How the new Kia Sportage points towards an autonomous future

We drove Kia's latest SUV - and loved it

When you think about vehicles with the latest in tech, you’re probably not thinking about a Kia Sportage SUV. Climbing into the latest version of the ‘compact crossover’, the large 8-inch screen in the centre console (and Bluetooth logo above it) is no longer remarkable, even though you get DAB and Bluetooth connectivity with voice recognition included in everything from the standard model up.

Much of the really cool tech featured here is under the hood, centred around driver aids.

Part of why T3 was present at the launch of the new Sportage is for Kia to promote its future autonomous driving technology. Dubbed DriveWise and launched at CES 2016, Kia hopes it will become synonymous with ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems). Kia is planning for its cars to have self-drive tech by 2020 and for it to launch a fully autonomous vehicle by 2030. The company has previously said it will spend $2 billion over the next three years to get there.

But we’re not there yet. The top end of the new Sportage range does include some ADAS though, with the top few cars (including the first one we drove) boasting Autonomous Emergency Braking. It does what you’re probably thinking it does, but it’s pretty clever, with two radars; short-range for low-speed (under 43mph) and a longer range (19-50mph), slowing the car if it detects an obstacle. Pedestrians are also detected up to 37mph. Rear Cross Traffic Alert (when reversing) and Blind Spot Alert also warn the driver of approaching vehicles, while there’s also Lane Keeping Assist feature to prevent drivers from straying into the next lane when tired.

It’s not hard to see how these could grow into some of the future systems Kia talked about as part of DriveWise - Emergency Stop System (ESS) – you can guess what that does - Preceding Vehicle Following (PVF) to follow cars, and Traffic Jam Assist (TJA) to take the effort out of being in traffic.

Kia’s stylists have been hard at work to make the fourth-gen Sportage look altogether more poised than its predecessor, and it shows with a wider grille, higher headlamps and recessed fog lamps. But the story isn’t just about looks, there’s been a renewed focus on how the cars drive and the powertrains available - no doubt led by former BMW M Series engineering lead Albert Biermann, who joined Hyundai/Kia in 2014.

This is very much a family car, but the top-end models will appeal to those who like a bit of punch, too. Starting from Nice airport in France, we sped along the motorway to Monaco, starting off driving the six-speed automatic 2.0L diesel 182bhp ‘First Edition’. It may cost in excess of £31,495 (the basic version starts at £17,995) but it was completely effortless to drive and there are enhancements like park assist, powered tailgate and wireless phone charging. Monaco is a mess of twisty urban roads – just the place to check out the navigation system, with our only issued being caused by driver error (we got lost as we turned down the wrong side street).

Although the Grade 1 spec is OK, you want to be spending at least £20K to get one with the second trim level which includes some things we’d consider essentials like automatic lights, aircon, reversing sensors, auto windscreen de-fogging and so on. This also gets you speed limit information on the dash and Lane-Keep Assist. The sweet spot is just above this, the GT-Line around the £24K mark and includes various style enhancements.

Driving the Grade 2 trim after the First Edition was something of a comedown – you don’t get all the sparkly stuff obviously but it felt stripped back – we really noticed the lack of electronic parking brake or start button, for example (we’d been spoilt!). But you still get a lot of car for that money. And it certainly wasn’t sluggish on the road – the 1.6 petrol engine coasted very pleasantly along the French motorway and we were impressed how well the car handled well on some rather twisty mountain roads.

The Sportage isn’t the end of the 2016 excitement for Kia, either – the rumours are that Kia will not only unveil a sports car before too long (apparently dubbed the GT). And then there’s the Optima Plug-In hybrid, making its European debut at the forthcoming Geneva Motor Show before going on sale late in the year.

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