Image is everything. Fifteen years ago, the Sportage was one of the first products imported to the U.S. by a relatively unknown Korean automaker. That five-door cute-ute not only launched the Kia brand but helped establish it as a manufacturer of basic, affordable transportation.
My, how times have changed. Although certain of its models still sell based on bargain-basement prices alone, Kia is making a big push to become a brand centered on impressive design and innovative technology. The best example of both pursuits is seen in a single vehicle -- the all-new 2011 Kia Sportage.
This isn't the first crossover with Kia's new design language, but it's the most attractive implementation to date. Inspired in part by the Kue concept from the 2007 Detroit auto show, the Sportage incorporates a number of cues we've seen in several recent new Kias. A bold swage in the front fascia envelops both the brand's signature grille and upswept projector headlamps, similar to the treatment in the new, larger Sorento crossover, but the remainder of the Sportage is much more svelte. Bold, curvaceous fenders envelop wheels as large as 18 inches and add some muscular character to the SUV's profile.
Although the Sportage's design team was led by Massimo Frascella, there's no doubt that Peter Schreyer, Kia's global design director and Audi expatriate, had some influence on the new vehicle. In fact, strip the Kia badging off, and from a distance, the EX's LED daytime running lamps and discreet rear turn signals may lead you to mistake the Sportage for the Audi Q5.
Those comparisons, however, stop once you open one of the Sportage's doors. The interior is as stylish as the exterior, but the materials emphasize that the Sportage is an affordable cute-ute instead of a luxury crossover.
The slick, beveled instrument panel eschews a conventional center stack in favor of a large, flowing panel that spreads across the width of the car. Controls are placed on two different tiers -- radio/entertainment controls are on an upper ledge, while climate controls (including dual-zone automatic controls on the EX) are on a lower shelf. The result is quite attractive.
Both the driver and front passenger enjoy plenty of shoulder, leg, and headroom, but headroom is a little tight in back -- especially in the Sportage EX model, which comes with a standard panoramic sunroof. Rear passengers will, however, appreciate the large side windows, which extend far back into the chunky C-pillars. Contrary to outward appearances, those pillars don't create a sizable blind spot, thanks in part to the extra visibility offered by the lengthy side windows.
The sleek, lowered roofline looks good but restricts cargo access. Cargo volume for the 2011 model drops nearly nine cubic feet from the last model, and the distance from the top of the load floor and the ceiling isn't that tall -- if you want to throw a bicycle in back, you absolutely will need to pop the front wheel off. On the plus side, Kia was able to lower both the load floor and the liftover point, thanks in part to some mechanical changes underneath the skin.
What Lies Beneath
Although they share virtually no sheetmetal between them, the 2011 Sportage rides on the same platform as the 2010 Hyundai Tucson. Like the Tucson, the Sportage uses steel unibody construction, with a strut-type independent front suspension. A new multi-link rear suspension replaces the previous dual-link setup and not only improves handling but takes up less space, allowing the Sportage to have a wide, flat load floor behind the rear seats.
As is the case in the Hyundai, the Sportage's base engine is a 2.4-liter, 16-valve inline four-cylinder rated at 176 hp at 6000 rpm and 168 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Buyers can opt for either a six-speed manual transaxle or a new six-speed automatic designed and manufactured by Hyundai-Kia.
The automatic gearbox also allows buyers to spring for Kia's available all-wheel-drive system, which was co-developed with Magna. In its normal state, all power is routed to the front wheels, but the system will equally split between the front and rear axles as needed. Drivers can manually lock the center differential, but the system reads inputs from the stability and traction control systems to pre-load the diff, reducing the amount of time needed to transfer power.
Super Sport SX
Those desiring more power might want to wait for the forthcoming Sportage SX. Kia replaces the 2.4 with the same turbocharged 2.0-liter, direct-injection I-4 used in the 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T. Kia hasn't released final figures, but we're told to expect about 270 hp and 269 pound-feet of torque. That's nearly an extra 100 hp and 90 lb-ft over the previous 2.7-liter V-6, and engineers expect the turbocharged motor to deliver a sizable improvement in fuel economy.
