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Kia Sportage 48v mild hybrid review: fodder for the head rather than the heart

Alex Robbins
Kia Sportage 2018 facelift - tested Nov 2018

If cars were root vegetables, the Kia Sportage would be a swede. For starters, it’s nourishing and good for you: prices are reasonable, the interior is practical and the technology you get with it has always been there or thereabouts. And it comes with the added benefit of Kia’s whopping seven-year warranty. All wholesome stuff.

The Sportage is a little different to the norm, too. It isn’t your common-or-garden potato or carrot, its Porsche-Cayenne-through-a-distorted-lens styling meaning it stands out from the usual pack. It’s also a slightly left-field alternative to the Ford, Vauxhall or Volkswagen Group default choices in this class. 

For all that, though, you’d never really choose to subsist on a diet of swede, would you? And in the same way, for all of its benefits, the Sportage has never really stirred the soul. Bland to drive and dull inside, the current model is one you’d choose entirely with the head, rather than with the heart. What the Sportage needs is a bit of spice, a bit of flavour – something to liven it up a little. 

Maybe this facelift will do the trick. The headline news is that the Sportage can now be had with a hybrid option, albeit a mild one with a 48-volt nudge along the way, rather than a full-blown set-up that would allow it to run solely on electric power.

That’s married to the 2.0-litre diesel engine and sits at the top of the range, while further down, a new 1.6-litre diesel replaces the old 1.7-litre. Kia also promises upgraded infotainment, more toys, and smartphone mirroring now standard across the range. 

In a world awash with identikit SUVs, at least the Sportage stands out

It’s the new hybrid we’ve got here, though, and on the face of it, it’s a clever bit of kit. The electric boost is given by a combined motor and generator, strapped to the engine’s crankshaft with a belt. It’s able, thanks to an inverter, to switch between providing extra motive power to supplement the engine’s torque when extra acceleration is needed, and generating electrical charge which can be fed back to the battery when being driven more gently.

Such technology allows the engine to be switched off before the car has come to a stop, too, and then restarted seamlessly when it’s needed. In theory, that is, because in practice the Sportage shudders heavily when it kicks into life again; what’s more, despite the additional boost provided by the electric motor, it never feels anywhere near as quick as its power output suggests, and you’ll find yourself hoofing the throttle – and thus using more fuel – far more often than you might in, say, a similarly powerful Skoda Karoq. 

Nevertheless, there are good things about the way this Sportage goes. The eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission is swift and unintrusive, kicking down without fuss when you need it. And while it makes its presence felt under hard acceleration, the diesel engine settles to a gentle background hum once it’s up to speed. 

The interior is great for space and clarity, not so good on perceived quality. The recent upgrade includes more equipment, including a fine infotainment system

There’s a fluttering of wind noise from the roof bars, however, as well as some thumping from the suspension – enough to stop the Sportage from being truly tranquil. But what’s more disappointing is the way it rides bumps. Around town or on a small back lane this GT Line S version with is 19-inch alloy wheels grows quite tiresome, fidgeting and jostling over seemingly every lump and rut. On the motorway, it’s better, but it still floats and wallows over larger crests now and again. 

If you imagine this lacklustre ride quality translates to underwhelming behaviour in corners, you’d be right. In fairness, wind it up on a fast, flowing A-road and the Sportage will bowl along decently, its steering reasonably precise, its tyres providing enough grip and its body leaning over only moderately. But it feels adequate, rather than memorable. 

And when the going gets twistier and the corners get tighter, the Sportage starts to feel less controlled, its body slopping around and the over-light steering failing to give you a real read on what’s going on at the nose. Push too hard and it will understeer gently and progressively, so it’s safe enough – just not particularly involving.

There is plenty of space in the rear seats, while a relatively low window line and large windows mean it's light and easier for small people to see out

So far, so flavourless, then. But what’s it like inside? Surely, where it matters, this small SUV has some tricks up its sleeve? Well, things don’t feel that promising when you climb aboard. The dashboard is still hewn from shiny plastics; even the leather in this top-of-the-range version feels cheap’n’cheerful. 

Again, though, the Sportage is saved from ignominy by some neat touches; the infotainment system, for example, is fast, responsive and easy to use, while the layout means you should find your way around the rest of the controls quickly and easily. 

There’s plenty of space in the front, too, and in the rear the news is even better. There’s a tonne of leg, head and elbow room, while the windows reach far back behind passengers’ heads, meaning they get a splendid view out.

The boot space is among the best in class and has plenty of thoughtful touches

And the boot, while not the largest in the class, is at least there or thereabouts, matching most of its rivals on size whether the seats are up or down. There are some clever touches here, too, such as the way the retractable load cover can be stored beneath the boot floor when it’s removed, meaning it no longer has to clutter up a corner of your under-stairs cupboard. 

Hardly the stuff of swede dreams, but the Sportage’s merits, in conjunction with that warranty, might just be enough to tip the balance in its favour for you. In which case, we’d avoid this model; the new hybrid might look whizzy on paper, but it’s neither brilliantly executed nor particularly efficient. And while top-spec GT Line S might be tempting for its profligate equipment list, it’s too expensive. 

You’re better off sticking with the 1.6-litre diesel, going for the 2 version with its smaller, 17-inch wheels, and keeping the price reasonable. Do that, and what this facelifted Sportage serves up is more of the same – a competent and sensible slice of SUV practicality, if not one that will ever set your taste buds alight. 

THE FACTS

Kia Sportage 2.0 CRDi 182 GT Line S AWD auto

TESTED 1,995cc four-cylinder diesel turbo with 48v hybrid electric boost, eight-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive

PRICE/ON SALE £35,545/now

POWER/TORQUE 182bhp @ 4,000rpm, 295lb ft @ 1,750rpm

TOP SPEED 125mph

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 9.2sec

FUEL ECONOMY 48.7mpg/44.8mpg (EU Combined/Urban) 

CO2 EMISSIONS 152g/km

VED £515 first year, then £140 per year

VERDICT With the exception of the two new engine options, little has changed as far as the Sportage is concerned – it’s still sensible, practical and well-equipped, but there’s little here to make you smile. 

TELEGRAPH RATING Three stars out of five

THE RIVALS

Skoda Karoq, from £20,880

Probably the best of these family-sized SUVs out there at the moment, with tumbling, sliding and folding seats that make it terrifically practical. It also happens to be great to drive, too, with tight handling and a comfortable – if not mirror-smooth – ride. 

Peugeot 3008, from £22,870

The 3008 comes close to recapturing the chassis genius of Peugeots of old, with a winning combination of soft ride and flowing handling. It’s beautiful inside, too, though naff infotainment and so-so rear seat space are flies in the ointment.

Nissan Qashqai, from £19,300

Once the king of small SUVs, the Qashqai has been surpassed in recent times by newer rivals, but remains competent, comfortable and good to drive. Niggling questions about reliability remain, though.

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