Classic car reviews

Driven: The Kia Sportage is the ultimate unexceptional SUV

by Antony Ingram
12 June 2023 4 min read
Driven: The Kia Sportage is the ultimate unexceptional SUV
Photos: Antony Ingram

With concours entries for the Festival of the Unexceptional aimed at vehicles over 25 years old, the newest cars you’ll see competing for the win at this year’s FOTU will hail from 1998.

That might feel quite recent to some of us, but just think of how different the motoring landscape was back then. Hatchbacks, saloons and estates still dominated the roads. The Ford Mondeo still outsold the BMW 3-series. In fact, the Mondeo still existed. The roads were awash with coupés and roadsters. And the road-biased SUV was still something of a niche curiosity.

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In 1998 BMW’s X5 was still a year away and the Mercedes M-Class had only hit the premium segment a year before to take on the Range Rover. And lower down the market, just a handful of brands offered smaller, car-like SUVs: Toyota had offered the RAV4 since 1994, Honda and Land Rover the CR-V and Freelander since 1997, and a new, softer, second-generation Suzuki Vitara had just gone on sale.

And of course, there was the Kia Sportage, though few people paid this Korean soft-roader much attention, despite it arriving on the market in 1995, only a year after Toyota effectively invented the segment. It was also, as we’ve previously written, only the third Kia to go on sale in the UK, after the Mazda-based Pride, and the brand’s Escort rival, the Mentor.

Kia Sportage

By today’s standards it looks something like a traditional SUV, just smaller, but in the Nineties this was definitely one of the more relaxed, less rufty-tufty breed of 4x4s. It was smaller, sat a touch lower, what might have been imposing corners were rounded off, and while the first generation was a body-on-frame vehicle, it was very much set up for road driving rather than rock-crawling and wading.

Kia’s second-generation Sportage launched in 2004 carried a little more momentum in the market, perhaps buoyed not just by the segment itself increasing in size in the new millennium but also by Kia’s own rapid ascent, each generation of cars it produced comprehensively improved upon the last.

That ascent has left earlier models in something of a limbo state, with customers clamouring for the latest versions for all their improvements, but Kia’s older lack of image not attracting the same fondness as otherwise unremarkable models from the likes of Ford or Vauxhall.

That’s why it’s heartening that Kia UK has been quietly building a small collection of its older models, from the likes of an original Pride and a first-gen Rio, to each generation of the now strong-selling and very definitely mainstream Sportage – among them this late first-generation car from 2003.

It wouldn’t be unfair to Kia to say it looks like a car of more than 20 years old. Not in terms of condition; it’s as original and untouched as you’re likely to find despite a reasonable 69,000 miles. It’s more that the 1990s styling has less charm than the Toyota RAV4 that beat it to market, a sign that Kia was very much finding its feet at this stage, attempting to make decent cars for an acceptable price, rather than attempting to wow its potential audience with features and panache.

So Kia’s heritage fleet car is simple, and relatively unadorned. The two-tone silver and grey paintwork is understated, the chunky five-spoke alloys appropriately sized, and the chrome embellishments around the side windows are the only notable flash of the stuff on the entire car – even the front grille remains a simple plastic moulding.

There’s actually more visual interest at the rear, with a tailgate spoiler and a surprisingly striking carrier for the spare wheel (mounted on chunky hinges which allow – and are a necessity – for it to swing out the way to open the tailgate). But inside it’s as grey as can be. Different shades of it, though that could be down to how different plastics have reacted to sunlight over the years, as much as any design intent.

The driving position is tall, perching you over the wheel and pedals in a way most manufacturers now try and hide even in SUVs, but it does afford fabulous visibility. The long manual gearlever (another somewhat archaic touch in 2023) has a similarly long throw but it’s no struggle to find a ratio, and with instructions to avoid stalling it (as the battery is running low) I head away.

Kia Sportage

It’s in that 1990s sweet spot again; the Sportage feels at once quite old and quaint but completely unchallenging. It’s a little noisy and imprecise and slow compared to even the most modest modern equivalent but also faithful and docile in a way something older, particularly an older 4×4, probably wouldn’t be.

There’s little point talking about dynamics or performance other than to say each is adequate. There’s a bit of a teetering feel navigating corners but the RAV4 we drove a few years back was little different, and like the Toyota the top half of the tachometer can be ignored completely, because there’s a lot more noise but not a lot more speed to be found there. We’re at the Millbrook Proving Ground and the steep hills are a reminder that in cars like this those extra revs were mainly for maintaining progress uphill or a bit of extra engine braking downhill, rather than exploring at will.

The Sportage would, we suspect, handle some light off-roading. It has the ground clearance and even a low-ratio lever for its four-wheel drive transmission, and the imprecise controls wouldn’t really matter (and may even be a benefit) in the rough.

But the easy and uncomplicated drive, good space, and compact footprint would also have made it a perfectly good family car for a ’90s or early 2000s buyer, and when you realise that it’s no surprise that the segment took off quickly, such that it’s now one of the dominant market sectors. Cars like the Sportage might have killed off the Mondeo, but the 1990s version is just as welcome at the Festival of the Unexceptional.

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