Kia Sportage

There's an awful lot to like about this tall, dramatic crossover car

There are some subtle marketing distinctions going on here.

So subtle that only marketing people appreciate them. The new Kia Sportage you see here is a "crossover", whereas the car it replaces was a "compact SUV". The former is meant to be more car-like, more stylish, less ultimately able off-road but better suited to real lives. The latter, being an SUV, is supposed to be perceived as less green and to impart more aggression against the world.

But I am struggling to detect any practical difference in concept. The new Sportage is wider than the old one and has a broad, chromium-plated grin on its visage. It is tall, and its deep flanks give an air of impregnability. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, it's an intimidating SUV.

Some crossovers redeem themselves by toning down the visual 4x4 references and by feeling car-like to drive. That means they sit well in the road rather than seeming to be perched on it; they steer with precision; are wieldy; and don't have the uncomfortable, lateral-rocking sensation typical of an SUV. This is caused by the stiff suspension, especially the anti-roll bars, needed to keep a tall car level in corners, and it's exaggerated by the fact that the occupants sit well above the roll axis, the imaginary line on which the car pivots as its body leans over.

The Nissan Qashqai, cited by Kia as a key Sportage rival, is a fine example of a car with mild SUV overtones. The Skoda Yeti is another. Compared with these, the Sportage feels much more the traditional, compromised SUV, a little too firm and fidgety on our ripply roads, and a little too vague in the response from its weighty but anaesthetised electric power steering. This, more than anything, is what makes it feel cumbersome in a tight spot, although those high flanks, a nose invisible from the driving seat, and thick roof pillars also make it hard to judge the Sportage's precise position. Just as well, then, that it can be had with a truly excellent reversing camera whose crisp, bright image appears within the interior mirror.

Maybe buyers (it costs £20,777) won't mind the cumbersomeness. They might consider it an advantage, because it adds to the SUV-like experience. And there is much else to like about the Sportage. Designed in Germany, built in the Czech Republic, it does look dramatic with those shallow windows, the hewn flanks, the racy roofline and a windscreen shaped like no other with its raised upper corners.

Inside it looks crisp, clean, futuristic, and of higher material quality than it actually is – although the leather is genuine enough. The detailing is painstakingly neat, and only the hard plastics of the upper door trims and the lack of non-slip rubber mats in the storage recesses spoil the picture. You might be disappointed that the rear seats neither slide nor fold fully flat, but the false boot floor is level with both the high rear sill and the folded seats. Cabin space is plentiful.

The first Sportage on sale in the UK is the range-topping First Edition version, as seen here. It does have four-wheel drive – a system which majors on the front wheels until a lack of grip under them encourages the engine's output rearwards – although most Sportages will be front-wheel drive only. Such Sportages, mainly with 1.7-litre turbodiesel or 1.6-litre petrol engines, arrive from November, but the lavishly equipped First Edition uses a new 2.0-litre turbodiesel with 134bhp and a 156g/km CO2 output, provided you specify the six-speed manual gearbox. The six-speed automatic increases this to 183g/km.

This new engine is one of the Sportage's best features. Somehow the residual clatter in diesel engines transmutes here into a crisp, aural edge like a good petrol engine's, with an accelerator response to match. It pulls vigorously and must be one of the best diesel engines currently on sale.

As a compact SUV, the Sportage is an interesting and striking possibility. But as a credible alternative to a regular family hatchback it's too unwieldy. There's a remarkable seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty, though. And that is very hard to ignore.

The Rivals

Nissan Qashqai 2.0 dCi Tekna 4WD: from £24,695.

Good-to-drive crossover, expensive in this 4WD form, but well finished and equipped. More power than Kia, worse CO2.

Peugeot 3008 2.0 HDi Sport: £20,095.

No 4WD, but the 3008 copes well on poor terrain. Upmarket, sophisticated cabin, smooth and crisp engine with a healthy 150bhp, curious looks.

Skoda Yeti 2.0 TDI 140 Elegance 4WD.

£21,825. Most likeable of compact crossovers, here with top trim level. Lively engine, looks neat and friendly, great cabin quality, great to drive.