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First Drive: 2011 Kia Sportage SX

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.

As you might expect, the turbo treatment really livens up the Sportage. Acceleration comes on quick, almost too quick for a crossover, with the Theta II Turbo GDI engine delivering V6-beating numbers through the rev range. No official numbers are available at this time but we'd estimate 0-60 times somewhere in the mid to high 7's. Our tester was of the front-drive variety and in spite of all that power, torque steer was slight and quite manageable. As with the Optima SX, the engine is a bit harsh at certain rev ranges, but the benefits outweigh that drawback. Bombing along in Florida traffic at 60 mph, we had no trouble seeing 32 mpg on a car with less than a thousand miles on the ticker -- this despite an EPA estimated 22/27 mpg city/highway fuel economy rating.

The Sportage SX isn't too shabby in a corner either, for an over-3200 pound crossover it's got some moves. So much weight in the nose relegates it to understeer, but reaching the limit of adhesion is predictable and the 18-inch wheels and low profile tires communicate well to the driver. Steering is weighted perfectly, and the crisp turn in is a satisfying change for the segment. The ride is a bit stiff for some back sides, but over smooth pavement it has a planted, confidence-inspiring feel. Hit a chuck hole and you'll feel it though, right in your kidneys. Impact harshness is something Kia hasn't quite figured out with these SX models. About the only other complaint we have is with the Sportage's tiny back window and the lack of rear visibility, but these are the sacrifices that are made for style.

We're getting to the part where a declaration needs to be leveled upon the Sportage SX, and something feels so counter-intuitive about calling this the best vehicle and bargain in the segment. What else delivers this level of performance, packaging, styling, comfort and fuel economy for around $26K? Nothing, that's what. Remember the now-defunct Saturn brand's final tag line: "That's a Saturn?" You can't help but drive around a leather-lined, upscale, comfortable, quick, fuel-efficient crossover that looks this good without thinking to yourself "This is a Kia?" Yes, this is a Kia, and it's damn good.

Base Price: $26,490


Engine: 2.0-liter Turbocharged I-4

Horsepower: 256 hp @6000 rpm

Torque: 264 lb-ft @ 1850-3000 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed automatic with overdrive and manual shift mode

Drive: Two- or four-wheel


L x W x H: 175.2 x 73.0 x 64.4

Legroom F/R: 41.1/37.9

Headroom F/R: 39.1/38.5

Curb Weight: FWD - 3311 lbs., AWD - 3466 lbs.