Kia's Sportage hits 30

Hugely successful Korean SUV began life back in 1993, celebrated with anniversary edition.

Published on November 23, 2023

Note: This article was written as part of a commercial content partnership between and Kia Ireland.

The Kia Sportage began life back in 1993, but it feels that it's been part of the Irish motoring landscape forever. This original Sportage - compact, but with tall windows and a chunky design - was a product of what we might call 'Old Kia', from before the company started its amazing, design-and-engineering-led upwards trajectory.

There was something deeply significant about that first Sportage, though. Quite apart from it being a pretty early entrant in the family crossover segment, it was also one of the first Kias to be built in Europe, thanks to a tie-up between the Korean car maker and Karmann of Germany.

Built in Europe

Production of that first Sportage (there was a three-door convertible version incidentally, but good luck tracking one of those down...) ended in 2005, and by then Kia was already starting its dramatic reinvention.

The second-generation Sportage, which launched that same year, was a far more sophisticated device, coming with a much more modern set of four-cylinder 2.0-litre petrol and diesel engines, and the option of four-wheel drive. Again, this second Sportage - technically known as the JE/KM model if you're asking - was to be built in Europe at Kia's factory in Zilina in Slovakia. The car's levels of quality were considerably higher, and if it looked a little plain on the outside, then it was definitely better to drive, with sharper steering and better balance.

Rugged, too

It was also surprisingly rugged. An early launch event with the four-wheel-drive version had us drive the new Kia through a rain-sodden forest, with mud ruts that seemed to come up past your ears. The Sportage seemed entirely unbothered by the conditions, and slipped and slithered its way easily through the course.

This Sportage received an update in 2009, which gave it a more sophisticated appearance at the front, especially around the headlights, but by then Kia was already cooking up something truly special.

Game-changing third-gen

The dramatic new Sportage, the third generation launched in 2011, was to prove a total game-changer for Kia, not just across Europe but particularly in Ireland. It was an exceptionally good-looking car, with sharp exterior styling backed up by a cabin that was noticeably high in quality, often looking and feeling more impressive than those of more expensive, premium-badged rivals.

Powered by a mixture of 1.6- and 2.0-litre petrol engines, and 1.7- and 2.0-litre diesel engines, the new Sportage was so impressive a car that it easily drew in buyers from brands you simply wouldn't expect to buy a Kia. It was also one of the first Kias to gain the coveted five-star rating from the independent safety experts at Euro NCAP (it also got a 'Top Safety Pick' from the American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, incidentally).

Oddly, given its runaway success, this third-generation Sportage didn't stay on sale for all that long, and it was replaced by the fourth generation in 2016. This was a much bigger Sportage, noticeably roomier and more spacious inside, with a cabin that took clear inspiration - and quality levels - from its bigger, more expensive sibling, the Kia Sorento.

Hello Tiger

Again, power came from a family of 1.6- and 2.0-litre petrol engines, and 1.7- and 2.0-litre diesels, but it was once again the exterior style that really marked this Sportage out. It had a much more expressive-looking design than the third-generation model, with distinctive, widely-separated headlights that had more than a hint of Porsche about them. It was also the first Sportage with the distinctive 'Tiger Face' grille, a design feature that has since gone on to define an entire generation of Kias.

All of which brings us bang up to date with the fifth-generation Kia Sportage, currently on sale, which again has grown in both size (there's around 80mm extra rear legroom than passengers of the fourth-generation car enjoyed) and sophistication. Now, the cabin takes inspiration less from the Sorento and more from the high-tech Kia EV6 electric car. There are twinned 12.3-inch screens for both the driver's instruments and the infotainment system, and a clever touch panel beneath the centre screen, which easily flips from controlling the heating and air conditioning to controlling the navigation and entertainment.

Underneath, the Sportage has a dramatically diversified engine lineup. While you can still buy a conventional petrol or diesel model, now the Sportage comes with a choice of electrified hybrid and plug-in hybrid models. The plug-in hybrid can manage more than 70 kilometres with a full charge of its battery, meaning you can do much - maybe all - of your commuting and short journeys on electric power alone. Once again, it's a hugely safe car, taking top marks from Euro NCAP, so there's little wonder that - combined with genuinely dramatic styling - it has become a firm favourite among Irish buyers, climbing rapidly up the top-ten-selling-cars chart this year and, as this piece is being written, currently sitting at number two.

Happy birthday, Sportage

To celebrate the Sportage's 30th anniversary, Kia has brought out a special 30th Anniversary Edition. This new model is marked out by its bold exterior styling, a unique 'Wolf Grey' colour option (that's a sort of shimmering green-grey and looks great) and a unique interior featuring suede and synthetic leather seats and a host of driver assistance systems. You can choose from the hybrid or plug-in hybrid engine options for this special Sportage.

The Sportage has had a remarkable journey. It's gone from little-seen and little-known at first, through simple, tough and well-regarded, to style-icon that could poach buyers from premium marques, and now to a sharply-styled sales colossus. Who knows what the next thirty years will bring? Happy birthday, Sportage.