Hitting that Sweet Spot

- Andy Leuterio -

MANILA, Philippines - In 2003 I went on a tour of Kia’s sprawling facility in Hwaseong, South Korea. At the time, their product line fell under the description of “decent” and “value-oriented” but not really “outstanding”. My tour included a trip to a full-scale wind tunnel, their design center, and a walk-through of an automated assembly plant where sheets of steel went in one end and whole cars came out the other.

I was impressed with their exacting standards and stated, 10 year vision to reach global competitiveness, but even then I would never have guessed that their current lineup would be this good. After all, their flagship at the time was the bug-eyed Opirus/Amanti, while the bread-and-butter was the wallflower Picanto.

But look at Kia now. Personally, I think anyone who still believes the South Koreans can’t make world-class cars must still be stuck in the 90s. Kia and its sister company, Hyundai, have made great strides in the realm of production cars and SUVs (although they’ve yet to make an impact on supercars). A simple glance around you in traffic is telling: count the number of late model cars and SUVs from South Korea and it’s apparent how much ground they’ve stolen from the rest of the world. This isn’t a local phenomenon either, as they are also making serious headway in the US and Europe.

This brings me to the Sportage, quite possibly the best looking compact SUV in the market today. The chiseled good looks are highlighted by thick-spoked alloy wheels and LED daytime running lights a la Audi; understandable, because Kia’s Chief Design Officer Peter Schreyer used to work for the Germans. The cabin is just as good with amber lighting, blackout cockpit, and solid, angular shapes that look like they belong in IKEA. It’s all a far cry from the pedestrian look of its predecessor.

Despite this fashion statement, it’s surprising to note that Kia is holding the line on price: P1.258M for the 2-liter 4x4. It’s a price point that substantially undercuts typical compact SUV choices like the Honda CR-V (P1.545M), Nissan X-Trail (P1.550M), and Mitsubishi ASX (P1.548M), while giving up little, if any, in standard features.

Power from the 166 PS 2-liter is respectable but not spellbinding, doubtless because the Sportage is a bit on the porky side at around 2,000 kilograms. The 6-speed automatic transmission is a good match for the engine as it shifts quickly and smoothly, rarely ever requiring you to shift for yourself in the manual gate. Ride quality has a European feel to it; supple on the road and soaking up the bumps with little body motion. About the only downside is the overboosted, electric-driven steering. It’s very light at low speeds for easy maneuvering in crowded parking lots and it firms up nicely at speed, but there’s just no real “feel” for the road unlike a traditional, hydraulic unit. Stopping power from the all-disc brakes is also commendable, with the pedal actually standing to add a few millimeters more of mush to prevent that “grabby” feel.

Passengers liked the supportiveness and thick cushioning of the seats, and the cargo area has ample space for luggage without needing to fold down the rear seatbacks. I would have liked a tighter fit from the driver’s seat bolsters, but overall the Sportage exudes a look and feel that’s ideal for long road trips. And it passes one important test: the door slam. Put the window down, slam the door closed and it shuts with a solid “thud”. Gone is the tinny feel of old. Even with the chassis under stress, such as on a hump or with a wheel in a pothole while you do this test, the Sportage has the solid, rigid feel of a quality automobile. It’s telling for an SUV that must impress buyers weaned on competing brands from Japan or the US, and it follows up with a pleasing lack of rough edges in the interior that would give it away as a lesser vehicle. Switches, buttons, and latches all move with a silky, tactile feel that could have been cribbed from the Germans.

The all-wheel drive system is a state-of-the-art unit that primarily uses the front axle for power, diverting power to the rear at the onset of slippage.

Despite its cutthroat price the Sportage still comes with a respectable allotment of goodies like front foglamps, 6- speaker stereo, ABS, parking assist, and dual airbags. Skeptics who love the look but are still wary of the reliability may perhaps be assuaged by Kia’s generous offer of a 5-year/160,000 km warranty. For those who want even more, Kia also offers the Sportage with a 2.4-liter, 177 HP engine, panoramic moonroof, leather upholstery, cooled glovebox and some other goodies for P1.698M.

As it is, this model may be all the SUV that the average buyer ever really needs. It looks stunning, performs respectably, and ably fulfills all the requirements of a family vehicle.


• Beautiful, well-proportioned design.

• Generous level of standard features.

• World class build quality.

• Killer pricing.



• High curb weight slows it down.

• Could use a bigger fuel tank.



• A stylish, value-oriented winner.

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