2017 Kia Sportage 2.4 LX (USA)

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If you look at the sales charts, country by country, things do not change very much from month to month, or even year to year. For sure there have been changes over time, such as the fall from grace of the large family saloon, such as the Mondeo and Insignia,  in favour of “premium” branded cars, and the seemingly inexorable rise of the SUV and Crossover, though some of this came at the expense of the MPV which had challenged conventional estate cars only a decade or so earlier. But generally, the Top 10 lists change little in their content, and only shuffle their sequencing around slightly, over a sustained period. Just occasionally, a new model comes along, and – probably in excess even of the ambitions of the product planners who persuaded the company to build it, a real disruption to the established order takes place. The Nissan Qashqai certainly achieved that, finding popularity way beyond that of the cars it supplanted – the Almera and Prmera – and in 2016 I think we saw another one of these surprise victors. And that car was the new fourth generation Kia Sportage. Its predecessor had served perhaps the best notice to date that Kia was on a roll, and big things should be expected from the once budget brand. Contemporary styling, a much improved interior, decent driving dynamics, the famous Kia levels of reliability and ease of ownership all combined in a package which was just the right size for many buyers. And then came a new one, launched in most markets in the early part of 2016. From some angles, it did not look that different, though head on the new front-end certainly was quite a departure from what had gone before, and even under the skin, it was more of a careful update of mechanical components from the Kia parts bin rather than something radically new, and yet within a matter of months, the Sportage was setting sales records in large numbers of markets. For the first time ever, there were months when it broke in to the Top 10 best selling cars in the UK, and soon the distinctive looking model was to be seen frequently on our roads, and there have been plenty of other countries where the Sportage has been doing equally well, or even better. Clearly it is an important car, a car of our times, and one that I should experience. Hertz must have thought so, too, as I found one with my name on it as the latest rental wheels, at the Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix. It was dark outside when I collected, and in the lighting that there in the multi-storey car park from which rental cars are dispensed, I have to say that the colour did stand out, and not necessarily for all the right reasons. It is certainly unusual, and I took it not least as it would add some variety to the landscape of white and silver cars that you more often find in the US rental fleets and the endless grey and black ones in Europe. Kia call it “Burnished Copper”, and in the bright sunlight the following day, it had quite an orangey glow to it, which was not evident the night before, when it looked like, well, you can let your minds wander………. Enough of the colour, though, what about the Sportage itself?

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Sportage models in North America come with a different set of engines from those sold in Europe. Two petrol powerplants are offered, a 2.4 litre 4 cylinder unit putting out 181 bhp and a lustier 2.0 turbo four which generates 240 bhp. Both are coupled to a six speed automatic gearbox. All wheel drive is an option. There are three levels of trim. As is the case with so many cars these days, there is no badging to tell you what you have, but the way that Hertz had categorised it suggested that mine was a front wheel driver, and a bit more research suggested that it had the less powerful of the two engines and was the entry level LX model. Even in this configuration, you won’t feel short-changed. Many reviews suggest that this engine is the weakest link on the car, being not powerful enough and a bit uncouth. More power is always welcome, of course, but 181 bhp is class competitive and is actually perfectly acceptable in this vehicle. And the engine struck me as being quite refined, not uncivilised at all. There is still a conventional key which you put into a slot to the right of the wheel, and when you fire it up, all you hear is the electronic chime if you have not put your seat belt on yet, as at idle this is a quiet engine. Select a gear, and head off, and the noise levels remain pleasingly low unless you head right around to the red line. But you probably won’t, as there is ample acceleration to keep up with the traffic without having to work that hard. The engine and gearbox seemed well-matched, and there are extremely smooth shifts from gear to gear, so whenever you needed a sudden burst of acceleration, it was there. I took the Sportage on one my favourite routes up the 87 highway north east of Phoenix, and there are some relatively steep climbs here which slow trucks right down and which trouble the odd rental vehicle, but that was not the case here, with the Kia tackling them as if they were not really there. I’ve done the maths on fuel consumed, and it comes to 26.4mpg US or 31.58 mpg Imperial, which is somewhat less than the figure reported by the car’s on-board trip computer, which told me I had achieved 29.9 mpg for the day. These days the system on the vehicle tends to be pretty accurate, so I am putting the difference down to the fact that the Kia was probably returned with a genuinely full tank as opposed to “rental car full” – a plausible explanation since I only covered 138 miles in the day, so a gallon or so missing would make all the difference.

