Kia Sportage 2004 review

Believe it or not, Kia is the fastest growing car company in Britain - but bosses have no time to celebrate.

The latest Sportage is a competent car in every respect, but that's half its problem. Although it's perfectly adequate, it doesn't excel in any particular area, nor does it bring anything new or exciting to the market. But if the firm prices it right, the Kia is likely to attract buyers.

Believe it or not, Kia is the fastest growing car company in Britain - but bosses have no time to celebrate. They're too busy hoping to cash in on the compact SUV market with an all-new Sportage, which goes on sale in the New Year.

The four-wheel-drive challenger plugs a gap in the range that has been evident since the last-generation Sportage was dropped in 2001.

The newcomer is based on the same platform as sister firm Hyundai's latest Tucson. It uses the same engine range, too, but unlike the latter it comes with permanent four-wheel drive and locking differentials, which give it more off-road ability.

Yet visually, the Sportage is quite different - the styling is more in keeping with the Kia family look, with pronounced wheelarches similar to those of the bigger Sorento and a more chiselled appearance to its nose. The drooping tailgate and curved window surround aren't as elegant as some of its SUV rivals. Nor is it very special inside. The cabin is comfortable, but the plastics are poor quality and the fake wood on our car was plain shocking.

And that's a shame, because the Sportage is a fairly decent car to drive. The ride is exceptional for a short-wheelbase SUV and the light steering and automatic transmission make for effortless progress. There's also acres of space inside with plenty of room for four adults - and their luggage.

The 2.0-litre common-rail diesel isn't the most powerful or refined unit on the market, but it's smooth enough and delivers reasonable acceleration. The unit does the job of keeping up with city traffic or motorway cruising, although it's noisier than we'd like.

It's a similar story on twisty tarmac - the Sportage is safe and has plenty of grip, but leans heavily in corners. That said, our car was a Korean-spec model, and we expect the UK versions to deliver a slightly firmer ride.

When the Sportage arrives here, Kia will have to maintain its reputation for offering good value for money. If, as we expect, it undercuts its main rivals and is well equipped, then it's sure to sell well. But if not, then there are superior small SUVs on the market, and without its value-for-money card, then the Sportage is no better than average.

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