THE last time we drove a Kia Sportage we took it along on a short escape to Byron Bay. The weather was balmy, the tunes groovy and the scenic drive was enough to get us into the holiday spirit.
The Sportage itself was a perfect companion with just the right combination of sass and good manners. It dealt well with the winding roads, imperfect surfaces and highway traffic.
Once we got to Byron, it was content to play the delighted tourist. It sparkled in the midday sun outside the pub, provided a great table for a delicious lunch from the Sunday markets, and didn't even run out of puff on the road to Nimbin.
It was content to wait for us as we scrambled up to the lighthouse, survived a dive bomb from gulls with fish and chips boxes in their sights, and didn't blink an eye as we loaded up the boot with purchases from the Stone and Wood brewery.
Yes, all in all, the Sportage had a great time in Byron. We warmed to it too, with cheap plastics and the boxy shape two of the few negatives on our list.
Now the Sportage is back - bigger, bolder and better looking.
Thanks to designer Peter Schreyer, who left his mark on the Audi TT and Volkswagen's revised Beetle, the Sportage barely resembles the one that basked in the Byron sunshine.
The driving dynamics are still noteworthy but the refined shake-up of the exterior has made it a rather promising proposition.
Interior comfort has been much improved thanks in part to a longer wheel base, with leg room and head room quite generous despite a sloping roof.
The seats are nicely cushioned with above-average side bolstering adding support. The Platinum model offers leather seats but there was little to be disappointed about in the quality of the fabric pews in our mid-spec SLi. Well designed with contrasting stitching, they contributed to the overall feeling of snazz. The unique driving position - it's almost as if you are surrounded by the console - allows for easy operation of all the bits and bobs. Dash gauges are well lit with useful, uncomplicated information on view.
The back seat could be a tad less upright but fits three with relative ease even if two are in bulky child seats. Cargo room is about right for this class and benefits from the slight increase in rear overhang. Shopping hooks wouldn't go astray.
On the road
The 2.0-litre diesel engine is a worthy soldier driving the Sportage confidently across the front line.
There is plenty of grunt down low with generous torque in the mid-ranges giving the extra oomph needed when overtaking or tackling steep hills. Ride comfort is excellent and there is great feedback from the hydraulic power steering in most conditions.
Engineers spent five months tuning the Sportage to suit Australian conditions, with the suspension geometry, dampers and coil springs set up specifically for our roads and it certainly shows.
Kia's much-vaunted Dynamax all-wheel-drive system sends 100% of the torque to the front wheels in normal driving conditions to help fuel economy but will send some rearward if front-wheel slip is detected.
You also have the choice of "Lock Mode" for better traction on gravel, mud or in slippery conditions. The Dynamax system has a high thermal capacity, which reduces the risk of overheating when driving off road, although it is unlikely the Sportage will leave the bitumen.
What do you get?
Inclusions are generous with dual-zone air-conditioning with automatic climate control, reversing camera, CD player with MP3, USB and iPod connectivity, cruise control with steering-wheel-mounted controls just some of the standard fare. The Platinum adds leather seats, keyless entry, a start/stop button and groovy LED running lights. Sat nav has just been added. Safety include six airbags, active head restraints, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, Hillstart Assist and Downhill Brake Control.
Kia offers figures of 7.5 litres/ 100km for the diesel with the petrol versions more than a litre thirstier. Services and parts are reasonable and the Sportage comes with a five-year unlimited kilometres warranty.
Soft-roaders are a popular choice, with the main competition coming from the Hyundai ix35 ($28,990), Honda CR-V ($35,090), Toyota RAV4 ($33,990), VW Tiguan ($35,990) and Subaru Forester ($34,990).
Comfort, performance and pricing combine to make the Sportage a formidable package. It has no delusions of being an off-road hard nut so can concentrate on performing to its strengths.
Visibility out the back window is restricted, making the rear-view-mirror-mounted reverse camera a welcome friend. Sensors across the range wouldn't go amiss either.
Rugged and athletic-looking, the Sportage's low roofline and stylish headlights make an instant impression. The "tiger nose" features a powerful wraparound grille while the sculptured side sill mouldings and pronounced rear add substance to the view. This is a modern, funky-looking vehicle that will draw second glances.
The Sportage is a serious reflection of Kia's determination to run with the big boys. It's a surprising find and it is little wonder that there is a five-month waiting list to get your hands on one.
Model: Kia Sportage.
Details: Five-door active all-wheel-drive compact SUV.
Engine: 2.0-litre in-line four-cylinder turbo-diesel generating maximum power of 135kW at 4000rpm and peak torque of 392Nm between 1800-2500rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Consumption: 7.5 litres/100km combined average.
Bottom line: From $32,490.