Theory of Evolution

Can any other family-friendly mid-size SUV lay claim to having evolved in a more startling and appealing way during the course of its existence than the Kia Sportage? We’re finding it difficult to think of another.

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Words Cameron Officer Photos Simeon Patience

Forgive the subjective start to this but based on personal experience, I’m positing the theory that there might not be another vehicle that better illustrates the great leap forward a car company has taken in a relatively short space of time, than the Kia Sportage.

Yes, there are other cars that have evolved and modernised gracefully over a similar timeframe. But what Kia has achieved with the Sportage inside two decades is nothing short of remarkable – it is perhaps the perfect analogy for the brand itself.

Back in the mists of time when I first started writing about motoring, a 2005 Kia Sportage 2.0-litre CRDi was one of the first long-term test vehicles I was handed the keys to. The Sportage spent six months in my driveway, affording me time to grow to like it quite a bit by the time I handed it back.

Strangely tall but somehow also short on its 2630mm wheelbase, the oversized blisters over the wheel arches helped give it ‘a look’ for sure… but not a universally championed one. It was a bit awkward looking, albeit with ample space inside the cabin and boot. That second generation Sportage already had a target on its back in fact, with fans of the original Mk 1 decrying the newcomer’s bulkier bodywork and lack of off-road agility (an attribute which gave the first gen Sportage plenty of admirers among four-wheel driving circles).

Even the version following that ’05 era car was a big step up in terms of… well, practically everything. Arriving in 2010, the third generation Sportage showcased smooth lines and a much more premium interior as the model settled comfortably into its role as the Korean manufacturer’s mid-size family SUV.

But this new iteration for the new decade has us reaching for the superlatives.

Developed on new underbody architecture, the latest Sportage represents a ‘clean sheet’ approach – one that appears determined to democratise modern, premium design. Right across the eight-model range (four petrols, four diesels and with hybrid and plug-in hybrid models yet to come), there is a thoroughly pleasing throughline of elegance to the crisp exterior design of this vehicle. 

In isolation the front end itself is a work of art. Given the degree of pencilwork that has gone into shaping the latest Sportage’s front end, it’s somewhat ironic that Kia’s “Tiger Nose” design – the styling attribute the brand has traditionally pushed forward most – is at its most subtle here in years. Sitting between giant boomerang shaped LED daytime running lights, the bigger visual drawcard is that bold panel of modern honeycomb grille, with all the brightwork on our top-of-the-range X-Line 2.0D 4WD tester turned up to 11.

The side profile and rear angle give the Sportage an air of solidity, with its 4660mm long (175mm longer than the outgoing version) and 1865mm wide body sitting satisfyingly snug on a variety of stylish grade-specific 17”, 18” and – as shown here – 19” alloy wheels. All the proportions are right.

The proportions of the boot area are similarly pleasing too, especially for the Sportage’s core audience of families. With 543-litres of luggage space on offer (77-litres more than the previous Sportage), Kia’s designers have made a good show of reserving the SUV’s back third for practical concerns.

It’s a slightly different story up front in the driver’s seat, where you can plainly see that all the design-led finery on show outside has been perfectly matched with a truly impressive level of refinement inside.

Even in ‘best dressed’ form, the X-Line 4WD is still a sub-$65,000 vehicle. Sitting behind the wheel and taking in the large 12.3” instrument cluster paired alongside the 12.3” infotainment touchscreen (and designed to feel like one continuous panel), you’d be excused for thinking this car should cost a fair bit more.

Taking its lead in a variety of ways from its bigger sibling, the Sorento, the new Sportage’s cabin makes good use of gloss panels and premium-feel materials throughout. The X-Line model also dismisses the conventional gearstick in favour of a rotary dial shifter, adding further ‘wow’ but not at the expense of functionality. On that note, it’s pleasing to see Kia sticking with some analogue touchpoints, with basic heating and ventilation control knobs that are easy to alter when on the move.

The new Kia Sportage is a giant leap forward from a company which is pushing ahead at warp speed in everything it does. Genuinely stylish, genuinely aspirational, it’s remarkable to consider how much the car and the company that makes it have both evolved in the last 20 years. One wonders what the next 20 will hold.

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