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.