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The Kia instantly feels a higher grade of car. The sweeping dash’s design looks and feels more premium, the multimedia unit’s graphics are sharper and more sophisticated, and there’s a strong sense that the Kia is better equipped.
It is. Two 12-volt outlets straddle a USB slot and auxiliary port up front, a sat-nav map lights up on the screen, while dual-zone climate control dials grace the lower dash. You push a button to start the engine rather than insert and turn a key, the driver’s seat adjusts electrically (for superior comfort), and there’s a bunch of other surprise-and-delight additions that justify the Sportage SLi’s $1000 price premium.
But it’s the rear seat that expands the Hyundai/Kia divide. Backswept, elf-eared rear doors that offer the best access on test open up to a rear bench that appears to have been made with passengers front of mind, and not cobbled in as a begrudging afterthought. Okay, so the second-row seatbacks lack a bit of lateral support, but forward vision via a low-ish beltline and a long glasshouse that appears to wrap around the Sportage is excellent, second only to the Subaru for its sense of light-filled airiness.
Unfortunately, the Sportage is a half-step behind the Hyundai when it comes to what’s under the bonnet. Australia’s Korean-sourced Sportage continues with a 114kW/192Nm multi-point injection version of the long-serving ‘Nu’ 2.0-litre engine, whereas the MY17 Tucson gets direct-injection and 121kW/203Nm.
In reality, the difference is mostly down to refinement. Over the last thousand revs to the 6500rpm redline, the Sportage’s older engine is much more intrusive, making it less pleasant to punch hard. Yet when you do, the Sportage offers near-identical performance to the Tucson, not to mention the 2.0-litre CX-5. But neither of the Korean drivetrains can match the Mazda’s sweetly encouraging proficiency.
Where the GDI outshines the MPI donk is in fuel economy. The Sportage’s on-test consumption of 11.2L/100km was half a litre thirstier than Tucson’s. There’s something else that counts against the Kia. Higher levels of road and wind noise compared with almost all the other SUVs here tarnish the Sportage’s overall polish – think tyre roar and wind rush rising to about the same level as the previous-gen Mazda CX-5 – and its otherwise well-rounded ability.
That’s a shame because the taut Sportage’s dynamics reward keen drivers, and are a credit to Kia Australia’s dedicated local tuning program.
The Sportage’s steering has slightly crisper feedback than the Tucson’s, even with the Drive mode left in Normal rather than the throttle-jumpy Sport or anaesthetised Eco modes. But it’s nowhere near as good as the Escape’s crisp precision.
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With four bodies on board, or even one-up on our winding dynamic loop, the Kia enjoys stringing corners together, and feels more playful than its Hyundai equivalent. Pitch it into a corner and it clearly favours its rear end, as opposed to the more neutral Hyundai. Unfortunately, that encouraging playfulness can ignite the Kia’s Korean-tuned ESC, killing the fun faster than a coldsore on date night.
But we really like how the Kia Sportage exudes a youthful, fun-to-drive, almost European ethos. Useful, comfortable, well-appointed and individually styled, it doesn’t even need Kia’s unbeatable seven-year warranty to argue a strong case. While its Hyundai cousin toes a conservative line, the Kia doesn’t mind being different. If only that included its engine.
Model: 2018 Kia Sportage SLi
Engine: 1999cc 4cyl, sohc, 16v
Max Power: 114kW @ 6200rpm
Max Torque: 192Nm @ 4000rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 11.2L/100km (tested)
On sale: Now
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