Kia is poised to take advantage of a big surge in popularity of urban- friendly crossover vehicles - and it will do it with a brand-new Sportage. Rob Maetzig heads to Queenstown for a pre-launch play with the vehicle.
Now I'm not going to suggest that the good people from Kia Motors New Zealand were grinning like the proverbial cheshire cat last week, but they certainly had a knowing look about them.
A couple of important statistics were behind it all. The first is that sales of medium-sized SUVs - the so-called C-segment size - now account for some 47 per cent of all SUV sales in this country, and they are growing.
And the second vital statistic is that within that C-segment, sales of petrol-powered two-wheel- drive vehicles have enjoyed a remarkable 296 per cent growth in the past year.
That's significant, because it underlines the fact that these days there is a strong consumer trend towards SUV product that is compact rather than large, still with the higher-riding stance that many enjoy about SUVs, but eschewing the traditional SUV four-wheel drive in favour of the less expensive and more economical front-wheel drive.
This has meant the likes of Nissan Qashqai and 2WD versions of the Mazda CX-7, Hyundai ix35 and Mitsubishi Outlander have been the big winners this year.
And now Kia New Zealand is poised to enter the fray with not one but two 2WD versions of a brand-new third-generation Sportage.
The vehicle is being launched here in October - the company is delaying the big event until after New Zealand GST rises to 15 per cent, so there doesn't have to be a price rise immediately after launch. The fleet will initially comprise 2.0-litre 'Urban' 2WD models at LX and EX levels of specification, and 2.4-litre AWD EX and Limited models to cater for those in the market requiring four-wheel drive. Then early next year 2.0-litre turbo diesel AWD versions will also join the fleet.
The Kia NZ people are still negotiating prices with Kia in South Korea, so nothing has been settled yet. But, at a media conference in Queenstown last week, general manager Todd McDonald said the LX Urban will be priced between $32,990 and $34,990, and the EX Urban between $36,990 and $38,990.
If this is the case, the prices for these vehicles will be very sharp when compared to other 2WD product.
For example, the CX-7 retails for $38,995, the Qashqai for $35,900 for the base ST model and $39,900 for a Ti, the Outlander LSA costs $37,990, and even the Sportage's 2WD sibling the Hyundai ix35 retails for $39,990.
Little wonder then that the Kia NZ people are obviously really looking forward to the October 1 launch date.
"We expect the 2WD models to dominate - that's why we're introducing two of them," said Todd McDonald at last week's conference.
"We expect they will play a major role in total Sportage sales, which we expect to be around 450 in the first year, increasing going forward."
Meanwhile, the indicative pricing for the AWD models is $41,990 to $43,990 for the EX, and $45,990 to $47,990 for the Limited. No pricing has yet been indicated for the diesel models.
Perhaps the most distinctive difference between this new Kia Sportage and the model it replaces is its bodyshell, which looks so good it instantly consigns the current model into the has-been bin.
Whereas the second-generation model that we've known for the past six years is quite squarish and conservative in design, this new model almost looks like a concept car - which in fact it once was. Styling is closely related to the swoopy Kue concept that was displayed at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show and promptly won the prestigious Eyes On Design award at that event.
The production model obviously isn't as out-there as the Kue, but it still offers a rakish look thanks to its combination of a high beltline and low roof profile. This all sits well on the vehicle's wheels to give excellent road presence.
Overall, the new Sportage is 90mm longer and 15mm wider than the current model, but the dynamic new look means the roofline is 60mm lower. The new model's wheelbase is also slightly longer than before.
As a result, the front and rear headroom is also 25mm and 23mm less, but the legroom is up. I suppose it could be said the Sportage is now more of a wagon than an SUV - and indeed the hip points of both front and rear seats are now more than 30mm lower than before, largely because the ground clearance is 23mm less, at a rather un-SUV- like 172mm.
Also un-SUV-like is the new model's average weight, which has been reduced by more than 90kg in the interests of a more refined ride and drive, and for improved fuel economy.
All the petrol models are powered by Kia-Hyundai Group's revised Theta engines which replace the Beta units and have upgraded electronics and new low-friction components for improved performance. These engines also have dual continuously variable valve timing.
The 2.0-litre engine in the 2WD models offer 122 kilowatts of power and 197 Newton metres of torque, which is considerably more than the 104 kW/184 Nm available with the Beta unit aboard the current Sportage. Meanwhile, the 2.4-litre engine, which is new to Sportage, produces 130 kW of power and 227 Nm of torque.
All models boast six-speed automatic transmissions, which are a major improvement on the four-speed auto aboard the current Sportage. The model will also be available with a five- speed manual, but this will be to special order.
And anyway, after having driven a 2.4-litre Sportage in and around Queenstown, including a spurt up the side of the Pisa range to the big vehicle winter testing facility overlooking Cardrona, I can't see the point of going the manual way - this six- speed auto is very good.
At last week's media conference, Kia went to considerable lengths to point out that the Sportage's AWD system, called Dynamax, is exclusive to this model and therefore not aboard the Hyundai ix35 - at this stage.
Developed in conjunction with well-known US company Magna Powertrain, Dynamax is a continuous and fully active four- wheel-drive coupling system that operates incredibly quickly, to the extent it is able to distribute torque around the four wheels in a little as 150 milliseconds.
For that reason, the Kia people are claiming the system has the ability to "think forward". While that's not entirely true - no AWD system will ever be able to predict what's going to happen - it is true that Dynamax is very fast. It's also very flexible, able to deliver up to 100 per cent of engine torque to the front wheels when the Sportage is being driven in normal conditions, to a 50:50 torque split.
The driver can also manually select Lock mode for permanent all-wheel drive in really rough conditions up to 40 kmh.
I was also impressed with the Sportage's ride. Quite a bit of suspension development work was undertaken in Australia in an effort to make this vehicle more suited to road conditions in this part of the world, and the result is a ride and steering package that feels very firm and secure.
Immediate impression of the new Sportage is that it is comfortable and well specified for the potential price. Interior trim on the LX is dark woven cloth, a more luxurious Tricot cloth on the EX models and full leather on the Limited. Lesser models have manual air conditioning while the Limited gets the full climate-control version, and while the LX and EX models get six-speaker stereo, the Limited gets seven speakers.
All models get cruise control and audio controls on the steering wheel, and other items on most of the models include 'welcome home' escort lights for getting out of the vehicle at night, LED daytime running lights, reverse warning sensors, and a reversing camera that shows what's behind the driver via the rear-view mirror.
Overall this new Kia Sportage is an impressive new vehicle that looks set to make an impact in the medium-sized SUV sector. It offers a dynamic and urban look, while still retaining a certain amount of offroad ability via the AWD versions.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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