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Kia Sportage celebrates three decades of success

By Maxine Ashford | November 17, 2023

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It was way back in 1991 when the first Kia graced UK shores – it was called the Pride which, unbeknown to the Korean carmaker and to us in the industry, was a very apt title for what was to follow.

Kia Sportage celebrates three decades of success

It was way back in 1991 when the first Kia graced UK shores – it was called the Pride which, unbeknown to the Korean carmaker and to us in the industry, was a very apt title for what was to follow.

Fast forward 32 years and the company has gone from an affordable budget brand that covered the basics very well to a manufacturer that develops cars that regularly compete in the premium sector these days, and often come out victorious.

One of the mainstay models is the Kia Sportage, which is now in its fifth generation and, this year, celebrates its thirtieth year in production. It launched globally in 1993 and then made its debut here in the UK two years later in 1995.

And what better way to mark such a momentous occasion than to revisit the five-door SUV-styled models through the generations. 

Starting off with the 1st Generation car, codenamed NB-7, which sold from 1995 to 2003 and secured 10,897 sales.

The first car was revealed in Seoul in 1993 and arrived at Kia dealers in the UK from 1995. All versions were powered by a 2.0-litre petrol engine and it was launched in trim grades called SLX, GLX, and GLX SE with prices starting from £12,840.

Over the next few years there were trim upgrades and then in 2000, the first automatic variants arrived.

Finally, in February 2002, a special edition 2.0-litre XSE model launched with the choice of manual or automatic transmission. And it was that car that we tested with its five-speed manual gearbox.

The first thing you notice when you get behind the wheel of this 21-year-old model is how superb the all-round visibility is. The side windows and windscreen are huge, the pillars really narrow and the dash quite low in its position. Simplistic yes, but it makes you realise you didn’t need all those safety warning mechanisms back then because the driver-visibility was so good.

And there were far less distractions too with fewer bells and whistles compared to modern-day cars. The steering is light, but the five-speed manual gearbox is fine and it even offers 2H, 4H, N and 4L off-road settings.

It does seem a little fidgety on our bumpy, pitted roads, but certainly still puts in a good performance.

Next up was the Sportage 2nd Generation, codenamed JE/KM which sold 23,371 units from 2005 to 2010. The car, costing from £13,995, was revealed at the Paris Motor Show in 2004 and went on sale in the UK the following year in XE or XS grades and paired to either a 2.0-litre or 2.7-litre V6 petrol engine.

The earliest models were built in South Korea, but in 2007 production switched to Kia’s Zilina plant in Slovakia and that’s where today’s cars are still being built.

In 2005, a 2.0-litre CRDi diesel-powered Sportage joined the ranks with manual or auto transmission and then a year later in 2006, a more powerful 138bhp 2.0-litre diesel unit was introduced in XE and XS specification.

And we tested that XE 2.0 CRDi model with AWD, launched in 2006.

Suddenly we have lots more technology to play with and the compromise is smaller windows and a larger dashboard to accommodate all these extra features. The result is poorer driver vision, but you do get more kit.

The ride is more refined with a well-timed six-speed manual gearbox, comfier seats and a 4WD Lock button.

There were still a few more engine and trim upgrades over the years before Generation 2 Sportage sales came to a close.

The 3rd Generation car, priced from £16,645, was sold from 2010 to 2016. It was codenamed SL and there were 95,626 models sold. It was the version that catapulted Sportage to the big time with buyers drawn to its sleek Peter Schreyer-designed good looks, including the tiger-nose grille, along with the introduction of Kia’s outstanding seven-year warranty package.

The vehicle was longer, lower, wider, lighter and more aerodynamically designed compared to any previous versions. It also offered far superior fuel efficiency along with lower carbon emissions. Initially on sale with a choice of 2.0-litre petrol or diesel powertrains, a 1.6-litre GDi and 1.7-litre CRDi joined the range shortly afterwards.

The car was offered in grades called 1, 2, 3, KX-2 and KX-3 and we tested the Sportage KX-3, launched in 2010, powered by a 2.0-litre petrol engine with all-wheel drive.

