A funny thing happens when you consistently surpass people's expectations. Eventually, those expectations get raised. In that vein, we were not shocked when Kia, the Korean automaker that's been producing vastly improved and incredibly good-looking new vehicles for the last three years, took the sheets off the vastly improved, incredibly good-looking new Sportage. We were eager to get our hands on one for an entire year.
Kia itself clearly has higher expectations, as evidenced by the $30,240 window sticker on our Four Seasons Sportage. "Not the oh-so-low price we're used to from a Kia," mused senior editor Joe Lorio. The bare-bones, front-wheel-drive Sportage goes for only $19,300, but ours was an all-wheel-drive EX model that started at $25,490. We then added, most notably, navigation as well as the premium interior package, which included a panoramic sunroof, heated front seats with cooling for the driver, leather upholstery, and a backup camera.
Mind you, the Sportage is not overpriced -- while we were sleeping, well-equipped compact crossovers crept en masse across the $30,000 threshold. The Sportage holds to brand tradition by coming with a boatload of features, including eighteen-inch wheels, Bluetooth, LED daytime running lamps, and, of course, that ten-year powertrain warranty. Nevertheless, it's clear that Kia is no longer content to market its cars with a built-in discount. Our primary question, then, was whether the Sportage's style and substance put it on equal footing with extremely tough competitors.
The answer to the style part of the question is an emphatic "yes." Over twelve months and 27,960 miles, editors never stopped raving about the Sportage's chiseled body, dramatic roofline, and Audi-like LED running lamps. "When you think of the Kia Sportage of the past, you envision a back seat covered in gooey substances after a trip to a kid's birthday party. Not this car. It's a stylish machine that turns heads everywhere you drive," wrote road test editor Christopher Nelson. "Kia design chief Peter Schreyer is worth 100 times whatever he's getting paid," added senior web editor Phil Floraday.
Our Sportage even made a fashion statement with its paint -- a "techno orange" that made such an impression on us that many editors started simply referring to the vehicle as "the pumpkin." "What a fantastic color. Try to drive the pumpkin for a while without secretly dressing to match it," enthused associate web editor Ben Timmins. Not everyone was so enthusiastic. "How well will this color age?" wondered copy editor Rusty Blackwell, adding, "Remember: teal was cool in the 1990s." The fact that we spent time debating the color of a compact crossover -- let alone one that hails from Korea, where 82 percent of buyers opt for black, white, silver, or gray -- is another credit to the Sportage's designers. (For better or worse, Kia discontinued the hue after one model year.)
More controversial than the color was the way in which this slick design compromised the functionality we expect from a crossover. "One of the prices we pay for that high-style exterior we like so much is a high, narrow rear window that affords precious little visibility," noted deputy editor Joe DeMatio. That made us thankful for the optional backup camera, although DeMatio thought it took too long to display on the touch screen after shifting into reverse -- "If the camera doesn't come on instantly, what's the point?" he griped. Others thought the elegantly sloping roofline gave up too much utility. "What's a crossover good for if it requires using a front footwell -- in addition to the cargo area -- to bring home a few not particularly large plants from the nursery?" asked digital platforms managing editor Jennifer Misaros. Well, to be fair, it proved good for quite a bit. With the seats folded, the Sportage's 54.6-cubic-foot rear hold managed to swallow editors' bicycles, snowboarding equipment, and all manner of random boxes and laundry baskets. The cabin also had plenty of room for people. Said DeMatio: "I squeezed in back with two adults and found plenty of hip and leg room, and outboard passengers can easily stick their feet under the front seats." Some even found the design an unexpected boon to usability. "Not only do the huge, funnel-shaped rear doors add to the distinctive styling of the Sportage, but they also make it easy to load sleepy kids into car seats," Blackwell noted. "I can't think of many cars that are better in this regard, excluding minivans."
The cabin itself has quite a bit of style. Like the exterior, it boasts a sporty, slick aesthetic that hardly registers as a utility vehicle. "It's clear the interior designers paid close attention to detail," said associate web editor Donny Nordlicht. "The graphite-colored dashboard trim panel, for instance, nicely mimics the new corporate grille, with the indents in the center." As time wore on, however, editors began to notice that the materials do not reflect the same amount of care. "The plastics on the Sportage's dashboard are rock-hard and have an unusual sheen -- as if someone is constantly streaking tire shine across the surface," commented associate web editor Evan McCausland. It probably didn't help matters that, beyond the gray trim, our interior was all black. "It can get a bit grim in here," complained Blackwell. "Imagine if we didn't have the huge sunroof." We were more satisfied with Kia's attractive, user-friendly touch-screen infotainment system, which paired with our iPods and phones with little fuss. We often found the screen too bright, however, even on its dimmest setting; some editors would turn off the screen after dark. The interior was also the source of the sole quality issue we encountered, a cricketlike chirping sound from the HVAC vents that was eliminated by replacing the blower motor under warranty. Otherwise, the Kia required only routine maintenance.
