The Kia Sportage has always been one of those ‘almost there’ cars: always slightly behind the curve compared to the Japanese, but offering just enough style and charisma to appeal to customers wanting something a bit more. But with the latest generation, Kia is going for the kill.
It all starts with the styling. Peter Schreyer’s evolutionary approach has been thrown out the window, with the Sportage aping the upmarket Porsche brand rather than its Audi-esque predecessor. This means a split facade of high-mounted headlamps paired with funky ‘ice-cube’ LED foglights. There’s a light bar running underneath a hard crease at the back, a cosmetic touch that sharpens up the rear end in a move akin to Porsche’s Panamera butt-lift.
Inside, the goodness goes on. The dashboard is laid out more horizontally, minimizing reflective glare. There’s lots of leg- and headroom in both rows, and a 30mm wheelbase extension makes for legroom that trails only the class-leading X-Trail.
Settled in the driver seat, you’re higher up than in the CX-5, even on the lowest setting. Ergonomics are generally good, with excellent forward visibility and all controls where you expect them, and a raft of tiller-mounted controls as well as paddle shifters for those times you want to boogie.
And the Sportage is a truck you want to boogie with. The 2.0-liter diesel, retuned for better emissions, also gets a 7hp bump in power to 182hp and, more important, an extra 10Nm. The power is as good as we’ve come to expect from Hyundai-Kia diesels, though there’s a bit more turbo lag and a bit more of a wait for the transmission to kick down than in the Mazda.
Paired to this motor is a stiffer chassis with much-needed suspension revisions. Handling is sharp, and the new electric steering is more precise just off-center.
Up to a point. Past the initial tip-in, the steering isn’t as intuitive as the CX-5’s, and body movement isn’t as fluid, with body roll stopping abruptly rather than leveling out. Still, there is very little ride penalty for the extra athleticism. You can certainly tell that the thin tires are bouncing around over road imperfections, but that never quite filters into the cabin. It’s the refinement that’s actually most impressive: There’s little wind or road noise, and the interior build compares favorably to the CX-5. This solidity pays dividends in sound quality, with the sound system boasting sharper and clearer mid range tones than the Mazda’s.
As such, Kia no longer finds itself chasing the Japanese in its quest for market relevance. It provides a European, almost Germanic, feel at a price point that undercuts the likewise premium-feeling Mazda.
SPECS: KIA SPORTAGE GT LINE AWD
Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC I4 turbodiesel
Power: 182hp @ 4,000rpm
Torque: 402Nm @ 1,750-2,750rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
UP NEXT: Mazda CX-5
I give the CX-5 the goose, get hit with a wall of torque and belatedly remember: "Ah, this one’s the diesel, right?"
It’s a fact I forget over and over again through the test. The Skyactiv-D powerplant is a willing revver, with power available all the way to the 5,000rpm cut. Even better, power comes in smoothly, much like in a big-bore naturally aspirated engine, rather than the rather abrupt onset of boost in the Kia. In traffic, the torquier and more willing 2.2-liter, with its snappy, quickshifting automatic, makes short work of the Korean diesel.
On the highway, there’s nothing between the two. The tried-and-tested 2.0-liter in the Kia makes more power up top, and the Mazda’s higher gears are slightly farther apart for better cruising economy. But Kia’s power advantage is ever so slight, the lower and sleeker CX-5 feels more at ease on the highway.
This is due to higher-profile tires, but also to a softer suspension and a steering system tuned for high-speed stability, with a purposely tuned ‘dead zone’ around the straight ahead that makes the CX-5 easier to hold in a straight line. Around town, however, it doesn’t feel as keen as the Kia. There’s a bit more tread squirm from the tires, a bit less feel off center, a bit more body roll. Is this the vaunted Mazda dynamics we’ve come to expect?
Find a nice twisty road, and such doubts go away. That you can actually talk about tread squirm here tells you a lot about how communicative the CX-5 is. All the controls simply work, down to the long but progressive brake pedal, without the on-off ‘digital’ feel you get in the Sportage. And though there’s a modicum of body roll, it’s very gradual and predictable. I think it could do without the all-wheel drive, which dulls throttle response somewhat. While both the CX-5 and the Sportage boast predictive control logic, you’ll never drive them fast or far enough off-road to ever feel the benefits.
What matters is the natural feel of the controls, which makes the CX-5 smoother around the city. The softer setup deals with potholes and humps much better, too. And i-Stop pays dividends in terms of fuel economy. Highway economy is similar between the two at 18-20km/L, but the CX-5 is consistently 1-2km/L better in traffic.
The CX-5 matches the Sportage in terms of cargo space (at 503L), and a low load point is a plus. The rear seat, though better-shaped and spacious, is noticeably tighter in terms of head- and legroom. Up front, the cockpit is a tad narrower, but well-bolstered buckets keep you from sliding around, especially when driving a crossover in a way it’s not meant to be driven. Make no mistake: Despite being the most family-friendly Mazda in the lineup, the CX-5 is still a hooligan at heart.
SPECS: MAZDA CX-5 AWD SKYACTIV-D
Engine: 2.2-liter DOHC I4 turbodiesel
Power: 173hp @ 4,500rpm
Torque: 420Nm @ 2,000rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
UP NEXT: The verdict
Some Big Tests, you already know who’s going to win, which makes writing a verdict simply a case of soothing the egos of the losers. Others, you have to switch back and forth between cars, looking for strong points and faults. Something to swing the pendulum whichever way it’s going to swing. Then you agonize over the results for days, wishing there were other judges to weigh in on the outcome, so you won’t feel like you’ve chosen wrong. This test is one of the latter.
A few years ago, this wouldn’t have been so difficult. The old Sportage fell far short of the then-new-kid-on-the-block, the CX-5. Today, it’s more difficult to call. While the CX-5 still aces the ‘premium feel’ requirement for near-P2 million crossovers better than anything else, Kia’s newfound styling mojo makes it feel like a junior Volkswagen on the inside and a junior Porsche on the outside. And while the CX-5 is still the ultimate in driving tactility, the Sportage feels, well, sportier for the casual driver.
But though style, sportiness, and space count in the Sportage’s favor, the CX-5 comes across as the better everyday car. And once you find yourself a bit of space to let loose, you’ll understand why it’s still the class benchmark when it comes to that all important fun factor.
That said, you can’t go wrong with either car, and with the Sportage going for around P200,000 less than the Mazda, buyers can perhaps forgive it for being a tiny bit less-than-perfect. But in the end, if you’re looking for the ultimate diesel crossover, Mazda has, surprisingly, finally beaten the Koreans at their own game.