The first thing to notice on the Sportage Gen-3 model is that the indicator and wiper stalks have swapped sides on the steering wheel … at last! You now get the indicator stalk on the left and the wiper on the right which is far more conventional.

In addition, the refinement levels have taken a huge leap forward with heated seats, Bluetooth, a CD player (remember those), extra steering wheel controls and a sunroof.

The five-speed manual gearbox is sharper and there is a 4WD Lock button for tougher terrain.

In 2012, a KX-4 range-topper was added to the mix powered by a 182bhp 2.0-litre CRDi engine and a 2014 facelift saw revisions to the front and rear of the vehicle. The last change for Gen 3 was the arrival of a special Axis Edition model.

From 2016 to 2022, the 4th Generation model, codenamed QL, sold 197,547 units. The company was breaking sales records month after month as buyers clambered to get their hands on the vehicles. This generation Sportage brought more advances in fuel efficiency, comfort, connectivity, convenience and safety with prices starting from £17,995.

With design being a main focus for buyers, the introduction of GT-Line variants upped the ante even further with sportier derivatives benefitting from a more premium interior.

Three engines and two transmissions were offered on the earliest 4th Generation cars and we saw the arrival of a seven-speed automatic gearbox for the first time. Over the years the choices of engines grew as did the number of trims available with customers offered a list of 1, 2, 3, 4, KX-1, KX-2, KX-3, KX-4, GT-Line as well as a First Edition grade.

We opted for the 2016 Sportage GT-Line 1.6-litre petrol front-wheel drive car.

Well, it’s all getting very modern all of a sudden. The upholstery has a premium feel to it and we are introduced to touchscreen technology with sat nav. Phone calls can be made or received, there are heated seats, a chunky six-speed gear knob, flat-bottomed steering wheel and the doors are unlocked by pressing a button on a key fob – imagine that.

In addition, there’s lots of safety kit added to the mix with a reversing camera, speed limit warning, lane keep assist, a gear shift prompter, hill descent control and a 4WD lock.

During its life-span the 4th Generation Sportage certainly moved with the times and the later upgrades saw the arrival of updated multimedia systems with 3D mapping, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity and lots of modern-day tech we still see today.

More trim, engine and transmission changes, along with the introduction of 48-volt mild hybrid technology were added to this vehicle before sales finally came to a close in December 2020, but not before a stylish Sportage JBL Black Edition was launched.

Finally, the 5th and current generation Sportage, which has been on sale since 2022 under the codename NQ5. With prices from £26,745, to date it has sold 57,337 units.

The 5th Generation Sportage was redesigned from the ground up and was offered for the first time with full hybrid technology to further boost lower carbon emissions and increased fuel efficiency.

Six trim levels and eight different powertrains were available and it’s the model that would see plug-in hybrid technology added to the line-up.

Customers could choose from trim levels called 2, GT-Line, 3 and GT-Line S and it was the range-topping GT-Line S, launched in 2022, that we tested powered by a 1.6-litre T-GDi petrol HEV with front-wheel drive.

So, to modern-day Kia Sportage then. How it has transformed over the decades and our high-end GT-Line S model had all the tech imaginable. The first feature you will notice is the two beautifully-styled infotainment screens behind a single curved panel. It looks very Mercedes-like to be honest.

This car was an automatic with perfectly-timed gear shifts and paddles for added driver engagement. There are Eco and Sport driving modes, a panoramic sunroof, wireless charging pad, heated and ventilated seats that are power-adjustable, a heated steering wheel, touch control air con settings and lots, lots more.

When you indicate to turn left or right, the driver information display shows a real-time camera view of what's ahead of you and, despite beeping lots more than earlier versions, this latest Sportage is premium quality through and through.

It will come as little surprise to learn the Sportage is Kia’s best-selling car in the UK, Europe and globally and to date has sold 384,778 models in the UK and seven million worldwide. But with each generation introducing new technology and adding that little bit extra to the mix, we can’t wait to see what happens next.

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