10 awesome sports cars for less than a new Kia Sportage
The Sportage is about as sporty as a game of darts. Here’s 10 cars that live up to the name
The Kia Sportage. It’s an SUV, and therefore unremarkable. It’s been around longer than a great many SUVs, which is also unremarkable. It has new, wilfully overwrought styling, a phenomenon so common in the SUV world that it’s wholly unremarkable.
What is remarkable is that Kia’s called an SUV the Sportage, with official bumf stating that it’s “a unique combination of the word ‘sport’ – referring to the vehicle’s sportiness – and the suffix ‘-age’, meaning a state or condition of’.” Someone fetch Inigo Montoya.
Also, if we dispensed with initialisms for a moment, that means it’s the Kia Sportage Sports Utility Vehicle. And that is a whole heap of sport to promise without possessing the ability to deliver it at all.
So to redress the situation, we’re going to need real, honest, bona fide sports cars, imbued with awesomeness and free from any deviation, aberration or corruption of the word sport. Or indeed car. And we’ll be even stricter – each one has to be a proper sports car – hot hatches get the cold shoulder, muscle cars get muscled out, super saloons get kicked out of the pub and uber wagons get left on the outer. Can we find all of that for less than the £26,745 a base-model Sportage costs?
Well yes, we absolutely can. The only thing is that putting them up against a Sportage doesn’t really give the Sportage a sporting chance...Advertisement - Page continues below
In just about every sport, power is vastly less important than power-to-weight. Even where size confers a definite advantage – boxing, for instance – the biggest punch from the smallest size is the goal.
And just like boxing, that means being clever. Canny fighters will train and bulk in preparation for a bout, then slim down as much as humanly possible to sneak under the cutoff for a particular weight division. Canny sports car builders, on the other hand, will rewrite the way cars are put together entirely.
Yep, Lotus was the first manufacturer to build the entire chassis of its car from bonded extruded aluminium, which is still a rare, difficult and pricey process today. And a tiny little company in Norfolk was doing it back in the Nineties, despite having the same sort of budget that Audi sets aside for its cafeteria.
The Elise set the benchmark for scant heft and superb handling, cemented Lotus as the pinnacle maker of lightweight sports cars for a new entire generation, underpinned another benchmark in the Exige and pretty much saved Lotus from being just another defunct British sports car manufacturer.
If you’re in your thirties, the Elise makes a mighty strong case for being the most important sports car launched in your lifetime. Talk about punching above your weight...
Porsche 997 Carrera
But if we’re talking about ‘most important sports cars’, just how long do you think we could have gone on without mentioning what has to be the most important sports car ever made?
If you’re the sort to answer rhetorical questions, you might have thought something along the lines of, ‘Clearly, not very long, given you immediately name-checked it without even a paragraph of space between them'. And fair play; we’re not what you’d call the delayed gratification type.
As simple as it might sound, an ‘everyday sports car’ is actually a hugely complex task to get right. And that’s because it’s a litany of opposing goals, a battle of comfy ride and good handling, amenities and weight, interior space and exterior dimensions. Porsche was the first to get the balance just right, ironically by creating a car so unbalanced that old 911s shipped with lead weights in the front bumper to try to sort the weight distribution. But with careful finessing the world’s first everyday sports car remains the benchmark for everyday sports cars today. Modern 911s even offer a range that errs more to the performance side if you so choose, but the standard 911 Carrera sits at the perfect balance point.
Now, we still think that point sits with the 997 generation, which is smaller than the 991 et al that replaced it, holds on to natural aspiration and hydraulically assisted steering, and packs all the tech you need without the modern preponderance of widescreen digital displays and overcomplicated computer systems. There isn’t a single car on this list that we wouldn’t buy with our own money (with one size-related caveat), but the 997 is the one that’d work the best and the most often.
And yeah, we know we’ve dusted off the ‘if it were our money’ argument for another go-round. And yes, if that sort of money found its way to our kitchen table today, we’d be out tomorrow buying one. But our table, and indeed every other horizontal surface at our place, remains distinctly money-bundle free. So let’s look to a few fairly famous Top Gearians who’ve put their own cash down on 911s, like James May, Richard Hammond and Chris Harris. Even Joey from Friends had one. Because it’s a car that people who know cars buy. And one day, when our ship comes in (even though it seems to be taking a leaf out of the Ever Given’s book), so will we. Now, say that about a Kia SUV.Advertisement - Page continues below
Janis Joplin may have sung, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?”, but if we had a direct line to the creator, we’d ask for something a bit different: if he wouldn’t mind making us just that bit shorter.
