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Kia’s talismanic European-built SUV builds on the company's latest design direction

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The Kia Sportage lived a fairly quiet life to begin with as a car known to few outside of Asian markets.

But ever since it became one of Kia’s first European-built models in its second-generation form, and then led its company’s transformation into a design-centric brand in its third, the Sportage has taken on special status for the company that makes it.

Not sure if it was aircraft tail fins or T-bone steaks that those air vents reminded me of, but I certainly kept coming back to look at them. Sometimes characterful product design can be just that simple.

Peter Schreyer’s distinctive ‘tiger nose’ third-generation design drove the car to a level of UK- and European-market popularity unknown to Kia in the early 2010s, which the subsequent fourth-generation version built on.

And now, with the Sportage’s status as Kia’s best-selling car in the UK, Europe and the wider world assured, comes a fifth-generation version that looks ready to mix things up all over again.

Rather than protecting and subtly evolving the looks of its golden goose, Kia is innovating: using the most powerful sales platform it has to disseminate its latest corporate design language that will roll out across its model lines and showing a strategic boldness that only commercial success can grant permission for.

This language, entitled ‘Opposites United’, will evidently trade the neat appealing features and lines of Kia’s old philosophy for something even more impactful – but will it be as successful in driving sales?

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It certainly has enough competition. There are tens of rival SUVs on offer from rival manufacturers. But its main competition comes in the form of the Skoda Karoq, Ford Kuga and Nissan Qashqai

Kia Sportage range at a glance

The Sportage range includes petrol engines with and without 48V mild-hybrid assistance, as well as full-hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrains, with part-time all-wheel drive effectively available on all but the very cheapest models.


Kia Sportage panning

The visual character traits that it was aiming for with this fifth-generation Kia Sportage, it says, were muscularity, thought-provoking modernity, dynamism and drama – and it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t succeeded in producing them.

Our road test jury wondered, however, whether the Sportage is a better-looking car now, as a result of its boldness, than it has been previously. Its front-end styling in particular is a little overly aggressive (although the darker body colour of our test car makes its impact a bit more palatable).

The wheel rim range starts with 17in items on entry-level cars, although most non- hybridised models roll on 19s, as will big-selling GT-Line trim cars. These 18s came fitted with Continental economy tyres, although they didn’t deliver especially great on-test fuel efficiency.

And while the resemblance to the Kia EV6 at the rear, thanks to that pinched-looking hatchback, is clear to see, the overall effect is one that needs time to soften on the senses. In a year or two, we may well look back at this car as a really successful bit of design, but it doesn’t have as much instant kerbside appeal as it might have.

The N3 model architecture is shared by the larger Kia Sorento, but also the Hyundai Tucson and Hyundai Santa Fe. It confers an all-steel monocoque construction; all-independent suspension, with part-time four-wheel drive available on most models; and a choice of front-, transverse-mounted four-cylinder engines.

The car’s options for motive power are quite numerous. Towards the more affordable end of the model spectrum is a 1.6-litre T-GDi turbo petrol with a 48V mild-hybrid comes with a six-speed manual and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.

Kia also offers full-hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the Sportage, both driven primarily by the same combination of 1.6-litre turbo petrol four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic gearbox, but the latter getting a beefier electric motor and significantly more drive battery capacity than the former. The Sportage PHEV is four-wheel drive only; the cheaper and less powerful Sportage HEV can be had in front-drive or four-wheel-drive forms.

This front-driven HEV weighs in at 1658kg on the proving ground scales: significantly heavier than the last-generation car that we road tested in 2016.


Kia Sportage dashboard

Kia recognised an emerging appetite for slightly more rakish ‘SUV coupés’ with the third-generation Kia Sportage back in 2010. While this car was never officially defined in those terms, the latest version is more of the same: a design-led product that doesn’t offer quite as much interior passenger space as boxier mid-sized rivals such as the Toyota RAV4.

Take a tape measure to the new car’s interior and you will quickly find evidence of that. One of our road test subjects, the range-topping GT-Line S, fitted with Kia’s panoramic glass sunroof, offered just 920mm from rear seat cushion to roofline, which is really only as much head room as a mid-sized hatchback typically affords (a RAV4 offers fully 80mm more). Leg room is more generous, of course, but even so, this is probably not a family car you would seek out with grown-up children to transport.

The centre console is clad in the kind of decorative gloss black plastic that designers seem to love. At least it doesn’t mark as easily as some we have encountered.

Limited adult-appropriate second-row practicality aside, however, this is certainly an interior with some visual interest and ambition about it. Striking design features, like the tomahawk-shaped air vents and the widescreen instrumentation-cum-infotainment ‘flight panel’, catch your eye, and although some cheaper, harder-feeling mouldings are easy to find, the rest of the cabin does just enough to deliver a good all-round impression.

The driver’s seat is comfortable, with a cushion angled well to support your thighs and decent lateral bolstering. The control layout is one of sound ergonomics, and grants a clear view of the digital instrument screen behind the wheel, which renders graphics very crisply and clearly.

The infotainment system to the left of that is fairly easy to navigate: it’s touchscreen-operated mostly, but a line of shortcut keys (whose function can be switched to become heating and ventilation controls) does play a part in making it easy to get on with.

