Two middle-aged blokes wander up to the car, just after I’ve parked up. They know exactly what it is and the questions start to flow: what engine does it have, how does it drive, how much does it cost and so on. I unlock it to let them have a poke around. After five minutes they carry on their way, still talking about the car.
I’ve parked on the harbour front in Monaco. To one side are enormous superyachts, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. To the other, dozens of gorgeous old rally cars are crossing the finish line of the Rallye Monte Carlo Historique. Surrounded by those kinds of distractions, what sort of amazing machinery could possibly have diverted the attention of two people for so long? The latest supercar, perhaps? Or maybe some unobtainable classic? Nope, it was the new Kia Sportage.
Seems strange that something as apparently mundane as a Sportage garners such attention, but the previous version was a huge success for the Korean manufacturer and interest in the new car is high. But does it actually warrant that interest? A 900-mile drive from Nice to Reading would provide the answer.
And it gets off to a shaky start. The new Sportage certainly presents a friendlier face than the old car but, with the headlights set above the top-line of the ‘tiger nose’ grille, it does look a bit goggle-eyed. The interior is much more like it, though, with a logical dashboard layout and near-Volkswagen quality materials (and there are a lot of them).
More importantly, spending endless hours on French motorways, it proved very comfortable and spacious with supportive seats and a composed ride. Our limited-run First Edition test car comes fully-loaded with leather upholstery, heated seats and steering wheel, 8in touchscreen infotainment with European satnav, thumping stereo, reversing camera and panoramic roof. The infotainment in particular impressed; it’s not the most comprehensive system, but it’s quick-witted and easy to navigate.
The drivetrain is quick-witted, too. The 181bhp, 289lb/ft 2.0 CRDi diesel engine works perfectly with the six-speed automatic gearbox. It’s smooth, refined and punchy whatever the speed is. Turned out to be surprisingly adept at the traffic light drag race in Paris rush hour traffic, too.
And chuckable. The steering is generally accurate – if a bit gloopy – and the chassis fluid. The handling was fine-tuned on Nurburgring and you can tell. It’s not exactly fun, but excellent body control allows you to fling it into bends with more vigour than you’d expect.
For the single longest car journey I’ve ever made, I can’t think of anything this side of Range Rover I would rather have driven. There are really only three criticisms I can level at it. The automatic tailgate is painfully slow; at an indicated average of 31mpg at 80mph-ish, it’s a bit thirsty; and there’s an odd inconsistency in the steering just off the straight ahead in long turns where the steering randomly lightens then weights back up – could have been something to do with the tyres.
Kia was aiming for the top of the mid-size SUV class with the new Sportage and it’s really not far off. The quality isn’t quite as good as the Volkswagen Tiguan and it’s not as good to drive as the Mazda CX-5. But it’s got every base covered to a high standard.
Kia Sportage 2.0CRDi First Edition 4WD
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbo diesel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic; 4-wheel-drive
Power/Torque: 181bhp; 289lb/ft
Economy/Emissions: 44.8mpg; 166g/km
Top speed: 125mph
By Only Motors