Packing pleasant surprises, Kia’s SUV is on par with the best mid-sizers

In last week’s Carsguide story on new car quality and reliability, we revealed that the pecking order is based largely on country of origin.

The best Japanese makers have had a laser-like focus on quality and reliability since they began exporting in the 1960s. Brands such as Lexus, Toyota and Honda continue to top the quality and reliability charts in surveys of owners.

South Korea’s major manufacturers, though, are closing in. Since the 1980s Hyundai and its subsidiary Kia have modelled their engineering and production on proven, tightly regulated Japanese systems, because the cars these deliver are consistently tight, reliable and durable.

The new Kia Sportage is a prime example. Even in the base Si, it’s apparent even before you turn the key that it’s equal in quality to the best mid-size SUVs from Japan: Mazda’s CX5 and the Subaru Forester.

Kia also has the longest warranty in the business: seven years/unlimited kilometres. That’s called backing your product.

Most European manufacturers would go broke inside a week if they had to honour such a warranty. Three years’ coverage is average for a Euro brand — and when it’s over and you’re on your own, you ought to be very afraid.

Design

Sportage Si, priced at $28,990, is a twin under the skin with the Hyundai Tucson Active.

Several years ago Kia headhunted some of Germany’s finest design (and engineering) talent, notably from Audi, with a simple brief: “Make our cars look like yours.”

The Kia’s cabin is almost an Audi clone...

So the Sportage has chunky Euro-style sheetmetal, a wheel at each corner stance and a bold, aggressive front end.

The Kia’s cabin is almost an Audi clone, albeit circa 2006 and done down to a price. The Vorsprung durch Technik cues are obvious: dark, monochrome decor, sprinkles of fake alloy, formal and efficient control layout, minimal bling and soft-touch, textured plastics.

We are talking here about a $29K base model and in this context the Kia’s fit, finish and materials quality are excellent. It feels more premium than its price and was totally free of squeaks, chirps and rattles over 1000km of testing.

About town

More spacious than a hatchback, the Sportage is just as easy to drive and still sufficiently compact to cut it in guerilla city traffic.

The dash is a brutal, inelegant lump with a low-rent monotone touchscreen that’s a bit of a reach. You often need to stab an icon a few times to get a result, too.

Three friendly adults can fit across the rear seat, with plenty of headroom and legroom; vents, 12V outlet, USB port and a modicum of storage also make it a workable kid zone. High window sills may impede the view for young children.

Its large boot can easily expand to 1.7 metres of floor length without compromising front seat travel.

Performance numbers for the Si are feeble on paper but the long-stroke 2.0-litre base engine is surprisingly smooth, quiet and tractable around town — more so than rivals with 2.0-litre atmo base engines, including Mazda’s CX-5.

Its cause is helped by the efficiently geared standard six-speed automatic, which has Eco, Normal and Sport modes.

Eco is fine around town, where you can go close to single-figure thirst with a gentle right foot.

Kia’s local suspension tuner can at times sacrifice too much ride comfort for faux sporty dynamics, as in the Optima sedan. Here, with tall SUV rubber on 17-inch alloys, the ride, though still firm, is acceptably compliant and comfortable.

On the road

The 114kW 2.0-litre should struggle with 1.6 tonnes of SUV but instead delivers impressively easy and refined highway hauling.

On hills, the six-speed gets busy but shifts are smooth and well-timed. Cruise control allows too much set speed variation.

However, considerable engineering integrity shows through at speed...

Expect 6.0L-7.0L/100km on the open road.

The Sportage Si is a basic, front-wheel drive SUV, so sporty it ain’t. However, considerable engineering integrity shows through at speed, notably in its tight, rigid body, finely tuned suspension, secure roadholding on our goat tracks and a flat, relatively neutral attitude in corners.

Steering is light, precise and consistently weighted, with Sport mode adding synthetic heft. Brakes are OK and Hankook tyres have reasonable grip.

If you want to go off road, there are hill descent control and a full-size spare. Given clearance of just 172mm, this is the wrong SUV for an adventure.