The 2013 Kia Sportage remains sharp inside and out, but increasing issues with the car demand attention — from Kia and shoppers alike.
Stylish and nimble, the five-seat Sportage SUV remains compelling for shoppers who drive solo, but it hasn't evolved like some of its competitors have to accommodate small families. And too many issues — a poor crash test here, a steering problem there — cause concerns. I evaluated an all-wheel-drive Sportage EX, which is a middle trim level that's higher than the base and LX and just below the SX. (The base comes only with front-wheel drive, while other trims have front- or all-wheel drive.)
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Going & Stopping
Drive solo and the Sportage's 2.4-liter four-cylinder gets to highway speeds capably enough thanks to balanced low-end power and snappy accelerator response. The six-speed automatic transmission's shifts, however, are a bit muddy at times, and it hunts for gears during rapid elevation changes. Base models employ a six-speed manual.
The weight of three adults on board required most of the drivetrain's reserves to maintain highway speed. If you frequently haul passengers, sticking with front-wheel drive saves 169 pounds, which should free up some passing power. Or opt for Kia's turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which makes 260 horsepower and 269 pounds-feet of torque — considerably more than the 2.4-liter's 176 hp and 168 pounds-feet. Alas, it's available only on the Sportage SX. Lesser trims employ only the 2.4-liter four.
Major competitors have surpassed the Sportage's gas mileage, if only by a smidgen. EPA numbers with the six-speed auto and 2.4-liter four-cylinder are 21/30/25 mpg city/highway/combined. That's 1 mpg combined short of the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. All-wheel-drive Sportages get an estimated 20/27/23 mpg, which matches the Equinox's combined figure but falls 2 mpg short of the others. With either Sportage driveline, the 2.0-liter turbo loses 1 mpg combined. All Sportages have the same four-wheel-disc brakes with the required antilock braking. Repeat hard stops delivered linear, fade-free pedal response. Another bonus: The Sportage's 34.7-foot turning circle makes for easy U-turns, where the Escape (38.7 feet) and Equinox (40 feet) need three-pointers.
Ride & Handling
I can't heap similar praise on the Sportage's highway composure. At moderate speeds, the steering delivered quick, nimble cuts, with little body roll in our EX test car, but on the interstate it gravitates toward a numb, distant sensation when the wheel is at 12 o'clock. The Sportage dials back power assist well enough — it's not too light or buoyant — but the wheel never settles in; it wanders off-center too easily, and the constant corrections to keep the SUV on track wear you down. It's characteristic of too many vehicles from Kia and its parent company, Hyundai. Kia's new Cadenza sedan shows signs of progress, but the evolution has yet to reach the brand's SUVs.
Fitted with upgraded rear shock absorbers a year ago, the Sportage filters out individual bumps well enough, but highways still expose the gritty busyness that's characterized the nameplate since its 2011 redesign. Our test car had higher-performance shocks, as well as 18-inch wheels and P235/55R18 tires. Both come on the EX and SX but not the base or LX trims, though all Sportages will adopt the upgraded shocks for 2014.
The Sportage's raked windshield sacrifices some forward visibility, but the cabin gets high marks for design. Inventive textures cover the dash: piano-black center controls and some chrome around the gearshift. Alas, cabin materials underline the SUV's sub-$20,000 starting price: thin seats, harsh plastics and padding-free upper doors. The Mazda CX-5 and up-level versions of the Ford Escape have richer materials.
Despite a high center console — as opposed to the upright, minivan-like dash in the Honda CR-V — the Sportage had enough knee room for my 6-foot frame. (The Escape's console is even wider, and several editors found it pinned their knees in.) But the six-way powered driver's seat on EX and SX trim levels forgoes a cushion-angle adjuster, and some may find the fixed angle lends too much or too little thigh support.
For an SUV that's a few inches shorter than the Escape, CR-V and RAV4 — and more than a foot shorter than the Equinox — the Sportage's backseat has adequate knee room. Unfortunately, the seat sits low to the floor, so adults may find their knees uncomfortably elevated. What's more, the Sportage lacks any backseat adjustments, which many SUVs in this class offer.
Cargo space behind the rear seats totals a modest 26.1 cubic feet; the Equinox, RAV4, Escape and CR-V all have 30-plus cubic feet. Fold the seats down, and the Sportage tops out at 54.6 cubic feet — 9.1 to 18.8 cubic feet short of the group's maximum figures.
Safety, Resale Concerns
In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Sportage earned top marks in front, side and rear impacts, as well as in a roof-strength test. But the SUV scored poorly in IIHS' new small-overlap crash test, which simulates hitting an object from your front-left corner. (Read about the test here.) The 2014 Subaru Forester and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport fared well in the test, but most other Sportage competitors also did poorly.
Standard safety features on the Kia include six airbags plus the required antilock brakes and electronic stability system. The Sportage does not offer blind spot, lane departure or forward collision warning systems — increasingly widespread safety options among some competitors. Click here for a full list of safety features on the Sportage, and see how it accommodates child-safety seats in our Car Seat Check.
In its two years on the market, the Sportage has shown exemplary reliability, even in a class known for few problems. Resale value, however, is concerning. Residuals calculator ALG projects five-year resale values for the SUV to range from 34 to 38 percent, depending on trim level. That's closer to the Equinox (31 to 34 percent) than the CR-V (38 to 40 percent) and Escape (37 to 40 percent). ALG has yet to calculate residuals for the redesigned RAV4.
Features & Pricing
The base Sportage starts around $20,000, including destination charge. That's thousands less than its major competitors, and it gets you a stick-shift car with 16-inch alloy wheels, power windows and locks, cruise control, and Bluetooth phone and audio streaming.
It would seem like a good deal, but the automatic transmission — for which nearly all SUV shoppers opt — requires stepping up to the LX (about $22,000). It also adds larger alloy wheels, headlight washers and remote entry with a car alarm, but that's embarrassingly little to justify the $2,000 difference. Pile up the options on an EX or SX, meanwhile, and you can get leather seats and heated front seats — along with a cooled driver's seat that works pretty well, considering most cooled seats are as effective at cooling you as a cup of decaf is at waking you up. You can also get a panoramic moonroof, navigation and a backup camera. All-wheel drive runs an affordable $1,500 on the LX, EX and SX.
Load up an all-wheel-drive Sportage SX and the total runs about $32,500.
Sportage in the Market
Kia's larger Sorento overshadows the Sportage, outselling its smaller sibling at a rate of more than 3.5 to 1. More popular compact SUVs, meanwhile, outsell the Sorento by double or more. Kia's two-SUV strategy in this group gives shoppers more choices, but the smaller of the two seems increasingly entry-level as the years go by. Small families will find better versatility among some of the Sportage's competitors, particularly the CR-V. It should still appeal to solo drivers, but consider the drawbacks before jumping in.
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