In the early days, some car companies didn’t have auto-making in their mission statement.
Sweden’s Saab was originally an aircraft maker. Of the 16 engineers tasked with designing its first automobile, only one possessed a driver’s licence. France’s Peugeot made coffee grinders to start, then expanded into bicycles. Mazda was a purveyor of cork products before it got into machine tools.
Toyota made weaving looms that served Japan’s silk industry, then sold its automatic loom technology and spent the proceeds developing a gasoline engine in 1934. Germany’s Opel made sewing machines. South Korea’s Kia Motors started out as a steel tube and bicycle parts manufacturer in 1944, eventually churning out entire bicycles. As its expertise grew, it assembled Honda-licensed motorcycles and Mazda-licensed small trucks.
The first Kia to come to our shores was the 1988 Ford Festiva, a tiny Mazda hatchback Kia made under contract for Ford. The rough-around-the-edges Sportage 4×4 was the nascent automaker’s first offering when Kia Canada’s showrooms opened in 1999.
Now comes word Kia is dropping “Motors” from its name to signify its pledge to focus on electric vehicles and new mobility technologies. Who knows? The company may come full circle and start making bicycles again.
Sportage comes of age
Released for 2017, the fourth-generation Sportage was welcomed by consumers looking for a deal on a pretty compact crossover SUV, the styling furnished by Kia’s German studios. A few wags couldn’t resist pointing out its resemblance to the late, unlamented Subaru Tribeca.
Under the sheetmetal a multilink independent rear suspension graces all models, while a stiffer unibody (torsional rigidity up by 39 per cent) makes for a better foundation. Despite greater use of high-strength steel, which reduced mass by 25 kg, the Sportage remains on the porky side.
The wheelbase was stretched by three centimetres, while overall length grew by four cm – incremental changes that yielded a little more room inside, particularly in the back seats and the cargo hold, which expanded by five cubic feet to 31 (though it’s hardly class-leading). Incidentally, it shares its platform with its corporate mate, Hyundai’s Tucson.
The spiffy interior augments the perception that the Sportage looks pricier than it actually is, with soft-touch plastics throughout and plenty of secondary buttons (perhaps too many) to duplicate the functions of the touchscreen. The dashboard has an upmarket look that includes a centre stack that is canted towards the driver, lending the cockpit a sportier feel.
“Stylish interior and easy controls with many options. The seats are so comfortable, the ride is quiet, bigger interior room, including the back seat,” listed one impressed owner online.
In LX and EX trim, the Sportage is propelled by a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine that produces 181 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. The SX uses a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder that puts out 237 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque.
Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission – mercifully, a conventional automatic and not a CVT that’s increasingly common in the segment. Front-wheel drive is standard; optional is Magna’s Dynamax all-wheel-drive system, whose electronic locking differential proactively transfers torque to the tire or tires that can use it best.
The Sportage earned a five-star safety rating from the U.S.-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and was named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 2017. A mid-cycle refresh in 2020 saw some front and rear styling tweaks, new safety features, including adaptive cruise control, and an 8-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto made standard.
On the road, the Kia’s base 2.4-litre four-cylinder – which is largely a carryover from the previous model – isn’t the most refined engine with its somewhat agrarian noises and buzziness at higher revs. The all-aluminum engine manages to motivate the Sportage from zero to highway speed in 8.6 seconds, which is hardly breathtaking in this crossover segment. Alternatively, the turbocharged SX can do it in an acceptable 7.4 seconds.
The Sportage’s European schooling reveals itself in the ride and handling department. Body motions are well controlled and the electric steering is accurate, giving the crossover some deft responses. The ride is firm but not stiff – unlike the pre-2017 models – providing good comfort without any nautical sensations. A Sportage EX circled the skidpad at 0.83 g, which is better than a Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5 could muster.
Where the crossover’s performance disappoints is at the gas pumps, according to owners. Both engines can barely do better than 10 litres per 100 km in terms of fuel efficiency in mixed driving, with the 2.0-L turbo easily growing thirstier when the hammer comes down. Compared to its top rivals in the compact category, the Sportage is a relative gasoholic.
Owners talk reliability
The Sportage cleaved a win in the crossover wars with its unique styling, spacious cabin, hushed ride, composed handling and considerable value for the money. Lots of buyers can attest to Kia’s power to surprise, based on the positive reactions of friends and neighbours who climbed into a Sportage for the first time.
In terms of negatives, there are a few. Cargo space is markedly smaller than that of its chief compact competitors, fuel economy is disappointing and performance is also lacklustre. Blame the crossover’s porcine heft, at least in part, for the latter two deficiencies. Then there’s the mechanical issues that continue to dog the Korea-made Sportage, mostly engine failures that extend all the way back to 2011 models.
“My car needed a new engine at 43,000 km. Engine was shaking/vibrating severely and would not accelerate without putting the gas pedal to the floor. Kia was able to provide and install a new engine in less than two weeks, but not sure that will restore my confidence in the brand,” wrote one 2017 Sportage owner in a post.
This and other unfortunate owners have noted that the Sportage is prone to engine failure that may involve a sudden loss of power with an inability to restart, as well as vehicle fires. A U.S. class action lawsuit involving Kia and Hyundai models – including 2011 to 2018 and certain 2019 Sportages – equipped with Theta II 2.0-litre or 2.4-litre gasoline direct injection (GDI) engines are at risk of engine fires because of defects that block the flow of oil inside the engines.
To be fair, the ongoing engine issues are not rampant in the fourth-gen models, and Kia Canada is addressing them with a product improvement campaign. The recall includes a knock-sensor software update intended to prevent engine damage from the connecting rod bearings. Owners should keep an eye on the engine oil level as consumption can be a telltale sign of trouble ahead.
Beyond the engine, owners have reported sticky door handles and latches that refuse to open at times, presenting a safety concern. A few have also noted that power-window regulators can break and have to be replaced, and a small number of air conditioners failed prematurely.
All in all, the 2017-2020 Kia Sportage represents a fetching alternative to the usual offerings in the compact crossover SUV category, especially given its value proposition, but nagging concerns about engine durability might give used-vehicle shoppers pause. If you intend to keep your car for the long haul, you may be wise to shop elsewhere.