Along with the extra power, Sportage SX models will also be fitted with a set of variable rate dampers, tuned somewhat stiffer than those used on base, EX, and LX models. SX models will only be offered with the six-speed automatic transmission.
Have Your Say with UVO
Arguably, more customers will likely be interested in UVO, Kia's new infotainment system, than in turbocharged engines. Similar to Ford's renowned Sync system, UVO is co-developed with Microsoft, runs an extension of Windows Embedded software, and interfaces with several different devices. Bluetooth allows for hands-free calling and audio streaming, while a USB port allows the system to play audio files saved on flash drives or portable music devices, like an iPod or Zune. A one-gigabyte hard drive also allows users to rip their own CDs and save them to an internal jukebox.
Perhaps the most important part of UVO is its voice commands. Although this isn't a segment exclusive, the prompts required to trigger various functions are much less convoluted and easier to adapt to. Better yet, text messages sent to paired phones will be read aloud to passengers within the vehicle. The driver can then choose one of several personalized pre-programmed messages for a quick response -- all without taking their eyes off the road or hands from the wheel.
UVO will be available in the Sportage (along with the larger Sedona) in the second half of 2010. Until then, the Sportage will be fitted with either a typical AM/FM/CD with MP3 capability and a USB port or an enhanced system with a large in-dash navigation unit and a premium 5.1-channel surround sound system. Regardless of trim level, Bluetooth phone connectivity, audio streaming, and USB and auxiliary audio inputs are standard.
A Sportier Sportage?
Kia recently let us loose on the back roads outside Seattle in several pre-production Sportages. Although they were close to being finished products, all combined the equipment levels of a premium EX model with the suspension tuning of the sportier SX.
Kia's engineers are still working on the final ride/handling tuning, but we think they're on the right path. The stiffer suspension setup allows the Sportage to stand out in a crowded sea of competitors, most of which feel gelatinous by comparison. Body roll is negligible, and combined with well-weighted electric power steering and a solid brake pedal feel, the little Kia may well prove to be one of the best-driving models in its segment.
Although the 2.4-liter provided adequate power for the small Sportage, some of Seattle's hillier areas had us wishing for the turbo four sooner than later. Still, even when revved hard, the naturally aspirated I-4 doesn't come off as coarse, and its sound is nicely insulated from the cabin. Better yet, the six-speed automatic quickly upshifts when needed, and gearchanges felt quite smooth.
Room for Improvement?
There's a lot to like in the new Sportage, but there's still room for growth. The 18-inch tires transmitted a fair amount of noise into the cabin, especially when we were cruising at 60 to 70 mph. We'd like to see UVO expanded to include more features like navigation, real-time traffic updates, and additional cloud computing features. Both Kia and Microsoft engineers avoided directly answering our questions but did suggest that those features will be incorporated down the road.
Still, these are minor complaints, especially considering the company expects to price the Sportage similarly to the 2010 model at about $17,000 to $23,000. Given the quantum leap in styling, infotainment, fuel economy, and dynamics, we think Kia's actually found a different means of producing what the original Sportage was: an absolute bargain.
2011 Kia Sportage
On Sale: Summer 2010
Base Price: $17,390 (est.)
Engine: 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4
Horsepower: 176 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 168 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic (optional)
Drive: Front-wheel, all-wheel (optional)
L x W x H: 174.8 x 73.0 x 64.4
Legroom F/R: 41.4/ 37.9 in
Headroom F/R: 53.7/ 49.1 in
Cargo capacity (seats up/down): 26.1/ 54.6 cu ft
Curb Weight: 3355 lbs (automatic, AWD)
EPA Rating (city/highway): 22/31 mpg (auto, FWD), 21/28 (auto, AWD)