Much to like in Kia's spruced-up Sportage

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The arrival of a midlife facelift for the Kia Sportage delivers the opportunity for good to get even better. Photos supplied

Small sports utility history was made 21 years ago, but not by the original forebear to the vehicle featured today.

We should remember the Toyota RAV4 as the car that triggered the crossover multitudes we now enjoy. It was a vehicle as all in its class are now; car-like in build and structure and small SUV in nature.

The original Kia Sportage, also born in 1993, was more old-school; certainly not what we expect now. However, it was among the first to start the trend for vehicles that had a four-by-four look but little of the ability. Back in the day it was revolutionary, to say the least, to create an off-roader in what was a car-like form. How times have changed.

The Sportage's emergence has been gradual here. The first-generation model achieved 872 sales in eight years, the second lifted that threefold over five years and the third has trumped that count since its introduction in 2010.

Signs are the Sportage is now set to lift its image further. Supply shortages have been resolved by switching away from South Korea to a plant in Slovakia that can make as many as we want.

True, it takes five months to deliver an order, but this is still progress and well-timed, too, for the SUV sector is hot property, with the medium sector into which Sportage places setting the pace.

The arrival of a midlife facelift delivers the opportunity for good to get even better. The big refresh delivers two more models, taking the range count to five petrol and three diesel, spread across LX, EX and EX Limited trim.

More change? Gone is the 130kW and 227Nm 2.4-litre petrol we saw from Korea. Now the sole petrol is a Cerato-shared direct injection 2.0-litre, down 8kW and 22Nm but with 0.4 litres per 100km sharper economy.

The alternate 2.0-litre diesel continues unsullied. Every model here has a six-speed automatic.

The upgrade also delivers a new front grille design, updated LED tail-lights, new wheel designs and a new start-out wheel dimension - from 16s previously to 17s now, stepping to 18s at the top - and a sharkfin antenna on the roof.

Improvements to the cabin include more soft-touch materials on the dash and on the upper parts of the door panels to answer a well-founded criticism about hard plastics, new seat trims and a new instrument cluster with a 4.2-inch LCD display screen, though unfathomably it is not used for the reversing camera.

A trailer stability control system and rain-sensing wipers are standard, while all except the LX Urban take front and rear parking sensors.

The petrol is revvy and eager, but as before the diesel aces for mid-range muscularity.

Kia NZ promises Australian suspension tuning delivers better ride and handling than the standard factory setup.

There is a degree of assurance about the cornering and bump-suppression. Addressing NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) challenges has been a priority. Road roar over coarse chip remains evident, but they have certainly tried hard to find solutions.

Much to like in Kia's spruced-up Sportage
At a Glance

Price: $34,240 to $54,490

Engines: 1999cc direct injection four-cylinder petrol, maximum power 122kW@6200rpm, maximum torque 205Nm@4000rpm; 1995cc four-cylinder turbo-diesel, maximum power, 135kW@4000rpm, maximum torque 392Nm@1800-2500rpm

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Brakes and stability systems: Front and rear disc, ABS, BAS, EBD, ESP

Wheels, tyres: alloy wheels, 225/60 R17 or 235/55 R18 tyres

Fuel and economy: 7.2 (diesel) and 8.4 litres per 100km on Australian Design Rules cycle, capacity 55 litres

Dimensions: Length 4440mm, width 1855mm, height 1635mm