See, being 6’4” sounds great (and reads well on your choice of... er, ‘companionship’ app), but it does come with a few rather pressing drawbacks. Like folding yourself like a pretzel just to fit in a regular airline seat. Lying down on a hotel bed and finding out it’s 90 per cent as long as you are. Or, indeed, finding that one of the world’s best-ever roadsters is something you can never have. Forget bears on tricycles; for a comical experience that’s cruel to the big hairy animal involved, just ask us to take a spin in an S2000.
And as well as the pain from being wedged against any number of hard surfaces, there’s the mental anguish in knowing we’re missing out on the only small Japanese roadster to outshine the MX-5 in every way. And, of course, this reminds us that we don’t fit in an MX-5, either. Cue tears bitter enough to make a mean Old Fashioned.
Oh Lord, won’t you just take a couple of inches off our torso?
Here it is, folks: the closest anyone’s ever come to building a better everyday sports car than Porsche. And it’s hard to say if the gap was much wider than a photo finish.
If you called an R8 a supercar, you probably wouldn’t get pulled up on it, and yet it offers decidedly un-supercarish visibility, comfort, cabin space and sound deadening. It corners spectacularly, oversteers predictably and has rear-biased all-wheel drive to help avoid putting an R8-shaped hole in a hedgerow.
And this is all from a car that a) cost about the same as a 911 new, and b) basically had the 911’s measure on its first try, after Porsche had decades to hone its creation. A staggeringly good car from the beginning and, if you’re up for a bit of car-hunting, one that’s now available for the price of some SUV or another.
Hang on. If you can get a 997 Carrera for Kia Sportage money, why would you ever get a Cayman? Isn’t it just the poor man’s 911? Are we just taking crazy pills here?
Well, let’s answer that in sequence – a) because it’s tremendous in its own right, b) just because something’s less expensive doesn’t make it worse, and c) the pills we do or don’t take are our own business, thank you very much.
Moving on. To illustrate our point about the Cayman, let’s do a quick head-to-head, back-to-back or indeed metatarsal-to-metatarsal with the 911 to see how they measure up.
So, like the 911, you get a naturally aspirated flat-six with hundreds of horsepower and some of the best engine noise in the business. You get a slick manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive and steering with more feedback than a full Marshall stack set to 10 (or indeed 11) across the board.
As we hardly have to remind you, the Cayman is mid-engined, which means better weight distribution, a better centre of mass and a lower polar moment of inertia. And outdoing the world’s most successful sports car – at sports – is something you’d expect from a car that cost more than the 911, not less.
Practicality is pretty much a wash, too – as the 911 proves, Porsche is a dab hand at finding the balance between ‘everyday’ and ‘sport’ in everyday sports car. Unless you have three kids, one parking space and no other cars available, it’ll do the day-to-day stuff as well as a 911, just a bit differently. The mid-engined layout, for instance, does mean that rear seats are off the menu, but it yields handy boot space behind the engine. So you can have more things, but have to leave people behind. The Porsche Cayman: neoliberalism, in car form.
Yes, the 911 will generally be more powerful and faster to boot. But this advantage only arrives well after you’ve reached and breached properly antisocial speeds. And if we’re talking about a track car, the lighter, smaller, mid-engined Cayman is going to be a better base on all but the longest, straightest and widest of circuits.
So yes, the Cayman was cheaper. But it’s not a case of champagne Porsche on a beer budget – they just made the beer much, much tastier.
OK, so the Evora didn’t have the same impact as the Elise. And that makes sense – Lotus made its name by obsessing over weight more than a celebrity tabloid, and then hammered the point home for a new generation with the Elise. You want toys, tech and trinkets? Try John Lewis.
So to then launch a softer, fatter GT car... well. Yes, there was room for it in the range, and yes, it’s a bit of respite after the Elise and Exige. But if there’s one thing people know about Lotus, it’s lightness. See the issue? You don’t go to Blundstone for a pair of stilettos. You don’t go to a punk band for prog rock. And you don’t go to Lotus for a comfy sports tourer.
Except you probably should. Partly because this is the most Lotus-ish of comfy sports tourers – still tiny, still light and still made to enjoy driving, rather than arriving – but also because second-hand Evoras are available for less than a jacked-up Kia wagon. So, what would you prefer – a car called Sportage and defined as a Sports Utility Vehicle, or one that is... y’know, an actual sports car?
