First Drive: 2011 Kia Sportage SX

Ben Wojdyla
Ben Wojdyla

Not too long ago the term “crossover” was a dirty word around these parts. The me-too products were more lame attempts to capture market share in a burgeoning segment than objectively good vehicles. They filled a spot on the showroom floor but they lacked style, personality and most egregiously, any semblance of driver involvement. Thankfully, those days are receding into memory as vehicles like the Kia Sportage SX emerge.

Kia has been on a killer winning streak lately, so much so reviewers are running out of ways to artfully say “Kias used to just exist, but now they're unbelievably good.” The Sportage itself has already received high marks for its handsome styling, compact dimensions, excellent interior and value-oriented pricing. That's all well and good, but everything is better with a turbo. That's just science.

To get from Sportage to Sportage SX, the critical first step is removing the 174-hp 2.4-liter four and dropping in everything from the Optima SX -- a 2.0-liter direct-injection four cylinder fitted with a twin-scroll turbo making a stand-out 256 hp and 264 lb-ft of torque. It's backed by a six-speed automatic transmission which can be shifted by bumping the gear selector and comes with your choice of front- or all-wheel-drive. Traction control has been massaged to greatly reduce wheel slip and transfer power to wheels with grip before any of them lose traction. Suspension is upgraded with performance dampers, sportier spring rates and a set of flashy 18-inch wheels.

Styling gets a nudge too, inside and out. The grille gets a more aggressive look, there are revised side moldings, dual exhaust at the rear and polished sill plates. The gauge pack is brighter and clearer with what Kia calls its “Supervision gauge cluster” and piano black trim gives an upscale feel to the joint. There's now pushbutton start and a gigantic panoramic sunroof as an option. Extroverts will pop for the eye-catching orange or blue interior packages, which compliment the excellently laid out cabin with shocking swatches of color in the door panels and contrasting stitching. The driver’s helm also gets the option of being heated and cooled and there's a seven-inch touch screen display for all your navitainment needs.

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