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Just as the performance of the Sportage exuded quiet competence, so did the other driving dynamics. There is a plastic steering wheel to hold in this entry level LX model, but it is of nicely chunky thickness and it was no real hardship that it lacked a cow-hide covering. What was more important is what it was connected to. Kia have not aimed the Sportage at the enthusiast in the way that Mazda have with the CX-5 and Ford with the Escape/Kuga, but nor have they taken the ” it is just an appliance” level of “the owner won’t care, so let us take all sensation away” that you get in a Toyota. They have found the middle ground, and found it well. The steering is well-weighted. Not too heavy and not too light, but just right, with enough feel to give you a clear indication of where precisely the wheels are headed, but such that undue effort is not required either when on the move or parking. There are commendable levels of grip, way in excess of those you can exceed on a public road, and the corners goes neatly and tidily around corners. It leans a bit if you tackle them with gusto and ultimately will understeer, of course, but it all feels very safe and family-friendly, which is what cars of this type ought to do. It rides very nicely. There are some rather high profile 225/60 R17 tyres which provide contact with the ground. These are chunky enough, and there is plenty of clearance to suggest that even in the 2WD version that I tested, you could head off the tarmac with some levels of confidence. There were no issues with the brakes. There is a foot operated pedal for the parking brake. The very thick C pillars remain on this generation Sportage – indeed they are probably part of the styling concept which helps to make the car so distinctive, just as they were on its predecessor – so you might fear for visibility. But actually, I found few problems. There is a good field of view from the door mirrors, and there is a reversing camera fitted which gave a clear view of what was behind the car, useful when trying to position in for photos as well as if you were parking up, of course.

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Every Kia seems to have a higher quality interior than the last, and this one is no exception. There is something of a rectangular theme to the dashboard. The front face is vertical, and apart from the instrument nacelle itself, the shapes on it are rectangular, a feature that is even carried down to the gearlever. Soft touch plastics abound, although there are some harder materials used in the middle of the door casings, but even there, the texture is generations away from what Kia and sister company Hyundai were using not many years ago. Needless to say, the fit of everything was perfect, and looked cohesively designed. Peter Schreyer’s influence with his ex-Audi approach continues to pay dividends here. The trim inside my test car was black, and the dash moulding is also all black, with just a few carefully applied chrome and metal highlights around the steering wheel hub, the central audio unit and the gearlever. It means that the interior looks rich rather than tawdry (Ford, take note!). It is also a nice simple and unfussy design (again, Ford, take note!). There are two traditional round dials under a single curved binnacle, for the speedo and rev counter, with smaller round gauges for water temperature and fuel level set in the bottom part of them. Between the dials is a digital display area with a series of menus and sub-menus for trip computer and vehicle-related data, and you cycle through these using a couple of buttons on the right hand steering wheel spoke. There you will also find the cruise control and some audio unit repeater functions. There are twin column stalks, with lights operated by twisting the end of the left hand indicator stalk. Front and rear wipers operate from the right hand one. The centre of the dash contains the audio unit, which in this LX trim is a relatively unsophisticated unit, though it offers AM, FM and XM Satellite radio, and there is still a CD slot, and elsewhere there are USB and AUX ports and there is Bluetooth, so all the bases are covered. It is operated using buttons and control knobs that surround three sides of the unit, in the traditional way. Below this are two knobs and a double bank of switches for the air conditioning system. And that is it. Uncluttered, easy to use, and neat looking.

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Getting comfortable was not difficult. You adjust the seat manually, with a bar underneath for fore/aft and two levers on the side for backrest angle and seat height. The column has an in/out adjustment as well as up/down. Once set up I was very comfortable, with the seats being trimmed in a decent quality cloth. One of the reasons why vehicles of this type have become so popular is because of their raised driving position relative to a conventional hatch or saloon. You certainly are not aware of this as you get in or out, and I was not more conscious of it when driving along. Perhaps that is because once you have driven enough Crossovers, it starts to feel normal.

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Spaciousness and practicality are the real reason why this type of vehicle has become so popular, and the Sportage will not disappoint. Rear seat occupants get a good deal. There is ample room in all directions for three adults to sit in the back of this Kia. The rear seat backrests are split asymmetrically, and you can alter the angle if inclination from extremely upright to very well inclined for each of the two sections using the same lever as you used to drop the seats down. There are separate air vents on the rear face of the central console, and there is a drop down armrest with a pair of cup holders in the upper surface. Odds and ends can go in the nets on the back of the front seats and there are bins on the doors.

