Condition: Not rough, just ready for FOTU
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A lot has changed in the 30 years since Kia launched the original Sportage. On sale from July 1993 in Asia, and 1995 in Europe, the Sportage is now one of Kia’s most popular models. It was the UK’s sixth best-selling car in 2022, shifting more units than both the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Fiesta.
Forget three decades, the current Sportage looks light years apart from the original, which arrived here in the summer of 1995 in a blaze of mediocrity. CAR described the styling as looking “like an Astra viewed through one of those vertical-stretching mirrors” and the interior as having “as much sense of occasion as the Saturday morning trip to Tesco”.
Hardly a ringing endorsement for a 4×4 commonly mispronounced as the ‘Sport-idge’. Don’t believe us, here’s the legendary John Davis reviewing the ‘Sport-ahh-hjj’ for MotorWeek in 1995. Still, we’ve been mispronouncing Hyundai for many years…
The 4×4 market looked very different in 1995. The crossover craze, spearheaded by the Toyota RAV4, was in its infancy, so driving a 4×4 meant putting up with questionable on-road dynamics, noise, poor fuel economy and, in some quarters, a stigma. If you couldn’t afford a Range Rover, 4x4s were agricultural and rather crude.
An Asia Rocsta, Daihatsu Fourtrak, Mahindra CJ3/5, Nissan Terrano II, SsangYong Musso or Vauxhall Frontera might earn you some brownie points at this year’s Festival of the Unexceptional, but in 1995 they were better left in the brown stuff. Full disclosure: we’d readily rock any of the aforementioned vehicles (Speak for yourself! – Ed).
The Sportage was the third Kia to be introduced in the UK, following the Pride (1991) and Mentor (1994); the latter being the company’s first independently developed passenger car. Kia had to rely on help from Mazda when building its first SUV – it was based on the third-generation Bongo and powered by a Mazda 2.0-litre 16-valve engine – but the Koreans had been successful with the badge-engineered Pride.
At launch, there were three trim levels available in the UK: SLX, GLX and GLX SE. With prices ranging from £13,150 to £14,950 (£23,800 to £29,100 today), the Sportage was, by some distance, Kia’s most expensive model. For context, a basic Pride cost £5749, while even the most lavishly equipped Mentor cost a ‘bullseye’ over £11,000.
Whether you opted for the SLX, GLX or GLX SE, you got the same 16-valve engine producing 126bhp at 5300rpm and 129lb ft of torque at 4700rpm. CAR warned against exploring the upper reaches of the rev counter, saying: “whatever you do, progress is never more than languorous”.
More positively, the mag said, “it rolls less on corners than you’d expect”, although “lairy cornering is discouraged by the squeal of imminent understeer”. The Kia was Sportage by name but far from sporty by nature. Still, you did get selectable four-wheel drive with and high and low ratios for those moments when you wanted to pay homage to the Sportage’s, um, sporting success.
As unlikely as it sounds, a Kia Sportage completed the 1993 Paris-Dakar rally before winning its class in the 1995 Baja 1000, becoming the first vehicle to complete both courses. We take it back; the Sportage really did put the ‘Sports’ into the Sports Utility Vehicle.
Back in Blighty, Kia Cars (UK) didn’t make a song and dance about the Sportage’s sporting prowess, opting to emphasise its credentials as a 4×4 for the country set. The launch brochure included photos of the car parked outside an antique shop and the sort of des res you’d find featured in Country Life. The engine will “happily haul a horsebox with a point-to-pointer on board,” it said, to encourage Lord Barbour-Jacket away from his Range Rover or Discovery.
On the one hand, you could argue that the arrival of the Kia Sportage was well timed. The lifestyle SUV market was at the bottom of its growth curve, spearheaded by the Toyota RAV4, a car described by CAR as a “scrummy crème brûlée”. On the other hand, the RAV4 showed that an SUV needn’t be a cumbersome and agricultural with a thirst that made Oliver Reed look like a teetotaller.
CAR concluded: “If off-roaders are your jug of brown ale, the Sportage certainly isn’t a load of waste matter. But it’s out-everything-ed by the RAV4. Including out-priced, but a quality crème brûlée doesn’t come cheap.”
The original Sportage soldiered on until 2003, although sales continued in some markets until the arrival of the second-generation model in 2005. By then, other trim levels had been added to the range, including the Karmann Sport and Karmann Sport SE, which paid homage to the German coachbuilder that produced the Sportage for European markets.
We never got the Mazda-sourced 2.0-litre diesel engine, while the long-wheelbase Grand Sportage and three-door convertible versions were never officially available in the UK. Check out this Sportage convertible imported from Greece for a glimpse at what we could have had. Still want that Range Rover Evoque Convertible or Volkswagen T-Roc Cabriolet? Of course you don’t.
We’d love to offer a drop-top Sportage for this week’s Unexceptional Classifieds, but you’ll have to make do with the full quota of five doors and a roof. It’s an early example from 1995 with just 28,336 miles on the clock. Could it have been a demonstrator for a Kia dealer in Lancashire?
It’s a mid-range GLX model, so while you’ll miss out on the air con of the GLX SE, you do get alloy wheels, locking wheel nuts, ABS and a Clarion radio/cassette with RDS. The seller says a Sony radio has been fitted but the original radio is still in the car. You’d need to fit that before taking the Sportage to this year’s Festival of the Unexceptional.
You won’t be getting to the event in record time. The 0-60mph time of 14.7 seconds and top speed of 104mph look bad on paper, but they’ll feel even worse in reality. Pack your ear plugs and be prepared for multiple fuel stops if you’re brave enough to hit peak power.
FOTU is understandably a sea of sombre saloons, humdrum hatchbacks and wearisome wagons, but we’re likely to see a growing number of SUVs in the coming years. Names like RAV4, CR-V, Freelander, Forester and Sportage could soon be gracing the manicured gravel of the Concours de l’Ordinaire.
In the meantime, we hope to see this 1995 Kia Sportage in July.
Did you know: The Kia Sportage was the first production car to be fitted with a knee airbag? Selected markets saw the introduction of the safety feature in 1996, but it didn’t come to the UK. We’d have to wait until 2003 and the arrival of the Toyota Avensis.