Just how well this argument goes over with your significant other is another matter, but hey – we supply the ideas; it’s up to you to run with them.Advertisement - Page continues below
Here’s a thought experiment – what if we tried to match actual sports with sports cars?
The Elise feels like a match with gymnastics, for instance, and the Dodge Demon could be the 100m sprint. But what would the TVR Tuscan be?
Well, there’s an argument for Judo, given that the Tuscan – and TVRs in general – are quite practised in throwing people around and dominating them until they give up. Boxing too, given the size of the punch it can deliver. But these are a bit too easy, a bit prosaic.
To us, the Tuscan isn’t anywhere near as good a match for summer sports as it is for winter. And we’ll explain our reasoning by describing the IOC-sanctioned sport of Skeleton. You take a creation of metal and composites and plunge headfirst down a dangerous, high-speed track, using nothing more than the strength of your muscles and the force of your will to keep some semblance of control and traction in a perilous situation that offers little of either. Now, does that sound like any car in particular?
The sport of Skeleton, apart from acting as a handy way to find the nexus of bravery and optimism, is that special echelon of excitement that you just can’t achieve without some kind of peril. Winston Churchill said there was nothing more exhilarating than being shot at without result; with Skeleton – and the TVR Tuscan – you’ll get as close as any sport can get.
Aston Martin V8 Vantage
No, please, tell us. Tell us why, when you have enough money for a desperately gorgeous, aurally perfect V8-powered coupe that just happens to be an Aston Martin, you’d buy a Kia Sportage.
Got kids and a single-car garage? Get a £1,000 estate, park it somewhere within a quarter mile of your home and do a rota with your significant other on who’ll take the kids to school. Got kids and you go on camping holidays? Rent a van – even if you went on a camping trip for the entirety of August, you’re still making the most of the Sportage’s space less than 10 per cent of the time. Have kids and the school run is too far to walk? Put them on a bus or a bicycle.
We really don’t think there’s any situation that a V8 Vantage and some lateral thinking we wouldn’t be able to get around, regardless of how specific. So let’s push the boat out a bit to try. Professional cellist? Get the convertible and carry it on the passenger seat. Professional cellist, married to a professional double bassist, live in a canal boat, only have one parking space and there’s no street parking within a mile of your boat and you have twin eight-year-olds? Easy. Towbar, towbar rack, home school, tutor.
Not saying there aren’t sacrifices to be made here, but when you get an Aston V8 Vantage in return for those sacrifices, that has to be worth it.Advertisement - Page continues below
Then again, there is something to be said for adding just a touch of practicality to certain situations. Like if you could take your twins from your canal boat home to school, then head straight on to your and your significant other’s day jobs as orchestral musicians. Y’know, just regular, everyday situations that all families face.
Well, some more space certainly wouldn’t hurt. Rear seats big enough for adults is a definite plus. Boot space, comfy ride and soft leather seats are just luxuries by this point, but we’ll take them all the same.
It’s every bit as gorgeous as the Aston, and it’s home to one of the few V8 engines that measure up in terms of true sonic power and soul. In fact, the only problem for our string musicians is wondering if anything they play could ever sound as good as the car they drive.
Naming things is actually a pretty fraught process. Naming a planet after the Greek god of the sky sounds great, except for the small matter that he was called Uranus. Giving your kid a memorable name from a powerful historical figure feels like a great way to set them up for the future, right up until they get to school and say, ‘Hi, I’m Genghis'. And for a company to say that its new car is the next step on from the most famous, most lauded and most coveted machine in its history, well. ‘Weight of expectation’ hardly covers it, does it?
The F-Type, then, is the next step on from the E-Type. Well, except for the fact that the XJS replaced the E-Type, then the XK replaced that. And then we got an F-Type. So we’re left with that weak-tea ‘spiritual successor’ guff and a four-decade gap between E and F.
And all of this matters in no way, shape or form. In fact, if antimatter wasn’t already claimed as a name for something else, we’d use it here. The F-Type is raucous, gorgeous, sonorous, luxurious and deliriously fun, and measuring it against the E-Type is as pointless as a tennis ball. But putting it side by side with a popular SUV... is probably still just as pointless, to be honest. No one’s cross-shopping Sportages and sports cars, we’ve reached a spuriousness event horizon and we’ve jumped not just the shark, but Fonzie as well. But the F-Type, and indeed every other car on this list, is still great. So at least there’s that.