Maybe our expectations were too high? You see, when Hyundai replaced the somewhat bland, second-generation Tucson with the avant-garde looking current model, we all practically swooned. Here was a family-sized SUV with genuinely exciting styling and decent driving dynamics, not to mention a usefully frugal hybrid powertrain.
So that set up some expectations, not least because in general, whenever Hyundai launches a new car, its sister brand Kia comes along with a car based on the same mechanical package that turns out to be slightly nicer.
That should have been the case with this new Sportage. It takes the same “N3” platform as the Tucson, the same mixture of diesel, petrol, mild-hybrid, hybrid, and eventually plug-in hybrid powertrain options, and clothes it in a body that looks more distinct than the previous Sportage.
Or does it? The last Sportage was no oil painting, but I kind of liked its pound-shop-Porsche-Cayenne looks, even if it was far too boring to drive to be Porsche-esque in a dynamic sense. The new Sportage has drama at the front – that massive grille, those arrow-head daytime running lights – but the rest of the styling is less impressive. It’s a bit pudgy around the midriff, and while few of us could claim otherwise, that is a bit of a disappointment given the Tucson’s more athletic look.
Big screen SUV
Inside, the story is much better or at least it’s much better in the pricey GT-Line model we tested. The GT-Line, along with the mid-spec K3 versions of the new Sportage, gets the twin digital displays lifted more or less wholesale from the massively impressive EV6 electric car.
Both screens measure a full 12.3-inches across, and look like they come from the future. The instrument displays in particular are delightfully crisp and clear, while the infotainment system is usefully unfussy and simple to use.
The Sportage also copies the EV6’s clever little touch panel below the screen that looks after both heating and air conditioning, and shortcut buttons for the infotainment screen. It’s a simple layout that proves very intuitive, although there’s the occasional danger of turning the passenger-side heating up or down when you wanted the radio volume.
Overall quality, as we’ve come to expect of Kia, is excellent even if there are a few annoyingly cheap plastic surfaces and buttons if you go looking for them. You won’t lack for space though, as even with the optional full-length glass roof, headroom front and rear is generous, and there’s plenty of space in the back for legs, knees and feet.
However, once you get into the boot you start to run up against the diminishing returns that are quickly becoming apparent in the SUV sector (well, the whole car market is practically the SUV sector these days, but anyway…).
You see, SUVs became fashionable at a time when everyone was bored with their workaday saloons and hatchbacks, but the problem is that now everyone has an SUV, and so they have become workaday themselves. When everyone has one, the fashionability fades, and then you’re left with a large-ish, expensive-ish car that’s actually not very practical.
Not practical? Surely that’s the point of an SUV? Well, you’d think so, but actually the tape measure often tells a different story. The new Sportage’s maximum boot capacity is rated at 587 litres, while our mild-hybrid diesel test car has 526 litres of luggage space.
Which all sounds good until you remember that the unfashionable, unloved, oft-forgotten Kia Ceed SW estate can haul 625 litres, and isn’t especially far behind the Sportage when it comes to rear seat space.
The lower-slung Ceed is also rather nicer to drive than this Sportage. It is an impressively comfortable car, the Sportage, with quite soft springs which make for a smooth ride quality. That doesn’t pay dividends in corners, though, where the Sportage feels less than enthusiastic, and is generally suffering from a lack of fun and engagement.
Making a tall SUV handle properly is, in purely physical terms, rather harder than it is with a lower, lighter saloon or estate and to be honest the only SUV of similar size that’s actually really good to drive is a Mazda CX-5. The rest, including the Sportage, are just different shades of the same grey in dynamic terms.
Given the sudden slump in diesel sales, you’d also have to wonder how many Irish buyers will be going for this 136hp mild-hybrid diesel model. It’s actually quite a decent engine in isolation, with solid pulling power (the Sportage can haul a 1,650kg braked trailer if you need it to) and good refinement.
It’s not especially economical, though. We managed 6.3 litres per 100km, which is okay, but not quite as good as we managed the previous week from a luxurious 2.5-litre hybrid Lexus ES300h. Pushing all that SUV frontal area through the air costs you at the pumps, clearly.
At least you can choose a hybrid Sportage, which is probably a better all-round vehicle and those with driveways and the ability to charge at home can nab themselves a plug-in hybrid model later this year.
The thing is, there’s nothing really wrong with the new Sportage. It represents a clear improvement in many areas relative to its predecessor, it’s okay to drive, comfortable, well-made, likely reliable, and usefully roomy inside. But – and it’s a big but – it feels like just another mid-size, mid-spec, family SUV.
The world is currently full of such things, and the formula is feeling tired. Right across the showroom is that Ceed SW, which is actually more useful, better looking, and certainly better to drive. If you’ve walked past that to get to the Sportage, you’re really doing it wrong. SUVs have become so common, so average, that they are now officially passe.
Lowdown: Kia Sportage GT-line 1.6 Diesel MHEV
Power: 1.6 litre turbo four-cylinder diesel engine with a mild-hybrid system developing 136hp and 320Nm of torque, driving a six-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive
CO2 emissions (annual motor tax): 132g/km (€210)
Fuel consumption (claimed): 5.0 litres per 100km (56.4mpg)
0-100km/h: 11.4 seconds
Price: €43,000 as tested; Sportage starts at €38,000
Our rating: 3/5
Verdict: A decent car, but one created from an increasingly tired recipe