Kia Sportage — Becoming prince charming

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

From a frog to a prince; boring to exciting. From ordinary and bland to cutting edge style. That’s the Kia Sportage story.

The 2011 Sportage indeed personifies Kia’s revitalization from just OK to a legitimate challenger to the long-standing Japanese brands. Other examples for the 2011 model year include the mid-sized Sorento crossover, the all-new just-out mid-sized Optima, which is the kissing cousin to the revolutionary new Hyundai Sonata, and the compact Kia Forte.

There was nothing wrong with the 2010 Sportage that a complete restyling inside and out and a reworking of the drivetrain and suspension could not improve upon. And Kia has done just that with the all-new 2011 edition.

The exterior styling is nothing short of head turning. And to say that about a small crossover is rare. The head turning mantra is usually reserved for newly minted sports cars and sedans.

Kia’s new look is a reflection of former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, now Kia’s global design director. And Schreyer is probably most responsible for the new family look — the sweeping grille flanked by swept-back headlamp enclosures.

Bold curvaceous fenders work extremely well with the optional 18-inch wheels (16-inchers are standard), and the rather unusual chrome-edged C-pillar leaves a wide swath of sheetmetal to flow into the back glass and set off the wrap-around taillights. It’s an attractive package. Unlike a lot of vehicles, it’s nearly impossible to find a bad angle from which to view the Sportage.

The interior styling is more mainstream, but attractive non-the-less. The gauge cluster is well done and flows neatly into the center stack, which is of a two-tier variety. The audio controls are on the upper level and the climate controls have been placed below. The layout offers a pleasing mix of shapes.

The Sportage not only looks good, but it drives quite well, too; but (there’s always a but) - it’s in the driving that we find the new crossover’s weak spots. First, the new 176-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission is adequate for the needs of an average family. But it is no flame thrower, although more powerful than the previous V-6, which has been jettisoned for the 2011 model year.

On one trip we carried five adults and the Sportage performed well enough to get the job done. Still we longed for just a bit more power and torque so the job would have been more easily performed and the drive less tedious.
Last summer when we tested the Sportage on mountain roads in northern California we found it up to the task helped along with a commendable lack of gear hunting by the six-speed automatic.

Still more horsepower would be welcomed. And Kia has the answer. Sometime during the 2011 model year, a turbocharged version of the engine will be offered and it will change the Sportage personality with 274 horsepower. Now that the Optima turbo is out, hopefully the Sportage turbo isn’t too far behind.

For those who measure performance by comparison, the current Sportage posts average crossover numbers with published 0-to-60 times from 9 seconds to about 9.5 seconds. Stopping distance from 60 is also average measured at 124 feet.

On the plus side is excellent gas mileage rated at 22 mpg city and 31mpg highway in front-wheel drive format. An all-wheel drive system that moves up to 50 percent of torque from front to back is available, but with a loss in gas mileage to 21/28.

The second obvious problem is with the suspension, which some have tagged as unduly harsh, especially on broken pavement  We had no problem with the ride quality and we think most buyers will feel the same. But when considering a purchase, find some uneven pavement during the test drive and decide for yourself. On the road, the Sportage is solid and secure, although on-center feel suffers from the highly boosted electric power steering.

The switchgear is intuitive and gauges are clear and generally easy to read. One small criticism of navigation-equipped vehicles is that the audio system must be accessed through the nav screen. But that’s the case in more cars than not. We still wish all manufacturers would separate the audio controls from the screen. At least Kia has kept the climate controls on the dashboard. Navigation functions are easy to use and the maps are easy to read. We particularly like the night map, very cool.

We think the Sportage will work well as a long-distance cruiser for up to four adults. The interior of the Sportage is impressive from the look and feel of materials, and its relatively spaciousness both in front and back. Front seats are comfortable and finding a good driving position proved easy with the tilt and telescoping steering wheel and power seats. “But” --- once again a caveat; if you are long in the torso ingress is problematic. Because the power seat doesn’t go low enough and seat bolsters are a tad too high you will have to be a contortionist to prevent your head and neck from taking a beating.

Ample legroom in back should keep passengers content, and luggage space measuring 26.1 cubic feet should easily accommodate luggage for four people. Like most compact and mid-sized vehicles, three across in back is a squeeze that should be avoided except for short trips.

Storage has been well-thought-out by Kia designers. Bins and storage pockets are plentiful. A chilled glovebox is also available.
When hauling cargo is important, the rear seat backs fold forward to create 55 cubic feet of storage. This is probably adequate for most needs, but falls short of the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, both of which have 73 cubic feet available.

The Sportage has an impressive list of safety features including front side airbags, full-length side-curtain airbags, antilock disc brakes with brake assist, traction control, stability control, and hill descent and hill start control.

The crossover comes in three trim levels, base, LX and EX. The base model starting at $18,990 is probably more for advertising purposes, available only with a manual transmission. But some budget-conscience consumers may feel it is all they need. It comes outfitted with air conditioning, full power accessories and a six-speaker audio system with CD/MP3 player.

The LX will probably be the high-volume model starting at $20,990 in front wheel drive and $22,490 with all-wheel drive. The upcoming turbocharged model will come under SX trim, yet to be priced.

With its striking good looks, well-done interior and overall drivability our loaded top line EX FWD test car with navigation and premium package carried a bottom line of $28,490 including destination charges. How princely!

Base price: $18,990; as driven, $28,490
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 176 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 168 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches
Length: 174.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,186 pounds
Turning circle: 34.7 feet
Luggage capacity: 26.1 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 55 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 31mpg highway, 22 mpg city
0-60: 9.1 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Nissan Rogue, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V

The Good:
• Segment-leading styling
• Excellent passenger space
• Considerable standard equipment

The Bad:
• Stiff, bouncy suspension
• Hard ingress

The Ugly:
• Cargo capacity trails many segment competitors