Within the ever-growing range of compact SUVs, Kia’s little Sportage has represented a bargain-priced, well-warranted alternative to industry darlings such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. But there’s a reason the others have been the standouts and the Sportage has not: The outgoing model wasn’t dynamically or stylistically compelling.
The Sportage will be better prepared to challenge the segment leaders come August, however, when the all-new 2011 model hits U.S. dealerships. Sharing most of its dirty parts with the redesigned 2010 Hyundai Tucson, the Sportage remains less expensive and slightly smaller than the recently redesigned Sorento crossover in Kia’s lineup. It’s now wrapped in edgy, look-at-me styling that Kia hopes will succeed in attracting the male buyers most entries in the segment have not.
Massively Masculine-ized Styling, Inside and Out
The styling asserts its boy-car intentions loud and clear. The new model’s proportions are as dramatic as the outgoing model’s are dull, and few curves are found on its sheetmetal. The body graphics—including its angular headlamps, intricate taillamps, “tabbed” upper grille, flared lower grille, and chopped window shapes—all contribute to a beefy, high-tech appearance. Springing for the top-dog EX model yields a thin, Audi A5–esque strip of LED daytime running lights in the headlamps, a first for non-luxury compact utes and indicative of the Sportage’s modernization. Even the color palette is aimed at men, with the basic white, black, silver, red, and blue shades supplemented by a dressy dark pewter and, our favorite, a shimmering metallic orange.
The interior is a big improvement compared to the dowdy trappings of its predecessor. While most surfaces are rendered in the hard plastics that are unavoidable in anything at this price point, the low-gloss finishes and beveled, masculine shapes help give the materials an upscale look. The deeply tunneled gauges are easy to read. As you’d expect, feature content ranges from relatively low-frills in base form ($18,990) to more comfortable in the mid-grade LX ($20,990). The lineup is topped by the EX model ($23,990), which loads up on interior extras while dressing up the exterior with chrome trim and a rear spoiler. Kia’s Uvo voice-controlled media center also will be available, and rear-seat occupants benefit from access to direct sunlight through an optional two-row panoramic sunroof. Check all the boxes—including those for navigation and leather—and the Sportage will cost nearly $30K.
Lighter, More Powerful, More Efficient—And There’s a Turbo Model Planned
For all the attitude served up by its bossy looks, driving the Sportage is a decidedly benign experience. Power comes from Kia/Hyundai’s quiet, smooth 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine producing 176 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque. Compared with last year’s wussy 140-hp four-cylinder, the new engine feels positively muscular, and it’s even three ponies up on the outgoing Sportage’s optional 173-hp V-6. The Kia’s four-cylinder is a few horsepower brawnier than both the Nissan Rogue’s 170-hp four and the Ford Escape’s base 171-hp four, yet it’s a few horses shy of the four-bangers found in the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, which are rated for 179 and 180 hp, respectively. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the base front-wheel-drive model, while all others receive a six-speed auto.
The power increase feels amplified by a welcome weight loss for 2011. A base 2011 Sportage with a six-speed manual transmission weighs 73 fewer pounds than the prior entry-level model with its five-speed manual, according to Kia; a loaded 2011 Sportage EX with all-wheel drive and the new six-speed automatic registers 172 fewer pounds than the 2010 Sportage V-6 in four-wheel-drive guise. That said, no 2011 Sportage will challenge a Cayenne Turbo from a stoplight, and nor do we see all-wheel-drive models giving chase to Range Rovers in knee-deep mud ruts (although the electronically locking center differential is a pleasant surprise). With low-end grunt at a premium, it’s near impossible to break the front wheels loose (even facing uphill on steep San Francisco streets), making the all-wheel-drive system a bit pointless for those who live in all but the rainiest and snowiest climes. Response is respectable once the revs are up, and winding the engine to redline is not the unpleasant experience it used to be. Fuel economy is decent thanks to its lower mass, wider gear spread, and improved aerodynamics. The front-wheel-drive 2011 Sportage will achieve fuel economy ranging from 21 mpg city/28 highway for the all-wheel-drive/automatic combo to a very respectable 22/31 with the front-wheel drive/auto setup.
While the 2.4-liter four is the only engine available at launch, Kia has promised to make its new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder—which debuts in the 2011 Optima and Hyundai Sonata wielding a potent 274 hp—an option for the Sportage within about six months. The resulting model will be called the Sportage SX, and we hope that Kia will find a way to add some life to the Sportage’s steering by then. Installing a faster steering rack wouldn’t hurt, either. At least body motions are nicely controlled, as we discovered on an extremely unpredictable, high-crowned, variable-camber road we found after breaking from Kia’s prescribed drive route. But the well-sorted front strut/rear multilink suspension is let down by the slippery all-season tires, which screamed in protest on every hot corner, prompting the stability control to intervene early and often. On the other hand, harsh impacts are managed impressively on all but the roughest of roads.
A Decent Value, As Ever
We will perform our normal battery of instrumented tests on the 2011 Sportage soon, but, for non-enthusiasts, it seems that the new Sportage is as respectable a vehicle on which to spend 19 grand as any in its class, combining brash new looks with a contemporary cabin and a thoroughly modern powertrain. It’s arguably the boldest effort we’ve seen yet from Kia’s so-called “design-led transformation,” and it should bolster the brand’s longstanding reputation for offering strong value. Whether or not it siphons shoppers from Honda and Toyota showrooms remains to be seen.