2011 Kia Sportage

2011 Kia Sportage 2011 Kia Sportage
Short Take Road Test

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. The Sportage is 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 Masculinized 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 elements—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 nonluxury 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 with the dowdy trappings of its predecessor. Although 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 on interior extras while dressing up the exterior with chrome trim and a rear spoiler. Kia’s Uvo voice-controlled media center 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 $30,000.

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. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the base front-wheel-drive model; all others receive a six-speed auto. The Kia’s four-cylinder is a few hp 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. And so the Sportage’s numbers look compelling on paper—but they don't deliver at the test track. In our tests, an EX AWD model took a leisurely 9.8 seconds to reach 60 mph and a lackluster 17.4 seconds at 81 mph to cover the quarter-mile. In the most recent round-up of the Kia’s peers, the slowest model was the Honda CR-V EX-L AWD, and it beats the Sportage to 60 mph by over a second. Surprisingly, the Kia tips the scales at just under 3500 pounds (more on that in a second), which is on the lighter side of its competitive set. It must be noted that our test car’s engine was relatively green, with just over 700 miles on the clock, so we’d expect a little better performance as it loosens up. Nevertheless, the Sportage is not rapid transportation.

We welcome the Kia’s 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. We believe it, as our loaded 2011 EX AWD with the new six-speed automatic came in 241 pounds lighter than the previous-gen V-6 model with all-wheel-drive. Even so, no 2011 Sportage will challenge a Cayenne Turbo from a stoplight, 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 nearly 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—the 30-to-50-mph passing time is on par for the group—and winding the engine to redline is not the unpleasant experience it used to be. Fuel economy is decent, thanks to lower mass, wider gear spread, and improved aerodynamics. The 2011 Sportage returns an EPA-rated 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway in all-wheel-drive/automatic guise—we got 21 mpg—and a very respectable 22/31 with the front-wheel-drive/auto setup.

Although the 2.4-liter four is the only engine available at launch, Kia has promised to make its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder—it 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 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

For non-enthusiasts, it seems 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.