In the second row, Kia offers useful and accessible bag storage hooks and USB-C charging ports on the front seatbacks, which is a neat touch. Further aft, boot space is generally good, although its 850mm loading length to the second-row seatbacks is 110mm down on that of a RAV4.

Some useful carrying space is available under the boot floor, and there’s a stowage space for the roller load bay cover when removed, as well as more bag hooks and a 12V power supply.

For outright carrying space, it’s a bit disappointing that the rear seats don’t fold completely flat, providing further evidence that this isn’t the most practical car in its class.

Multimedia system

Kia Sportage Infotainment

Only the entry-level 2-grade Sportage does without Kia’s 12.3in infotainment system, which brings connected navigation (seven years’ data access comes with the car). You need to buy either a 4 or a GT-Line S Sportage to get wireless smartphone charging, but wireless mirroring for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto comes in lower-grade models as well.

The system is clearly laid out and quite easy to navigate for an all-touchscreen interface. It’s always easy to get back to the home screen, and from there to find the menu you need without too much distracting scrolling or swiping.

Kia’s factory navigation system is easy to program, user-friendly in its layout and controls, and easy to follow.

It does lack a convenient ledge on which to anchor an outstretched arm and, as always, we would prefer a joystick or cursor controller on the steering wheel to make finding a function easier without spending too long with eyes off the road.


Kia Sportage engine

We're yet to drive the mild hybrid version yet. But the Sportage’s full-fat hybrid powertrain has a very respectable outright performance level, and works in pleasant, refined and fairly economical fashion when everyday demands are being made of it. It’s quiet at a cruise and under light loads, and fairly responsive in give-and-take low-speed motoring around town.

To those who think of their car as no more than a means to get to the office and the shops, to cover the school run and football practice, and generally to fit into daily life easily and efficiently, it should meet expectations quite well.

Kia may not use a CVT for its hybrids, but ask for more than average performance, and the Sportage's 1.6 is going to spend a lot of time near the redline. Toyota's most recent efforts are more accomplished in this respect.

The Sportage HEV managed 0-60mph in a quite sprightly 7.3sec (quicker than we anticipated in light of Kia’s 7.7sec 0-62mph claim) and 30-70mph through the gears in 6.4sec (where a Renault Arkana hybrid needs more than 10sec and a 1.8-litre Toyota C-HR Hybrid nearly 12sec) when we put it to the clock. That, too, makes it significantly quicker than any of Kia’s conventionally powered engine options – so, in one sense, the car’s price positioning is justified.

That the Sportage so clearly surrenders the mechanical refinement it offered at a gentle cruise when accelerating hard is really noticeable, however. This isn’t like a CVT-style hybrid that spins continually to the redline at full power, instead working its way through the ratios of its six-speed automatic gearbox as you accelerate.

But that gearbox downshifts reluctantly and a bit clunkily when you ask for a lot of power; the motor both sounds and feels strained when working at load above 4500rpm; and even when you use the car’s steering-wheel paddles to try to pick a gear yourself and minimise the fallout of both failings, you’re never totally in control of shift timing and gear selection.

The Sportage’s hybrid system does, at least, cover for those gearshifts smoothly under lighter loads, and boosts both drivability and running economy in heavy traffic and around town, making this a much more agreeable car to drive when you have no particular interest in what it’s doing, how it’s doing it, or when you might get where you’re going to. But at other moments, at least as far as the powertrain is concerned, you are made to feel very much like a passenger rather than a driver.

The PHEV gets a 178bhp 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine and a 90bhp electric motor, total output is 261bhp and 257lb ft of torque. This provides the Sportage with an official 0-62mph sprint time of 7.9secs. It's theoretically slower than the hybrid, but it doesn't neccessarily feel it. The roll-on acceleration is sufficiently punchy that you don’t need to delve into the deeper reaches of the engine all that often anyway.

Electric-only running is predictably quiet, and again Kia has made small improvements here. The Sorento PHEV, with the same powertrain, is overly keen on deploying all the power. You only had to breathe on the throttle for the engine to kick in. But that threshold seems to have been moved. It’s easier to keep the Sportage driving on its battery in all bar the swiftest acceleration runs.


Kia Sportage front corner

There is a monotone weight and texture to the Kia Sportage’s controls when the car is on the move, and little finesse about the way it deals with vertical suspension inputs and pitch control. The car is apparently the work of extensive European chassis tuning, with a wheelbase selected explicitly because it suits European roads (a longer-wheelbase version is offered elsewhere in the world).

On UK roads, however, the Sportage doesn’t show much evidence of that. The car's ride composure was quite easily upset by complex surfaces, beginning to porpoise and fidget over the rear axle when given medium-sized bumps to deal with, and tossing its occupants around somewhat on country roads taken in no particular hurry.

On UK roads, there was not much evidence of the Sportage's extensive European chassis tuning. There's a fair bit of pitch and roll, and ride quality becomes jittery on more testing surfaces.