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You also get a generously sized boot. The floor is flush with the tailgate opening, though there is a false floor, under which you could tuck odds and ends as well. The space here is a nice regular shape, with little intrusion from the wheelarches, is long from front to back, wide and deep. As with most US rental cars, the parcel shelf was missing, but if you loaded up to the window line, you would get a lot in it. Drop the rear seats down, and it is just a case of pushing the backrests forward and you get a lot more length. The resulting area is completely flat, too. Inside the cabin, there is a good sized glovebox, a large recess in front of the gearlever, a cubby under the central armrest as well as a small lipped area in front of it alongside the cupholders and there are door bins.

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Like the previous Sportage, there are three different trims offered to US buyers: LX, EX, and SX Turbo. The LX is the base model, and the SX Turbo is the top of the line. The LX  and EX both have the same 2.4 litre engine, so are only separated by levels of standard equipment, with the EX coming as standard with many features that are options in the LX, and the EX is available with many features that you can’t get at all in the LX. The SX Turbo comes standard with pretty much every feature you can get in a Sportage and there are some extra styling touches to distinguish this top model. The LX is the Sportage’s base trim, and for 2017 it has an MSRP of $22,990. While there are less expensive compact SUVs – like the highly rated Mazda CX-5 – most class rivals cost more than the Sportage. The Ford Escape and Honda CR-V cost about $600 and $800 more, respectively, and several competitors have MSRPs above $24,000. The LX features the 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine, and standard features include Bluetooth, a six-speaker audio system, satellite radio, and a 5-inch touch screen. The only standard driver assistance feature is a rearview camera, which also comes standard in many of the Sportage’s classmates. Unlike the Ford Escape, the Sportage does offer all-wheel drive in its base trim, though it costs an additional $1,500. The Sportage LX also offers packages that add heated front seats, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, and the UVO infotainment system with a 7-inch touch screen, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay. The EX trim starts at $25,500. It features the same engine/transmission combo as the LX trim, but the EX comes standard with features that are optional or unavailable in the LX trim, like the UVO infotainment system, dual-zone automatic climate control, push-button start, and heated leather seats. There are two available EX packages (choose one or both) that cost $2,100 and $2,900 and add features including a panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, front and rear parking sensors, lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking, a Harman Kardon audio system, and an upgraded UVO system with navigation and an 8-inch touch screen. Top of the range, the SX Turbo starts at $32,500 and is the only trim that features the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine. This has 59 more bhp than the base engine, but it also delivers a worse fuel consumption, so there is a trade-off. As for standard equipment, the SX Turbo comes standard with almost every feature you can get in a Sportage, including a panoramic sunroof, power-adjustable heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a Harman Kardon audio system, and the UVO infotainment system with an 8-inch touch screen and navigation. Advanced driver assistance features like blind spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking, front and rear parking sensors, and lane departure warning also come as standard. The test car was an LX, and I did not feel unduly deprived of anything important, apart perhaps from navigation (which I have now got used to in my own car!).

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It is not hard to see why the Sportage has been an even greater success than the pundits predicted. You may not like the colour of this one, but there are plenty of other choices from which to select a more conventional hue. The front-end styling occasioned a lot of comment when the model was released. The more I see it, the more I like it, finding it preferable to that of the old model, but I realise it may not be for everyone. From all other angles, the car is neat and well proportioned and detailed. It is not the absolute best in class to drive, perhaps (that honour goes to the Mazda CX-5), but it is not far off, and let’s face it, enthusiasts are not the prime customer base for this type of vehicle. It is nicely finished and it ticks every practicality box there is. Simply put, there are no weak points. What no doubt clinches the sales is the ownership proposition. Value pricing, combined in the UK with a 7 year warranty, as well as reported excellent levels of reliability and dealers who score highly in surveys mean that this is a car which would not just serve your needs but also trouble you not all all as you and your family got on with a busy set of lives. Just what many people are looking for. When I sampled the soon to be superceded Mazda CX-5 a few months back, I declared that is was the “best” car in this class, but that was before I had driven this Kia. Now I have, I am unsure in my own mind which is “best”. As ever, you would probably want to combine attributes from each for the absolute top vehicle. Maybe the new CX-5 will achieve that in one car, but even if it does, I would be surprised it its sales figures get close to what Kia has achieved and continues to achieve with this Sportage. It is impressive. Even in “Burnished Copper”.

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