Story by John LeBlanc
ZILINA, Slovakia - How serious is Korea’s Kia at taking on the more established European brands? Driving a diesel version of the automaker’s Sportage crossover in the country it was built should give us some clues.
I’m not in South Korea, the country from where Canadian-market Sportages are imported. I’m landlocked in Central Europe, in Slovakia, the southern half of the former Czechoslovakia. It’s here, just outside the Slovak city of Zilina, where Kia started building vehicles in 2005, right in the back yard of the established European brands. Although a declining European economy is once again opening the discussion about shuttering car plants on the continent, Kia’s Zilina facility is running at full capacity, with three shifts churning out about 300,000 Kia Cee’d compacts and Sportage crossovers annually.
The Zilina facility also has two engine shops, making gas and diesel mills. One of which is a 1.7-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel under the hood of the 2012 Sportage 1.7 CRDi (common rail direct injection). The CRDi is one of two diesel Sportage models that are not available in Canada but may end up here eventually.
Although gas-electric hybrids are the sexy beasts of fuel-economy headlines, the Canadian market warms to the idea of small, turbocharged diesels when it comes to crossovers. Mercedes-Benz is launching a new diesel version of its GLK-Class in Canada this fall. Mazda is considering a diesel for its new CX-5. And Volkswagen has all but confirmed that a diesel version of its next-generation Tiguan is on the way.
Why? Outstanding fuel economy and loads of useful torque: benefits that will help automakers keep their government-mandated corporate average fleet economy numbers down and vehicle owner’s fuel bills low.
In the case of the front-wheel-drive Sportage 1.7 CRDi, with its six-speed manual transmission, it’s rated at a combined 5.2 L/100 km on the European cycle — about 20 per cent better than the most fuel-efficient Sportage you can buy in Canada, the $21,779 FWD Sportage LX, with a 2.4 L gas engine and six-speed manual gearbox.
Of course, the 2.4 gas mill makes a healthy 176 hp and 168 lb.-ft.: substantially more than the 114 hp the Slovak-built 1.7 diesel churns out. But for the majority of day-to-day driving, the parsimonious diesel doesn’t feel that anemic. With almost 200 lb.-ft. available at only 1,250 r.p.m., the small turbodiesel goes about its business smoothly in a stress-free manner, with none of the ruckus normally associated with diesel engines.
It’s hard to guess a potential Canadian price for the 1.7 diesel Sportage. It currently starts at around $30,000 in Europe. Kia also offers a Sportage here with a 2.0 L turbodiesel producing 134 hp and 236 lb.-ft. (almost identical to VW’s ubiquitous 2.0 L turbodiesel). For about $36,000, it also comes loaded with traction at four wheels and six-speed automatic.
Thankfully, whether diesel- or gas-powered, the Sportage remains an enjoyable vehicle to drive. Its steering is resilient off-centre, just the type of feedback enthusiasts look for. Its suspension delivers a controlled and comfortable ride on the highway, but also remains relatively flat in hard cornering. I still think the Volkswagen Tiguan delivers higher levels of refinement in its feedback, but the Kia ranks next in this class. For the majority of drivers looking for a comfortable commute over clipping apexes, the Kia makes for a practical family vehicle.
Compared to the larger and more conventional Kia Sorento, the new-for-2011, third-generation Sportage crossover comes in a smaller, more fashionably-styled wrapper. That means the Sportage isn’t as roomy as the Sorento, which has an optional third row of seats to accommodate seven. But it does offer more passenger room (2,832 L vs. 2,698 L) and cargo room behind its second-row seats (740 L vs. 673 L) than the tighter-fitting Tiguan. And typical of Kia’s philosophy, the Sportage comes standard with plenty of features that you would pay extra for from any German brand plus a unique five-year factory warranty.
As per Kia’s aggressive product planning, the Sportage is likely due for a serious upgrade in the next few years. Whether we’ll see any diesel versions end up in Canada is still to be decided. The trend towards fuel economy with buyers and tougher government regulations, however, may not give Kia much of a choice.
The Korean automaker seems to have all the pieces to put a diesel strategy in place in Canada. We’ll have to wait and see whether it’s in the Sportage or its other European-made car, the compact Cee’d. There’s also the subjective issue of keeping up with the automotive Joneses. In the Korean automaker’s case, that’s Volkswagen, the current mainstream diesel king.
2012 Kia Sportage 1.7 CRDi
WHAT I LIKED: Excellent fuel economy; available low-end torque; overall stylish and competent package.
WHAT I DIDN'T: Kia hasn’t committed to diesel strategy for Canada.
EST. BASE PRICE:
1.7 L I4 turbocharged diesel
114 hp/192 lb-ft.
EU COMBINED FUEL ECONOMY, L/100 km:
5.8 city/4.1 hwy.
Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tuscan, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi RVR, Volkswagen Tiguan