The specification might have had a little to do with that: our GT-Line S car wore 18in alloy wheels, and a smaller 17in rim is available on lower-grade models. But an 18in rim isn’t a big wheel for a modern SUV, and doesn’t really wash as an excuse for dynamic mediocrity.

On smoother asphalt, the Sportage works better, having slightly crisper turn-in than your average mid-sized SUV, displaying reasonable outright grip levels and keeping body roll in check when cornering with speed.

But the lack of dexterity over more testing Tarmac is too big a factor to be recovered by any handling keenness evidenced when the surface is just right. The car’s steering only really communicates at all when its contact patches are very heavily loaded. Its stability control systems are effective and unintrusive but can’t make up for the pervasive numbness of the wider driving experience.

If this is Kia’s attempt at fashioning a better-handling, more engaging, European-flavoured compact SUV, it simply isn’t cleverly enough executed to manifest itself on UK roads, or to go down as a particular selling point.

Comfort and isolation

The Sportage gets off to a decent start in this section, having a comfortable driver’s seat, plenty of room for drivers of all shapes and sizes, and offering good visibility all round.

Wind and road noise are both adequately well filtered, and so the car recorded a 63dBA cabin noise level at a 50mph cruise: the same result, predictably perhaps, as the identically engined Hyundai Tucson we tested in 2021 and only a decibel noisier than the diesel Land Rover Discovery Sport we tested in 2019.

Uneven road surfaces, especially those with sharper-edged lumps and bumps, don’t agree with the car’s suspension, however, making it thud and crash more than you would like. There’s a slightly fiddly, excitable sense about the secondary ride, too, and a hollowness about the damping that permits more intrusions into the cabin than the most refined rivals would in the first place, and makes the body more likely to deflect than absorb when bigger intrusions present.

Sticking to well-surfaced roads on longer journeys might well become your default setting in this car – in which case, the Sportage’s slight lack of sophistication should be less of a factor, and its comfort levels agreeable enough. Even so, where £40,000 mid-sized family cars are concerned, you clearly shouldn’t need to make such allowances.

Assisted Driving

There are plenty of active driver assistance systems on the Sportage, even at lower trim levels. All versions get an autonomous emergency braking system that includes both cyclist and pedestrian recognition, and monitors for potential accidents when turning across junctions.

Higher-grade models also get a blindspot monitoring system that will intervene to prevent you driving into the path of an overtaking car, having relayed a video image of your blindspot into the digital instrument screen when you first indicate.

This may be a helpful prompt to check your mirror for some drivers, though our testers found it a little superfluous. They felt similarly about the Remote Smart Parking Assist function, which allows you to reverse into a tight space remotely from outside the car. The lane keeping system is easy to deactivate via a button on the left spoke of the steering wheel.


Kia Sportage front driving


Coming to market for less than £30,000, Kia’s entry-level petrol offering is ready for comparison with crossover hatchbacks like the Seat Ateca, Nissan Qashqai and Toyota C-HR; and, at the opposing end of the scale, Kia will hope to tempt people away from Volvo, Lexus and even Land Rover, with Sportage PHEVs priced around £45,000.

The Sportage's residuals are predicted to not quite be a match for the smartest buys in the compact SUV class, but hardy enough more generally.


It’s a lot of ground to cover, and you wouldn’t say the Sportage has either the space or the dynamic sophistication to cover it effortlessly, but its generous standard equipment levels will help, as will strong value on personal finance.

If you’re a fleet driver shopping in the market for a PHEV, the Sportage PHEV’s 43-mile electric range should make it appealing, putting it in an 8% benefit-in-kind tax band. If you stick with the full-hybrid HEV, however, expect modest running-cost savings only compared with more conventionally powered alternatives.

The hybrid model we tested averaged 40.1mpg over the full road test process and failed to squeeze beyond 45mpg even on our 70mph motorway touring economy test. As with most hybrids, intensive in-town fuel economy should show greater relative efficiency compared with a petrol or diesel alternative.

Official fuel economy figure for the PHEV is 252mpg; this is largely irrelevant unless you plug in nearly every time you park up.


Kia Sportage static

Kia has shown us that, when it starts from first principles and commits fully to the idea, it can produce cars every bit as good to drive as they are to look at. What the Sportage shows us, however, is that the company isn’t yet at a level where it can conjure a dynamic selling point habitually, or for those who go looking for one in a less obvious corner of the car market.

This mid-sized SUV certainly makes an interesting addition to an enduringly popular class. Its interior has an inviting and fairly expensive-feeling ambience, although it still isn’t quite as spacious as some SUV regulars will expect.

Spec advice? If you have taller passengers to think about, avoid the panoramic sunroof of the GT-Line and GT-Line S. You get heated and powered seats and digital instruments with 3 trim. It is probably worth having.

However, Kia’s hybrid powertrain disappointed our testers with its noise, clunkiness and hesitancy, and with its only average running efficiency. The Sportage’s ride and handling also lack evidence of the fine European tuning that Kia claims to have invested in the car.

The Sportage will ultimately satisfy plenty of drivers who require only dynamic competence and easy drivability from their family SUV, but it doesn’t show the same ambition to go even further that we have seen from Kia in recent years. It can, and must, continue to do better.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Kia Sportage First drives