No hamsters were harmed in the testing of the 2011 Kia Sportage
A few grapes were pressed, but what do you expect in the heart of California wine country, north of San Francisco? With the by now familiar Kia identity gracing its front end, in the form of the new grille, the Korean upstart, and its corporate parent, Hyundai, are literally on a tear through the automotive world. There seems to be no end in sight.
What is it?
A compact-sized crossover, the Sportage is a continuation of the like-named outgoing model, but gosh, what a difference a day makes. Gone is the "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" styling that plagued, er, characterized
the earlier model. Originally introduced at the 2010 New York Auto Show, our example of the Kia Sportage EX AWD is the high-zoot model, the top of the heap.
Like its Hyundai cousins, the Kia also happens to have the best warranty (10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty) in the business.
What's it up against?
Competitors in this segment include the Hyundai Tucson
, the Toyota RAV4
, the Nissan Rogue
and in some quarters, the Ford Escape
, Suzuki Grand Vitara and Chevrolet Equinox
How about a new smaller I-4 engine with more power than was offered in the outgoing 2.7-liter six-cylinder? But wait, there's more: A ventilated driver's seat for those unseasonably hot days in the sunbelt - or anywhere, for that matter (sorry passengers). A push-button starter, navigation system with Sirius Traffic function, and a "the better to see you" panoramic sunroof are just a few of the other luxo-bits.
Kia and Microsoft just announced a new Windows Embedded Automotive platform called the UVO. Similar to Ford's Sync system, it will offer many of the same technologies starting in late 2010.
How does it look?
Elegantly creased like a classic, yet as modern as a contemporary European design, the new Sportage is the fruit of the pen o
f Massimo Frascella at the Kia Design Studios in California. With guidance by former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, it's no wonder the brand is now taking its star turn in the spotlight.
Sporting the new corporate identity grille that has been seen on the new Forte, the Sportage's front end winds around to the sides where a high beltline rules and offers an aggressive look that almost verges on "chop-top" proportions.
A strong C-pillar adds visual strength to the rear, which is carried into the back hatch, which looks like it was designed and executed in Wolfsburg rather than California or Korea. Finally, jewel-like attention to detail is visible in the front end with the addition of LED running lights under the main lighting assemblies.
And on the inside?
Our Sportage was as surprising inside as it was out. A two-toned gray and silver dashboard sets off the interior with a three-gauge binnacle. With tachometer on one side and fuel and temperature gauges on the other, the center is populated with an optimistic 140 mph speedometer. No matter, though. The Sportage is about comfort, convenience, and cargo capacity. Isn't that the reason Americans are so into crossovers in the first place?
Value added features in our EX included leather trim as part of the premium package, heated front seats and that segment-first cooled driver's seat. Rear sonar let us know what was behind, and the push-button start with smart key lit the interior before we even touched the doors.
All this for under 30 grand? No longer is Kia just about value; innovation is the new buzzword.
Seat comfort was excellent especially during our jaunts from Napa to Sonoma County, as well as the occasional sortie into San Francisco. We took advantage of the Sirius Traffic function, a subscription feature that alerts drivers to congestion ahead and offers a re-route. After a day of using it, we were sold.
Another feature that caught our eyes were the accommodations we found in the rear seats. By the numbers, there are 37.9 inches of rear seat legroom available. In terms of cargo capacity, Ki's rulers find 26.1 cubic feet with the seats up, and 54.6 with them lowered.
As for fit and finish, the order of the day is the "appearance" of quality. Everything is brilliantly screwed together from solid materials, but, in Toyota-like fashion, soft touch plastics are a rarity.
But does it go?
Following the parent company's idea of less being more, the Sportage is offered with a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder that makes 170 horsepower and 163 lb-ft. of torque.
Coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission with electronic overdrive and Sportmatic shift-it-yourself lever, it offers the sporting pretensions that you don't normally find in CUVs of this size.
Our all-wheel-drive model's Dynamax system with locking center differential offered full pulling power around the sweepers through the hills leading to Sonoma. It's an impressive effort jointly designed by Kia and Magna International. Although we didn't get a chance to try it for extended periods, we became fans of the hill descent assist function as well as the hill-holding system that held us in place for the stoplights on hilly San Francisco intersections. Though not as smooth as systems found in $70,000 + Land Rovers, it was still a welcome assist as you just push the button and let the system do its thing to prevent you from sliding back into a brand new luxo-boat that is sniffing your tailpipe.
The Sportage uh, sports the by now familiar setup of MacPherson struts with coil springs and stabilizer bar in front and an indie multi-link setup in the rear.
Steering was direct with the motor power-assisted rack and pinion setup that offered great road feel. We feel that the amount of road noise coming into the cabin, while not excessive, could be alleviated with quieter tires.
Carrying the AWD package, the curb weight of Ki's latest is 3,355-pounds. The EPA tags mileage for the Sportage at 21/28, not far off of what we saw. .
Why you would buy it:
Because like most people, you don't need such a big SUV anyway.
Why you wouldn't:
You like the looks of Hyundai's Tucson instead.
Leftlane's bottom line:
While not the least expensive vehicle in the segment when fully loaded, Kia impresses us with inspired design and performance that shows they are serious about the road they have chosen to travel, whether it's with Hamsters or Yo Gabba Gabba sock puppets.
Done catching up, Kia (and Hyundai) is now helping to lead the charge.
2011 Kia Sportage EX AWD
base price, $24,795. As tested, $29,990.
Navigation, $1,500; Premium Package, $3,000; Destination, $695.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.