Kia has been on a charge lately, and the 2011 Kia Sportage is proof that the junior partner in the Hyundai automobile empire isn't planning to slow down just yet. The Sportage has been completely redesigned, exorcising the past blandness from nearly every aspect of the car. Instead we now have — dare we say — excitement. Starting with an evocative exterior that proves crossovers don't have to be boring, and extending to sporty, fun-to-drive handling and plenty of premium features, the 2011 Kia Sportage might be the new standard for compact crossovers.
Compared to the 2010 Kia Sportage, the 2011 model is 3.5 inches longer, adds 10 percent more cargo space and, with its base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, makes more power than the outgoing V6 power plant and also achieves better fuel economy.
But the 2011 Sportage is not without faults. The 176-horsepower inline-4 is only adequate for this substantial utility package. And a byproduct of the sporty driving dynamics delivered by the suspension and wide, 55-series tires is a slightly stiff-legged ride. Both of these may be remedied when the more powerful turbo model appears later in the model year, along with adjustable suspension dampers.
Those unwilling to wait for the turbo model will likely find the 2011 Kia Sportage worthy of serious consideration nonetheless. When stacked up against the well-established Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, the Sportage comes up short in cargo space. But it pulls away in other areas, especially in value, where it rings in about $4,000 less than a comparably equipped CR-V or RAV4. The Sportage also undercuts lesser crossovers like the Chevrolet Equinox and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport.
So with undeniable value, lively handling, sharp styling and plenty of features, it appears the 2011 Kia Sportage has redefined the compact crossover segment.
Under the sculpted hood of this 2011 Kia Sportage test vehicle there's a 2.4-liter inline-4 engine that makes 176 hp and 168 pound-feet of torque. This is respectable power from a four-cylinder of this displacement, but it proves merely adequate to get all 3,329 pounds of this crossover moving, although the six-speed automatic at least makes the most of what's available. For those with aspirations of more powerful motivation — especially when a full load of passengers and cargo is involved — then you'll want to wait for the 270-hp turbocharged inline-4 that will be available later in the year (a five-speed manual transmission will be available for this engine, too).
At the test track, this front-wheel-drive Sportage turns in fairly average numbers when compared to the competition. Acceleration from zero to 60 mph takes 9.5 seconds and stopping from that speed requires 124 feet. Handling tests result in a 62.2-mph blast through the slalom and 0.77g of cornering grip on the skid pad.
While the numbers aren't much more than average compared to the Kia's crossover competition, the new Sportage feels lively from the driver seat. On serpentine mountain passes, the taut suspension keeps body roll at bay when cornering, while the electric-assist steering is precise at the price of some artificial feel. Engaging the transmission's manual shift control further enhances the Sportage's fun-to-drive factor with quick and definitive gearchanges.
Kia's EPA-estimated fuel economy of 22 city/31 highway mpg and 25 mpg in combined driving seems a bit optimistic, though. In its time with us, the Sportage averaged only 21.3 mpg; with one tank that was almost entirely composed of relaxed highway driving that netted only 24.8 mpg.
With the Sportage's athletic driving dynamics, some compromises have to be made in the name of handling. A firm suspension setup with 235/55R18 tires means that the Sportage registers bumps and potholes more often and with greater intensity than most other crossover SUVs in this class. Wavy washboard highway surfaces tend to be even more bothersome.
Otherwise, the 2011 Kia Sportage is quite comfortable for long road trips. The driver benefits from a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and a cooled seat, making it easy to find a preferred position and maintain that comfort for hundreds of miles at a time. Passengers and driver alike benefit from well-contoured seats and adequate head- and legroom. The rear seats comfortably seat two adults as tall as 5 feet 10, although a third passenger back there will likely find the center seat decidedly less comfortable.
Wind and road noise is noticeable at highway speeds, but not at all intrusive.
Overall, the 2011 Kia Sportage met our expectations during our few weeks with it. Outward visibility is generally admirable, although the rearward view is slightly obstructed by large rear roof pillars (a common issue with crossovers, of course). The A-pillars can also seem a bit thick, but this only becomes an issue on very tight and winding roads. Gauges are situated well within the driver's sight lines and prove legible at a glance.
The appearance of the centrally located touchscreen has a tendency to get washed out by direct sunlight since it lacks a hood to shield it from incoming rays. But this is a minor inconvenience, since the controls for the audio and navigation are as easy to use as any system on the market. Large, clear buttons make operation a breeze, and we expect it to only get better when the Microsoft UVO voice-recognition system becomes available for the Sportage later in the year. Sound quality from the audio system is exceptional, with clear tones and hearty bass from the separate subwoofer.
We're also pleased with the plentiful selection of storage options throughout the Sportage's cabin. Finding a place for personal effects is a cinch, thanks to deep bins and pockets in the doors and center armrest. At the same time, we would prefer the USB/iPod input jack to move from the center console to a more discreet location to keep prying eyes at bay. Cupholders are deep and hold a variety of beverage containers firmly, even during cornering. We are even more impressed with the chilled glovebox, which kept drinks surprisingly cold, even if the climate control was set for warmer temperatures.
Less impressive is the amount of cargo the Sportage can carry. With a maximum capacity of 26.1 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 54.6 cubes with them folded flat, this is well below that of the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 by at least 25 percent. But all is not lost, since the available space is mostly unimpeded by humps from the wheelwells or oddly shaped interior moldings. It can still hold enough stuff for a couples getaway or small family. And for family-minded buyers, the rear seats can easily accommodate a rear-facing child seat with no impact on front seat comfort.
Design/Fit and Finish
Among the fairly bland exteriors that seem to dominate the crossover SUV segment, the 2011 Kia Sportage is a head-turner. Sharp, raked lines, contoured body sides, smoothly flared wheel arches and bright LED headlight liners lend it the appearance of a sportier European SUV. This should be no big surprise, since Kia's chief designer came from Audi.
On the inside, there are plenty of complex shapes that come together for a cohesive and pleasing effect. Hard plastics are abundant but well textured and most touch points are adequately padded. Interior elements appeared to be tightly fitted and expertly assembled, but we were annoyed by a subtle creak coming from the headliner/windshield area, making our digitally mastered music sound as if it was recorded from a dirty LP.
Who should consider this vehicle
If cargo volume isn't a paramount concern, the 2011 Kia Sportage should definitely be on your short list of crossover SUVs to consider. Its base price undercuts any other vehicle we'd recommend, and once it's fully loaded with options, it's priced thousands less than similarly equipped examples of the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
We think that Kia clearly targets the single buyer and youthful (or youthful-minded) market with the Sportage's aggressive design and fun-to-drive nature. Small families looking to break from other humdrum SUVs will likely find enough luggage space, despite the significantly smaller capacity. With more features and a powerful turbocharged model on the way, the Sportage's future looks even brighter.