Impressions were mixed regarding the Sportage's 176-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Although it had no problem hustling the 3463-pound, all-wheel-drive pumpkin around town, it sometimes pushed our definition of "adequate" on the highway. It didn't help matters that the six-speed automatic eagerly chased the highest gear in the name of better fuel economy. "The automatic's reluctance to downshift resulted in a fairly terrifying merge onto I-94," groused Nordlicht. "I understand that downshifts hurt fuel economy, but getting pinned between trucks seemed to be the worse option in this case." For all that fuel-saving effort, we'd expect to go farther between fill-ups, especially on long trips. "Fuel range is unacceptably short -- only about 300 miles," reported senior editor Eric Tingwall. DeMatio tried to push that range returning from Chicago and ran out of fuel on a highway exit ramp. Luckily, there was a truck stop nearby. "I had to do the walk of shame across a parking lot of semitrucks, whose drivers, I imagined, were all on their CBs ridiculing the stupid driver of the orange four-wheeler that was blocking the exit ramp." Our overall fuel economy for the year was 22 mpg, a hair short of the 23-mpg EPA combined estimate.
Kia started offering a more powerful and nearly as efficient turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder late in the 2011 model year. Some editors thought we should have waited for it. "I'd happily trade our $3000 interior premium package for the $2500 turbo engine upgrade," noted Floraday. For most real-world buyers, though, that's probably overkill. "Not many people need a compact crossover that can win drag races," quipped senior editor Jason Cammisa, adding, "We need to remember that the best sellers in this segment have four-cylinder engines with power similar to the one in this Sportage."
No one was disappointed with the Sportage's handling. "I wouldn't quite call it sporty," said associate web editor Jake Holmes, "but the Kia is definitely better to drive than you would expect." We were impressed with the Sportage's body control and the grip afforded by the eighteen-inch tires, even when we switched to softer winter rubber during the cold months. The not-so-surprising trade-off was a firm, busy ride that tended to take a toll on drivers and passengers during long trips. "The ride on the highway was so harsh that I couldn't get any sleep in the passenger's seat," complained a tired Floraday after a trip to Chicago. Most of us felt this was the wrong balance for a crossover. "The Sportage exhibits commendable body control, but that's not this car's mission," said Cammisa. Kia tells us that 2012 models have received tuning changes with the aim of improving ride quality. We hope it also tweaks the electric power steering, which is a bit heavy (a good thing) but feels numb and artificial. Still, Kia deserves credit for creating such a spunky crossover. "I'm happy someone offers a compact crossover that doesn't roll or push horribly when tossed into a corner," said McCausland. "It's a quality that endeared us to the first-generation Honda CR-V but is sadly missing today from most competitors."
Speaking of competitors, the Sportage now faces an onslaught from new and redesigned offerings. As we got behind the wheel of these fresh models, we couldn't help but notice how they capitalize on the flaws we'd already noticed in the one-year-old Sportage. The cleverly packaged and eminently practical new CR-V, in Cammisa's words, "wins hands down as a utility vehicle." The lavishly upholstered Ford Escape makes all the more glaring the Sportage's hard plastics. And the new Mazda CX-5, with its superb steering and chassis, simply outclasses the Sportage dynamically. Some attrition is natural when facing newer competition. "This segment seems to evolve on a minute-by-minute basis, so it's hard to permanently ascribe an authoritative title to any one model," noted McCausland. And yet it's also clear that the Sportage, which, as noted, no longer enjoys the trump card of a superlow selling price, falls a few inches short of its toughest competitors.
But the Sportage leads by a mile in terms of style. "A CR-V might offer more interior room or a slightly better ride, but it looks downright dowdy next to our slick Sportage," said Holmes. For many buyers, that fact alone should be enough to draw them to Kia dealers. If our ownership experience is any indication, they'll be plenty satisfied. However, DeMatio summed up the majority opinion here when he stated, "Although I love the way the Sportage looks and I like a lot about its interior, I'd have to say that its newer competitors have raised the bar."