Driven: 2011 Kia Sportage

By Rex Roy

July 27, 2010

—San Francisco

Don't say "Spor-taah-je" like “fromage.” It's pronounced straight American, "Sport-age." The folks from Kia say it that way probably because the third-generation compact crossover is about as American as you can get.

Crossovers have taken over the American automotive landscape, and are now the best-selling segment of vehicle in all the land. The class of ever-expanding nameplates (over 70) now accounts for nearly one in four vehicle sales. Kia knew this was coming. Before there was the RAV4. Before the CRV. Before the RX300, Escape, and Aztek there was the, drum roll please, the 1995 Sportage compact utility vehicle. To be fair, it wasn't great, but it was there. After 15 years things have changed.

Kia is now on its third-generation of Sportage. For 2011, everything is new. And better. Not perfect. But better. Better looking. Better driving. The only thing that's the same is the value offered by most models. One of our few hang-ups is that a fully optioned Sportage will run about $29,000. That seems dear for Kia's smaller crossover, but dealers aren't likely to order many fully loaded units, except for their wives.

With a base price (including delivery charges) of less than $19,000, the new and well-equipped Sportage has outgrown the design awkwardness of earlier models. Drawn by Massimo Frascella, Kia's design director, the lines are such that crossover-crazy American buyers should notice. Overall, the package grew in length (3-inches) and width (2.1-inches) but dropped in height (2.3-inches).

Inspired by the Kia Kue concept (right) shown at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, the young Italian designer Frascella said, "That was my first work for Kia. The concept showed that we were working on a really different design language for Kia. The production model showed we could carry through and not drop any of the concept's attention to detail."

Comparing the new Sportage to the Kue illustrates the consistency from concept to production. The nose and sculpted sides are nearly a pickup from the concept, but Frascella's team had to work on the rear to make it practical and producible. What they ended up was an integrated, interesting form with good graphics and a low cargo-area lift-over height. Smart details include hiding the hatch release and grip in the shallow ledge just above the license plate. This eliminates the need for a separate handle, cleaning up the space. All they missed was tucking the rear wiper up under the hatch's spoiler.

Unfortunately, the new Sportage gets barely half of Kue's 4.6-liter V-8. The three production models (base, LX, EX) all make do with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder. With independently variable intake and exhaust cam timing, it makes a not inconsiderable 170 horsepower and 163 pound-feet torque with the volume-leading automatic or 176/168 with the 6-speed manual (available only on the base).

Kia stocked its press-event fleet with EX models, so we'll have to wait to report on the three-pedal Sportages. Using the new six-speed automatic first seen in the Kia Sorento and some familial Hyundai models, the Sportage drives well. Shifts are smooth and consistent. A manual mode helped keep the engine in the gear we wanted when we were really hustling.

The Sportage comes in front- and all-wheel-drive editions. The Dynamax AWD system is produced by mega-supplier Magna. The on-demand system boasts variable torque splits and does feature the ability to—on limited basis—to lock in a front-rear torque split (beginning at 60-percent front, 40-percent rear). Toggling off the traction control makes operation in sand and mud a possibility, but as to the system's efficacy, our on-pavement-only experience didn't give us any clues.

On the road, Kia's 2.4 never got thrashy or made ugly noises. Quite the opposite. At WOT there was a nice growl and the powertrain remained smooth right up to the 6000 rpm redline.

Feeling through the electrically assisted power steering is much better than so many models already on the road. With electric units, it seems that they're either really good or really bad because everything can be tuned. Kia engineers found a balance that delivers a good self-centering action (like dialing in lots of front suspension positive caster) without creating an on-center dead zone. The system also lets enough feeling through that you know the steering wheel actually connected to something that's moving over an ever-changing, textured surface. Turn-in is sharp for a crossover.

Blasting over beautiful Skyline Drive (south of San Francisco), the crossover tracked well and the suspension felt composed. However, over some sections that featured more pavement undulations, the suspension seemed to run out of travel. There were never any bump-stop crashes or slams, but as speeds increased, so did ride choppiness. Most drivers won't wring out their Sportage like a WR editor, so they'll probably like the blend ride and handling just fine. Not too firm or too cushy.

Brakes provided drama-free operation. As is the norm, ABS supports discs all around. Stability control is there to protect the ham-fisted and/or brain dead.

All of this is experienced in a modern, Bluetooth-equipped interior that lacks the visual cues that normally scream, "I'm a cheap car!" If you're looking for lots of uneven cut lines, mismatched trim, and ugly colors or textures, find another victim. The Sportage's interior shows the same modern design ethos as the exterior. The clean instrument panel and dash place the center controls up high, with the two-tier design putting the HVAC just below the entertainment/NAV center.

As is the Kia way, the interior is well equipped with comfort and convenience features as well as airbags (six). Air, cruise, tilt wheel, satellite radio, and power windows are also standard on the base models. Kia's new UVO system is standard on EX models. Developed with Microsoft (like Ford's Sync), the device integration system enables voice control of cell phones and MP3 players.

Even in fully optioned vehicles, two clues tell you you're not in a more expensive ride; the hardness of the door panels and the amount of road noise and tire roar that comes into the cabin. The Sportage compares well to others in its class, but its level of execution is so good that it begs comparison to more expensive vehicles.

The 2011 Sportage goes on sale in August, with each Kia dealer getting an initial delivery of two units. More, of course, are on the way, as is a gasoline direct-injected turbocharged version. All of the Sportage models deserve consideration from those shopping for a compact crossover. Vehicles from Kia once only got attention because they were cheap. While they still are leaders in delivering value, there's more to like about the new Sportage than just value.

Kia deserves to be taken seriously. World wide, the Hyundai/Kia organization recently surpassed Ford in terms of sales. It has its next target in its sights, and with solid products like the new Sportage, GM had better be worried.

2011 Kia Sportage EX AWD
Engine: inline-4, 2.4 liters, 16v
Output: 170 hp/163 lb-ft
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 21/28 mpg
Curb Weight: 3355 lb
Base Price: $23,295
On Sale: August, 2010