When you have to struggle to find things to complain about, it’s a pretty good sign a car company has matured.
Time was, with Kia, things to complain about jumped out at you, from odd or boring styling, atrocious handling, questionable fit and finish to uninspiring engines and yestertech four-speed automatics.
There are forgettable vehicles in the pasts of every carmaker, but while it may have taken some carmakers 100 years to figure out how to build good vehicles, Kia’s maturation came in a relatively speedy 20 years or so.
So when I have to include a note about how the red-on-black colour scheme favoured by Kia for displays can make it nearly impossible to read the odometer or difficult to pick out the speedometer needle in order to make this not read like advertising copy, no longer can someone say you bought a Kia just because you couldn’t afford anything good.
Indeed, another sign of maturity is Kia is asking, and getting, prices for its vehicles within range of competing, established brands.
Sure, there are a few niggly points also in my notebook, not because they’re necessarily going to matter to average readers but because they do point to areas where some more incremental improvements could be made.
Primarily, the one that stands out is steering feel. It’s not overboosted — in other words, it takes a bit of effort to turn the wheel, which is good — but there is little feedback in the steering wheel. The front wheels turn where and when you ask them to, so the steering is precise, but the electric power steering feels a tad video-gamey.
Feedback is what tells you the front wheels still have grip, or not. It’s often the first sign you are losing control, so it’s important, since the sooner you can correct whatever is making you lose control — too much steering, too much speed, etc. — the less likely it will end catastrophically.
Cargo space is OK, and is limited by the length of the vehicle, but if you’re shopping in this segment, you’ve probably accepted that already.
Here is what I do like about the Sportage: it’s fun to drive. The handling is very well-sorted, even with the feedback issue. You turn, it turns. The chassis feels very rigid, meaning there isn’t something that’s going to bend and bite you in the middle of a turn.
The fit and finish is beyond reproach, with interior bits fitting together as well as any other brand’s. The styling is unique and attractive. No longer is Kia merely copying other ideas and calling it design.
The interior design is thoughtful and stylish, with the most-used controls falling easily to hand. The seats are comfortable and supportive for long drives.
There is a high level of standard equipment, even at the base price of $22,995, including heated seats, four-wheel disc brakes, keyless entry, steering wheel-mounted cruise and audio controls, Bluetooth hands-free, fog lights, automatic headlights and satellite radio.
As well, the walk up the options list isn’t the wallet-crunching exercise it might be for a brand such as Porsche.
It’s only in the SX Luxury model ($38,495) where you start breathing some pretty thin air.
There are two engines available with Sportage: a 2.4-litre normally aspirated four rated for 182 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque and, on the two SX models, a 2.0-litre turbocharged four with 260 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque.
The base LX model comes with a six-speed manual transmission. You can get an LX with an automatic six-speed transmission or an LX with the automatic and all-wheel drive. Everything above LX (EX, EX Luxury and SX) get the automatic.
All-wheel drive is standard on EX Luxury and optional on everything but SX models, which are front-drive only.
While I would normally opt for the manual whenever it’s available, I haven’t driven a Sportage with a stick, so I can’t comment on how slick it is. Sometimes, a good automatic is better than a bad stick, but the LX has the features I’d need.
Engines: 2.4-litre four-cylinder; 2.0-litre turbo four
Power: 182 horsepower (2.4); 260 hp (2.0t)
Torque: 177 pound-feet (2.4); 269 pound-feet (2.0t)
Transmissions: six-speed manual, six-speed automatic (opt.)Steering: electric power-assist rack-and-pinion
Brakes: four-wheel discs
Suspension: MacPherson strut with coil springs and dynamic dampers (front); multi-link with dynamic dampers (rear)
Fuel economy (l/100km highway / city): 9.2/12.9 (manual); 8.3/11.4 (automatic, two-wheel drive); 9.1/12 (automatic, four-wheel drive); 9.7/12.6 (SX).
Price: $22,995 (LX MSRP); $38,495 (SX Luxury, MSRP)
How I’d order one: EX with all-wheel drive ($30,795). It's a small bump from the LX with all-wheel drive but adds push-button start, power-adjustable driver’s seat, dual-zone climate control and the UVO entertainment system, among other features.
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