Thumbs Up: It’s the best looking compact crossover on the market.
Thumbs Down: Lacks interior space and headroom compared to others.
Buy This Car If: You want a decent handling CUV with a unique sense of style.
The Kia Sportage has been sold on and off in the U.S. market since 1995, but you’re forgiven if you had no idea that it’s been around so long. The first generation, sold here from 1995 through 2002 was an anonymous box-on-box compact SUV notable only for introducing the knee airbag in 1998. The second generation, introduced here in 2005, was a little more stylish, a little better built and a lot more popular with the general public. Kia sold over 190,000 second generation Sportages over a five year period, helped by the truck’s five star NHTSA rating. The conventional box-on-box styling was a step forward from the first generation, but it was still evolutionary, not revolutionary. Consumers bought the second generation Sportage because it was a safe car at a good price, not because of its stunning good looks.
Enter the third generation Sportage, introduced in the U.S. in August of 2010. The first thing you’re likely to notice is that style played a big role in the evolution of this Sportage; in fact, it was shaped by Peter Schreyer, whose previous work included the Audi TT, the Audi A3 and the new Kia Optima. Look closely and you’ll see the styling influences used by both the Kia Optima and the Kia Sportage: both share the slash-cut headlights and wing shaped grille, and both feature a pinched front fascia and defined character lines down the hood. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that no other non-luxury compact crossover or SUV on the market today has the same element of design as the Sportage. If you want anonymity, this is not the car for you.
The Kia Sportage blends bold shapes with black trim and chrome trim, and the car is distinctive from every angle. The side profile shows sculpted door lowers, blended with a low roofline and low beltline. Black trim is used to hide the B-pillars, but chrome trim (carried from the beltline) is actually used to highlight the solid C-pillar. The door handles are chrome, but the wheel arches and rocker panels are black; it sounds distracting, but the shapes and colors actually blend together well. Even the bold five spoke wheels are unlike anything else on the market today, and the help make the Sportage look like a much more expensive vehicle. The funky styling even carries over to the rear: there’s no conventional bumper to speak of, but instead the liftgate drops down into an upswept rear fascia. A small roof spoiler accentuates the sporty look, but probably does more to keep the rear window clean than it does to prevent turbulence.
The styling effort doesn’t end with the outside, either. Open the door, and you can’t miss the design of the front seats. First off, their muli-layered design is a visual treat, and Kia emphasizes a component that other automakers usually gloss over. The seats (ventilated leather in my EX tester) are wide and deeply bolstered, and both driver and passenger get heated seats. Oddly enough, only the driver gets a fan-cooled seat for air circulation on hot days, and I’m not sure why Kia omitted this feature for front seat passengers. Both front seats are power adjustable and both have lumbar support, but only the driver’s seat is height adjustable.
Kia, like parent Hyundai, knows how to make a functional and attractive dashboard. The Sportage blends shapes, textures and colors to create a visually pleasing environment. The dash top is soft-touch vinyl, not hard plastic like so many automakers are adopting these days. My EX tester came with the navigation system, but Kia provides separate controls for HVAC (automatic, dual-zone and featuring an ionizing air filter in my EX model). The audio controls took some playing with to master (particularly setting stations), but I never had to resort to opening the owners manual. I’d even rate the steering wheel in the Sportage, with its easy to master controls, thick leather grip and thumb cut-outs, as above average.
The instruments in the Sportage are simple but functional. Front and center is a speedometer with clear numbers for both MPH and KPH, and a driver information display sits at the bottom. To the left is a small tachometer, while a combination temperature and fuel gauge sits to the right. All instruments are in a hooded pod, which gives good visibility even in bright sunlight.
Rear seat passengers will enjoy the ride, too, as long as they’re not much taller than six feet. The Sportage’s rear seats are reasonably well bolstered and offer a decent amount of legroom. There’s a third seatbelt and shoulder harness for center seat passengers, but only children will be content to sit there for more than a cross-town trip. Unlike offerings from Hyundai (the new Elantra, for example), rear seat Sportage passengers go without heated seats.
There’s a price to pay for the Sportage’s good looks, and that’s cargo carrying capacity. The Sportage has significantly less room than offerings from Honda or Toyota, but whether or not that’s even an issue is an entirely personal matter. I’ve done two-week trips with my wife in a Miata, so I’d call the Sportage’s interior “cavernous”. If you have three kids and are looking to replace a Toyota RAV-4, your opinion may differ. If you really need something bigger, Kia’s own Sorento starts at just $1,700 more than a base Sportage.
The Sportage comes with Kia’s 2.4 liter, 176 horsepower, inline-four engine, but later this year Kia is expected to introduce a 270 horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo version dubbed the SX. As you can probably guess, 176 horsepower (and 168 ft lb of torque) isn’t enough to make the Sportage quick off the line, especially in my AWD tester, and it took me about 10 seconds flat to accelerate from zero to sixty. The EPA rates the Sportage at 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, and my own fuel economy of 22.6 mpg in mostly city driving reinforces these numbers.
On the road, the Kia handles noticeably better than competitive crossovers. It’s not a sports car, and there are visor warnings aplenty to remind you of the Sportage’s high center of gravity compared to a sedan. As long as you’re well-behaved behind the wheel, the Sportage will reward you with predictable handling, with a balance towards understeer. My tester came equipped with AWD, but that’s not to say the Sportage is suitable for off-roading. Even with a locking center differential, the Sportage is meant for traversing snow-covered roads and hard-packed sand beaches; it’s not meant for boulder-strewn trails or fording mountain streams.
My 2011 Kia Sportage EX AWD tester had a base price of $25,490, including a destination charge of $695. Options on my tester included the $1,500 Navigation Package (nav system, Sirius satellite radio, rearview camera, premium audio system) and the $3,000 Premium Package (leather seats, heated front seats, cooled driver’s seat, push button start, panoramic sunroof, rear sonar, auto-dimming rearview mirror with Homelink, heated outside mirrors, cargo cover), for a total sticker price of $29,990. For comparison, a comparably equipped Honda CR-V EX-L with navigation would sticker at $30,675 and a similarly equipped Toyota RAV4 Limited would list for $32,521.
In the past, it was easy to overlook the Sportage if you were shopping for a compact crossover, just as it was easy to ignore Kia as a manufacturer. Things have changed, and Kia now offers solid value in a car, crossover or minivan. They’ve got cutting-edge style, too, so don’t be surprised when the neighbors drop by to see what you’ve got parked in your driveway.