Purists are quick to register their disapproval when you redesign a classic nameplate, but longtime Sportage owners probably won't get up in arms about the redesigned 2011 Kia Sportage. Yes, that's correct. The Kia Sportage is something of a classic. At age 16, it is the longest-running Kia nameplate sold in the United States.
Sportage owners, it turns out, are a little more forgiving than your average Porsche 911 guy, but then, they aren't paying for a rear-engine pedigree while getting nickel-and-dimed for leather trim on the dashboard. Like its predecessor, the 2011 Kia Sportage is Kia's smallest SUV, a compact crossover based on front-wheel-drive architecture that comes in comfortably under $25,000.
But this time the Sportage doesn't look the part of an unassuming crossover. It's downright fashionable in a vehicle class that usually isn't. Also, there's finally some actual "sport" in the Sportage, as the turbocharged Sportage SX will arrive in January 2011 making upward of 270 horsepower. And in addition to offering higher-end content like a navigation system with real-time traffic and a keyless ignition, the 2011 Sportage will be one of the first Kias with UVO, the brand's new Sync-inspired, Microsoft-based voice control interface.
This is about the point when you expect us to tell you that the flashy, new Kia Sportage has forgotten how to be an actual utility vehicle, but it still manages to do the unglamorous stuff, too.
176 Horsepower for Now
We've whetted your appetite for the 270-hp Kia Sportage SX, which uses the same turbocharged, direct-injected 2.0-liter engine as the 2011 Kia Optima. But when the 2011 Kia Sportage initially goes on sale in late July 2010, it will come only with a non-turbo 2.4-liter inline-4. This Theta-family engine isn't direct-injected, and it makes 176 hp at 6,000 rpm and 168 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, just as it does in the Hyundai Tucson, the platform mate to the Sportage.
It's hard to think of an inline-4 as very snappy, but this new engine's power ratings are actually pretty close to the 2.7-liter V6 (173 hp, 178 lb-ft) featured by the 2010 Kia Sportage, and the transmission choices are far better. There's a base Sportage with a six-speed manual gearbox for you three-pedal holdouts (yeah, all two of you), while the popular LX and EX models — as well as the forthcoming SX — feature a standard six-speed automatic where the old V6 models had to make do with two fewer gears.
Keep in mind that the 2011 Sportage is 170 pounds lighter than the V6-equipped 2010 version, whether you stick with front-wheel drive or opt for the simple, on-demand four-wheel-drive system. Engineers got the poundage out of the Sportage by increasing the use of lightweight materials; high-tensile steel content in the unit-body is up to 72 percent versus 57 percent previously.
The 2011 Kia Sportage has a slightly larger footprint than its predecessor. It is 3.5 inches longer at 174.8 inches overall, and it rides on a slightly longer 103.9-inch wheelbase. Track width has increased 3 inches to 63.5 inches in front and 63.6 inches in back, making room for standard 18-inch wheels on the EX and SX.
Overall height drops 2.3 inches to 64.4 inches overall. Undoubtedly, this has something to do with the decrease in maximum cargo capacity to 54.6 cubic feet from 66.6 cubic feet (though we suspect Kia's measuring methods may have changed, too). The cargo bay itself is actually larger at 26.1 cubic feet versus 23.6 cubic feet previously.
Driving the Impossible Sportage
Our front-drive 2011 Kia Sportage EX is full of pep as we weave through downtown Seattle traffic. Just as in the Hyundai Tucson, the Sportage's Theta 2.4-liter is tuned to make all its sweetness accessible to commuters accelerating from stoplight to stoplight. Later, as we give the Sportage full throttle to merge onto Interstate 90, said pep runs out more quickly than we'd like — again, just as in the Tucson.
The six-speed automatic is smooth and prompt with downshifts, though, so it's a bearable situation. Also, as inexpensive crossovers go, the 2011 Kia Sportage EX isn't pathetically slow. It'll hit 60 mph in the mid-9-second range and go on to a 17-second quarter-mile. And it should return good fuel mileage, with an estimated 22 city/31 highway mpg rating for our front-drive version and 21 city/28 highway mpg for the 4WD version.
