more than average compared to the Kia's crossover competition, the new Sportage feels lively to drive.
On the winding roads of Jebel Hafeet, the taut suspension kept body roll at bay when cornering. While the steering is precise, it is so light that it does not provide you with the kind of feedback you would expect.
Sportage's four-wheel independent suspension does a good job of keeping the CUV on its toes. On Sportage models equipped with the optional ESC (Electronic Stability Control), traction is increased when combined with HAC (Hill-start Assist Control) which prevents the car from slipping backwards, and DBC (Downhill Brake Control), which limits vehicle speed to just 8kph (5mph) on steep descents.
All this at a combined fuel economy of 9.2 litres per 100km. We can sure sacrifice a little bit of fun for these kind of savings.
The 2.4-litre LX models range from Dh63,900 to Dh70,900, while prices for the top-range EX start at Dh73,900 and go up to Dh90,900.