Daniel Pund, Senior Editor
We do not want to overstate the case for the 2011 Kia Sportage, the company's cheeky, little crossover.
It is slow (although not much slower than its major competitors). It's not particularly fun to drive (although it's much more so than, say, a Jeep Patriot). And, let's face it, the name Kia still has the lingering reputation as being for the guy who buys his pants from the "manufacturer-seconds/factory-blems" pile.
But forget all that for now. Kia is floating high on the rising corporate tide with sister ship Hyundai. It is delivering truly competitive product for the first time in its history. And, perhaps more importantly, Kia is beginning to build some of the most compelling-looking stuff on the market.
This new-for-2011 Sportage is — dare we say it? — kind of cool.
Get the LED Out
The thing that first caught our eye on the 2011 Kia Sportage was that absurdly large and oddly placed slab of chrome at the trailing end of the rear side windows. "What the hell?" we thought and might have unintentionally said aloud.
Still perplexed by that brash styling note, we surveyed the rest of the stubby, little lozenge. A colleague pointed us around to the front of the vehicle, where our retinas were promptly seared by a string of bright, white LEDs that underline the Sportage's main headlight elements. Nobody in this world or the next will mistake that for anything but a grab from Audi (no surprise then, that the head of design at Kia is longtime Audi designer Peter Schreyer). They might soon be as much of a cliché as fender vents, but for now, the LED underline gives standers-by the impression that they are seeing something pricier than a Kia.
We also liked the fact that there's nothing biomorphic about the Sportage. It's not intended to look like a crouched cat, ready to pounce, or whatever other clichés designers are using these days. The Sportage is unabashedly a man-made machine.
Yeah, Yeah, Enough About the Design
Anyway, did we mention yet that the 2011 Kia Sportage is mechanically identical to the new Hyundai Tucson? Oops, well it is. In short, this means that the Sportage is prepared to take on the established players in the class, if not exactly whup 'em.
Like the Chevy Equinox and Honda CR-V, the Kia Sportage is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder. The output of the Kia motor (176 horsepower, 168 pound-feet of torque) trails the Chevy and Honda motors slightly, but none of them are known for their quickness.
For those of you planning on taking your front-wheel-drive Sportage EX to the drag strip, know that the Sportage will hit 60 mph in 9.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout. The quarter-mile will come up in a trophy-nabbing 17.1 seconds at 81.9 mph. Such numbers are par for the class. Want to go faster? You'll have to step up to the turbo-4 in the VW Tiguan or the V6-powered Toyota RAV4.
The 2011 Kia Sportage is offered with a six-speed manual for use by people with two or more feet, but the stick comes only in base models with front-wheel drive. If you want nice things and/or four-wheel drive, then you're stuck with a six-speed automatic. Built in-house by Kia parent company Hyundai, the new transmission is quite good and makes sensible choices about which gear to serve up.
In fact, the whole powertrain is good enough that it goes largely unnoticed in operation. We swear that's a compliment in this class. It's only when you hammer the throttle that you notice how not powerful this runabout is. Full-throttle upshifts are soft and the vehicle emits a brief sigh before serving up the new gear as if to say, "Seriously, dude?! I am but a fashionable wagon. Let's cut the Andretti routine, OK?"
The EPA says the Sportage is capable of returning 22 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. We only managed 21.3 mpg in mixed driving. So either the EPA is full of it or we were a little clumsy with the gas pedal.
Pushing the Grocery Cart
You might think that buyers of this variety of vehicle don't care about handling. And that's just not true. It's the kind of hard-core, at-the-limit testing we do at our test track that fails to interest them.
But surely they care about fun-to-drive, however one chooses to define that. And here is where the Kia's alert tuning pays off. Its outright grip (0.77g) is nearer the sharp end of the class, but its slalom speed (62.2 mph) is decidedly midpack. Likewise, at 124 feet from 60 mph, the Sportage's braking capability is good but neither class-leading nor embarrassing.
But the Sportage's relatively quick steering, limited body roll, precise throttle response and aggressive-for-the-class 55-series tires, result in surprisingly lively handling. It's more responsive than, say, a Honda CR-V.
Our only real complaint about the 2011 Kia Sportage's performance profile is its relatively stiff-legged ride, which surely had something to do with our tester's 18-inch wheels and 235/55 Hankook Optimo H426 rubber. If the two-tone 18-inch wheels didn't look so good with the Signal Red paint, we'd go for the optional 17-inchers instead.
Our other complaint concerns the performance of the antilock braking system. As noted, stopping distances are fine, but even the most moderate brake pedal pressure would send the ABS system into palpitations over road imperfections. It's disconcerting and gives the Sportage an unrefined feel.
She Thinks She's Being Helpful
The Sportage's relative stubbiness (174.8 inches in length) combined with a middling wheelbase (103.9 inches), mean that Kia's small crossover prioritizes passenger space over cargo space. Indeed the cargo hold behind the rear seats is scant compared to the class leaders (RAV4, CR-V, Equinox...).
Turns out that all those hours allegedly wasted playing Tetris finally paid off when we had to package enough gear for a week-and-a-half-long family vacation. Now, 75 percent of said family is female and two of them are not yet in kindergarten. That translates into a ton of stuff including two monstrous suitcases, a kiddie-size suitcase with bas-relief princess heads, DVD player, diaper bag, double stroller, briefcase and countless other items that are escaping our tattered memory. And it all fit.
We received no car-related complaints from the peanut gallery and precious few seatback kicks. Hell, they were just happy that they could listen to Beck and the White Stripes directly from the parental iPod. Incidentally, the Kia's iPod interface is about 1,000 times simpler and more elegant than that of the $127,000 BMW Alpina B7 we drove the next week.
In fact, they only became indignant when the lady who lives inside the dashboard (she comes with the $1,500 navigation system) kept trying to direct the car back to a freeway on-ramp that was closed for repairs. From the future tester of kindergarten teachers came this: "She thinks she's helping us. But really she's just annoying." Indeed. We allowed the lady in the dash to take the fall for that one.
We weren't complaining anyway. Up front, we enjoyed the rationally placed controls and ease of operation of the Sportage's interior design. The materials were by and large richer-looking than those used in the new Volkswagen Jetta, once a paragon of apparent quality. Only elevated wind and road noise betrayed the Sportage's budget-minded roots. And let it be known that the Sportage suffers from visibility-impeding elephantiasis of the A-pillar just like most modern vehicles.
Not Bargain Basement
Our EX came packed with power everything, 18-inch wheels, dual-zone climate control, USB and auxiliary audio inputs and other niceties. The top-of-the-line EX starts at $23,990. Our test vehicle also came equipped with the nav system and a $3,000 Premium package. That includes leather seats, heated front seats (with an air-cooled driver seat), push-button start, dual-pane panorama roof, rear parking assist, auto-dimming mirror, heated outside mirrors and a cargo cover.
That's a lot of equipment for a total as-tested price of $28,490. A loaded four-cylinder Chevy Equinox easily tops $30,000.
The 2011 Kia Sportage, and increasingly the rest of the Kia line, needn't compete by simply throwing feature-laden mediocrity, like so much chum, in front of shoppers. The Sportage now offers the performance, features and sophistication of its main competitors.
It also has a couple of persuasive differentiators like its sprightly personality and compelling design. And it's these traits that could do what was inconceivable not long ago. They might actually inspire a goodly number of shoppers to actually want a Kia instead of just settling for one.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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