YEARS ago, to choose a Kia over a Volkswagen would have been like choosing to do your weekly shop in Aldi rather than Marks and Spencer.
But the brand that once stood for ‘back-to-basics budget motoring’ suddenly came over all European. Its cars now are, dare I say it, good enough to take on the likes of Volkswagen and co.
It’s not just European build-quality that makes Kias stand out, either. They look pretty sharp these days, and come well equipped with modern gadgets that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mercedes or BMW. And then there’s that legendary seven-year warranty.
In fact Kia’s story in the UK is something not a million miles away from a ‘rags to riches’ tale in which it worked its way up from a budget brand with a few forgettable small cars to becoming a genuinely good manufacturer with cars that are well worth a second look in almost every sector.
One of the strongest examples of this can be found in the Sportage, it’s extremely popular small SUV, or ‘Crossover’.
As its name suggests, this is no bland load-lugger or agricultural tool for ploughing the fields. As its looks suggest, It’s a sporty SUV that’s available in basic trim from £17,500 and that’s one of the reasons you’ll see so many of them about on the roads today.
Get a bit enthusiastic ticking boxes on the order sheet and you can soon be staring down the barrel of a £30,000 Kia - and that’s knocking on the door of Range Rover Evoque money, one of the best sporty SUVs on the market, but - and here’s a bold claim - it’s nearly as good as an Evoque.
This is especially the case when you put it into context a bit. Look at a £17,500 base Sportage. It looks almost exactly the same as a top-spec Sportage - and it’s still every bit as attractive as an Evoque.
The base model Sportage, the ‘Sportage 1’, isn’t short on trimmings. There’s LED Daytime Running Lights, air conditioning, cruise control and a Bluetooth infotainment system with iPod connectivity, as well as rain-sensing wipers.
You’ll also get its nicely-designed interior, which has reasonable space and is very comfortable, its fine visibility and its car-like handling which belies its high-up SUV stance. All this for half the price of a decent Evoque.
To drive, the Sportage is as sporty as they come for a small SUV.
There’s plenty of grip, and body roll is kept down nicely and there’s a range of strong engines from a cheap and cheerful 1.6 petrol up to a solid, if slightly unrefined 180bhp diesel.
The ride is firm but not harsh - even with big alloy wheels fitted and one of its finest features is its steering, which is precise and responds quickly to even small inputs through the small but comfortable steering wheel which, incidentally, is made of leather on all models.
While cabin space up front is generous, the rear seats are far from cavernous - but five normal-sized people will fit comfortably enough for most journeys and rear electric windows are fitted as standard.
Its boot isn’t its best feature. A full-size spare fitted under the boot floor makes for a shallow load bay and it’s not exceptionally long either, but it will swallow up plenty for a small family and, of course, the seats fold down to give a little more room.
To be fair, the Sportage’s main rivals are the Nissan Quashquai and the Skoda Yeti - both of which it out-classes in terms of load space, as it does in many other fields including driver appeal and looks.
My test model came fitted with the two litre 134bhp diesel which was mated to a six-speed automatic gear box.
While the gear box is a particularly good unit the engine felt over-worked in the Sportage and made a lot of noise.
If you can, plump instead for the same engine but with a far healthier 181bhp. A manual box would have made the lesser of the two powerplants feel much more capable but, to be fair, even with an auto ‘box making its decisions, it is reckoned to be good for a shade over 40mpg on the combined cycle - which is pretty good for a four-wheel drive car.
To really chase impressive fuel economy figures, you need to look at the more middle-of-the-road, two-wheel-drive 1.7 litre diesel which, Kia says, can achieve more than 50mpg and, with the smaller set of wheels chosen, will put out just 135g/km - a figure most SUV fans will find appealing.
Especially in the thirstier and more expensive four-wheel-drive versions there are a few gadgets for those who like to roam around in the mud, including hill descent control and a differential lock.
I’ve not driven a Sportage off road and I can’t imagine it’d outclass anything from the Land Rover stable but the recipe’s there and, at the very least, you should be confident of a sure-footed car in the snow or if you suddenly find yourself in a muddy field.
It should stand up well to mild abuse, too. At least that’s the feeling you get from the Sportage, which smacks of decent build quality. There are a few bits of cheap trim if you really hunt for them but, on the whole, it’s very solid.
As with any car, the more you spend on a Sportage, the better it will be. But as is becoming increasingly true of the Kia range, the high-spec models are becoming an increasingly tempting prospect for anyone who can look past its former budget brand image.
That, said, the tempting entry price of the lowlier models, coupled with the generous standard kit makes the Sportage an appealing prospect for most people, especially SUV buyers on a budget.