It's not often that a compact SUV can turn heads, but the new Kia Sportage does. And while the exterior design may be eye-catching, the interior could be considered class-leading, putting Honda and Toyota on notice that even a Kia can compete with their best-sellers.
There's so much Kia gets right with the 2011 Sportage that it's almost too easy to overlook its few glaring shortcomings.
You wouldn't call the Sportage stunning, as that term is reserved for sports cars and exotics. But while the Sportage isn't stunning, it is visually dynamic and it turned heads everywhere I drove. The last car I saw turn as many heads for around $30,000 was one of the first Dodge Challengers to land in Chicago. And it was bright orange, not plain-Jane silver, like the Sportage I drove.
The aggressive front end kicks things off, but it's the slick rear — with angled taillights that pay homage to the latest Audis — that marks the Sportage as an aesthetic winner. The 18-inch wheels that come standard on the top, EX trim level I tested were a bit more polarizing; some editors thought they were too much, while others (myself included) thought they were a must.
There's no doubt in today's crowded car market that looks sell cars … or leave them to languish, depending on how radical the look. The Sportage plays the cool-versus-radical game quite well.
No one was conflicted about the Sportage's interior. Surrounding its passengers in black fabric, leather and plastic, this SUV has an air of sportiness in its palette. Overall, the design is pretty remarkable for a compact SUV that starts under $20,000. The dash has a winged effect, the gauges are sharp and sporty, and even the vents have hefty, chrome-accented levers.
If the design itself weren't a high point, the materials would be. In its price range, the Sportage equals or beats every rival. The Nissan Rogue and Subaru Forester are available at a similar cost, but their interiors are inferior. The Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V are bigger and cost more, and their interiors don’t offer the level of quality and aesthetics that the Sportage's does.
All this hard work would be worthless if the Sportage weren't comfortable to sit in and drive, and it is. There was ample room in the backseat for all passengers, and when I sat behind the driver’s seat (adjusted for my size, 5-foot-10), I had inches of knee room. This interior roominess is remarkable for a vehicle that's shorter than its competition, including the Rogue and Forester. The Sportage has 100 cubic feet of interior volume, which is more than the Rogue and Chevy Equinox, despite their larger frames.
Some of the taller Cars.com editors found the interior roomy enough for them in both rows as well, despite the fact that our tester's optional panoramic sunroof cut into headroom. I also took my 2-year-old son for a few errands in the Sportage, and his child-safety seat fit fine, with his feet barely touching the front passenger seat when it was adjusted for a real-life person. I, of course, move it up when it's empty to avoid getting scuff marks on it.
Kia's seats are firmer than average, though, so long road trips won't be quite as comfortable. Still, during my hour-plus commutes, I never experienced any overt discomfort.
All this remarkable work inside and out is hurt by the Sportage's overall driving experience. While the steering is precise — and the steering wheel is quite heavy — the 176-horsepower four-cylinder engine is not a smooth customer, and the Sportage's ride is extremely stiff. I can put up with a gutless engine, and I think many compact-SUV buyers can too. But a super-stiff ride? That may be a deal-breaker.
Similar to the harsh ride we noticed when testing the Hyundai Tucson, a sister vehicle to the Sportage, our EX tester was remarkably rough on all road surfaces. I'd like to drive a Sportage with the 16-inch wheels — which are standard on lesser trims — to see if they make it any better, but I don't think all the harsh jolts sent through the chassis would be negated by smaller wheels. It's likely our test car's all-wheel-drive system made the Sportage heavier and slower, and perhaps affected the ride a bit, too, versus a front-wheel-drive version with smaller wheels. Again, we'll weigh in on other models when they become available to test. Potential buyers, though, should spend their test drive paying close attention to ride comfort. The power itself is on par with the competition, but the six-speed automatic offers coarse shifts. When you hammer down the gas pedal to get up to highway speeds, the engine bogs down and takes quite some time to get you comfortably merged into traffic.
Gas mileage is quite good, with front-wheel-drive models coming in at 22/31 mpg city/highway with the automatic transmission and 21/29 mpg with the manual. Automatic all-wheel-drive versions are rated 21/28 mpg. Few competitors match this mileage, besides the Chevy Equinox (22/32 mpg, front-wheel drive). The base trim level is only available with a six-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive.
The engine is also quite loud, with noise intruding into the cabin more than you’d expect in a modern car of any stripe. Wind noise is minimal, presumably thanks to the aerodynamic shape of the little crossover. Road noise is a tad loud with the large, 18-inch wheels and tires, but it’s not unforgivable.
Features & Pricing
Have you ever seen a car commercial that says ''Starting at $18,295*,'' yet in small print that asterisk reads, ''As shown, $29,990''? Well, those are the starting and as-tested prices of our 2011 Kia Sportage. The base front-wheel-drive model starts at $18,295 before the destination fee, and our all-wheel-drive EX test car was $29,990, including a Premium Package with leather seats ($3,000), navigation system ($1,500) and destination charges ($695).
That's not a small disparity, but there's plenty of comfort room in between for shoppers to find a lot of value.
At the base price, you get the same style and engine as the other trims, with 16-inch alloy wheels. You also get a stereo with USB input, Bluetooth, steering-wheel audio controls and a trip computer.
The LX is the middle trim, starting at $20,295 for front-wheel drive and $21,795 for all-wheel drive. The LX adds the automatic transmission, privacy glass and keyless entry as standard equipment, but that’s about it. A number of option packages are also available, however.
The EX starts at $23,295 for front-wheel drive and $24,795 for all-wheel drive. The EX adds the 18-inch wheels, LED daytime running lights, fog lights, a spoiler, roof rails, dual-zone climate control, a telescoping steering wheel and a cooled glove box.
In terms of equipment and pricing before options, all three trims compete exceptionally well against the competition. Other than the Hyundai Tucson, no competing SUVs start below $20,000.
Where you lose out by picking the Sportage is in cargo room. At 26.1 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 54.6 cubic feet with them down, it falls short of the competition — even the relatively miniscule capacities of the Nissan Rogue, at 28.9 and 57.9 cubic feet, respectively.
During my week testing the Sportage, though, I didn't feel like the cargo space was unusable. In fact, the narrow cargo bay of the larger Equinox isn’t overly cargo-friendly despite its larger overall measurements.
The 2011 Sportage features six standard airbags, including front-seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags for both rows. Electronic stability control is also standard. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has named the Sportage a Top Safety Pick based on its tests of the Hyundai Tucson, which is structurally similar to the Sportage. That means it earns top marks in front, side and rear crash tests, as well as IIHS' new roof-strength crush test.
Sportage in the Market
The compact crossover segment is a heated one, with the Chevy Equinox, Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V ruling the roost in terms of sales. With its low starting price, array of standard features, high-quality interior and head-turning looks, though, I expect the Sportage to do quite well in that field, despite its poor ride comfort and sluggish engine.
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