When we hit a series of curves on Highway 202 near Washington's Snoqualmie Falls, our Sportage EX feels lightweight and agile. Kia's compact crossover shares its fully independent suspension with the Tucson, but has slightly stiffer stabilizer bars for a little more body control. Additionally, EX models like ours get wider 235/55R18 100H Hankook Optimo H426 all-season tires compared to the Hyundai's 225/55R18s.
However, Kia officials have let us know that the preproduction 2011 Sportage EXs we're driving aren't the correct specification. Turns out they have the upgraded dampers from the SX. So actual production Sportage EX models probably won't handle quite like our tester.
For Kia's sake, we hope the production vehicles ride a little better. The ride quality is fine on freshly poured asphalt, but our EX gets a case of the jitters on freeways with ruts and expansion joints. The accompanying road noise is tough to take, too. We'd like to see the LX model's optional 17-inch wheels become a no-cost extra for the EX, since the tires would deliver improved ride comfort.
Like the Tucson, the 2011 Sportage has electric-assist power steering, but Kia has retuned it for a slightly sportier feel. The result is generally high-effort steering. That said, there's a useful change in effort level as you steer into a corner, along with a nice sense of straight-line stability as we cruise I-90.
Inside That Sleek Body
You might be inclined to give Kia's design chief Peter Schreyer all the credit for the 2011 Sportage's sleekness, but this sheet metal came out of Kia Design America, and an Italian, Massimo Frascella, is the designer of record. The Sportage does bear a resemblance to the Kue concept — one of the first projects undertaken during Schreyer's tenure. We're told the former Audi designer insisted on the production crossover's LED daytime running lights.
Alas, the cool-kid sheet metal forces a few compromises in the cabin. We don't really expect to have a great view out the back in crossover SUVs anymore. Lacking rear-quarter windows, the 2011 Kia Sportage is no exception in this regard. Rear sonar is optional, and if you get the slick Mobis navigation system or the UVO system, you can have a camera, too. What bugs us about the Sportage, though, is that it also has fatty A-pillars, which team up with chunky side mirrors to obscure your view out the front.
Apart from that, our Sportage EX has a nicely resolved driving position with good driver-seat adjustability and a standard telescoping steering wheel (optional on the LX). There's ample room and the seat is well shaped and plenty supportive. We spend an hour riding in the backseat, and that, too, proves comfortable with adequate space for all 5 feet 10 inches of us. The double-pane panoramic sunroof lets some light into what would otherwise be a stark black cabin, but we'd likely skip it to get a little more headroom.
We spend time using a preproduction version of UVO (shorthand for "your voice") in our 2011 Sportage EX. It's easy to get started, because the auditory menus are simple and the voice recognition technology is better than in some older Fords with Sync (evidently because separate Sync and audio head units are forced to play a game of telephone in those cars, whereas it's all one unit in the Sportage).
UVO becomes optional for all models of the 2011 Kia Sportage in December, but it controls only the audio system and phone call functions. If you have one of the rare phones with Bluetooth text-to-speech capability, you can also have incoming SMS text messages read to you and then reply using a list of customizable preprogrammed responses. Unlike with Sync, though, there's no navigation feature, and due to a planning oversight, you won't be able to get UVO with the factory nav system until the 2012 model year.
We shot another of our Oscar-winning handheld videos of Henry Bzeih, the man in charge of all things UVO at Kia, demonstrating the system's features. Skip ahead to 3:50 to see only the SMS texting demo. Note that Kia will be getting rid of all onscreen text displays before production begins; text messages will be heard, not seen, to minimize distraction and potential litigation.
Best Sportage Ever? Yeah, Easily
Pretty much any compact crossover will meet your demands for utility. In this class, most people aren't looking for much more than room for four adults and maybe a golden retriever or a mountain bike, plus an optional 4WD system for snowstorms. The 2011 Kia Sportage meets this requirement, just as its predecessor did.
The difference is that the 2011 Sportage does it in style. Its sharp exterior design sets it apart from other small SUVs (well, except for the Tucson, which is attractive in its own softer way). And though we can't yet give you our final verdict on how the 2011 Kia Sportage EX drives (because of our test vehicle's wonky suspension), it's clear that Kia has made some significant strides in drivetrain refinement and steering feel.
Indeed, of all the Sportages that have existed in the last 16 years, the 2011 Kia Sportage is the one that drives most like a classic. It's the one to own. But we'll wait for the turbo.
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