By Chris Haak
With the poaching of design head Peter Schreyer from Audi several years ago, Kia has turned itself from a brand that had no design identity to one that has a coherent language across its lineup, and that one drapes Kia vehicles in interesting and dynamic shapes. With the 2011 Optima and Sportage now on sale, Kia’s lineup has nearly been completely transformed from also-rans into competitively-styled vehicles.
While design is certainly a differentiator among new vehicles, and can catch the attention of buyers, it takes more than just good looks to establish and sustain success in a very competitive automotive landscape. Kia loaned me a 2011 Sportage for a week so I could find out if it also had beauty within, or if in fact its beauty was just skin deep.
Since reviewing a 2010 Sorento – another Kia that took a great leap forward from its previous generation to the current one – I’ve been a real fan of what Kia has done with its vehicles. The larger Sorento combines good looks, nice packaging, and a powerful V6 into a capable, competitive vehicle. The Sportage, from a distance, appears to be nearly a slightly-shrunken version of the Sorento. The Sorento is kind of a looker, so it’s not a bad thing to say that your cheapest SUV looks like it. The most obvious difference between the two is that the Sorento has a small window behind its C-pillar; the smaller Sportage has no window there, and instead has a thick D-pillar.
I last reviewed a Kia Sportage in 2008, and I really couldn’t wait for the thing to be picked up. It smelled strange, its 2.7 liter V6/four speed automatic combination was lethargic, and it looked like its small body was too large for its even-smaller wheels. Rather that filling the gas tank when it got low, I just parked the thing in my driveway and drove my own car. That’s saying a lot when I preferred putting miles on my five year old Honda instead of a brand new Kia.
In nearly all ways, the new Sportage is a dramatic improvement over the old one. I expected nothing less, as I alluded in the conclusion of that 2008 review. It’s been interesting to casually study where automakers spend their money on parts for lower-cost vehicles over the past few months. For instance, the Scion tC has an expensive stereo, panoramic sunroof, and big wheels – all of which its target audience likely appreciates. The 2011 Sportage seems to be appealing to technophiles who value appearances over fundamental good-ness.
I’m not saying that the Sportage isn’t fundamentally good. It is. From the seat of my pants, it felt peppier than its V6 forefather did, thanks to better horsepower figures and two extra cogs in its automatic transaxle. The navigation screen was easy to use – and mercifully allows destination entry and phone dialing while the vehicle is in motion – and reasonably sensitive to touch inputs. Bluetooth streaming audio – something my three year old Cadillac CTS doesn’t even have – worked well and adds to the Sportage’s cred among the Gizmodo crowd.
Still, when you’re throwing things like LED daytime running lights, navigation, and a panoramic sunroof into a $28,000 vehicle, something has to give. In a word: refinement. The Sportage dropped nearly 200 pounds when switching to the new generation, and it seems that some of that weight loss came from the doors, which have a scary echo when you close them anything more than gently. The large sunroof creaks and groans over uneven road surfaces, even at low speeds such as entering a driveway. The Sportage’s suspension tuning is rather firm, and the combination of that plus 18 inch 55-series tires produces a lot of clomp-clomp sound effects over bumps.
“Firm” continues to be the theme indoors, where the seats are rather hard and can make it difficult to find a comfortable driving position. I also was surprised to see that both front seats were heated, and only the driver’s seat was cooled. The door panels and dashboard – in fact, nearly every surface on the interior not covered in leather or vinyl – is also hard to the touch. Not to sound snobbish, but there are different grades of automotive interior plastics, and the high-gloss variety that Kia employs within the Sportage are not going to make a Lexus owner blush.
On the positive side, there is adequate room within the Sportage for four people, and five in a pinch. There’s enough second-row legroom and headroom for even taller passengers. Forward-facing convertible car seats fit into the back seat with no problem and were easy to install, though my children were able to easily kick the front seatbacks. Rear visibility is somewhat lacking, which should not come as a surprise given the foot-wide C-pillar. Forward visibility is also compromised by the thigh-thick A-pillars, and whenever I wasn’twearing my polarized sunglasses during daylight hours, there was noticeable glare from the top of the instrument panel on the steeply-raked windshield. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the loss of visibility from the A-pillars is the cost of the 2011 Sportage’s much-improved rollover test performance compared to the previous generation. In all likelihood, the C-pillars are also thick for the same reason. A backup camera on my tester solved much of the rear visibility problem, and craning my neck solved the A-pillar problem.
The Sportage’s looks, athletic stance (the cute-ute went from not enough wheel in 2010 to too much wheel in 2011), and dynamic shape would lead one to believe that it’s going to be quite the performer. Believe that if you want to, but peer inside the stylized aluminum wheels (where the cutouts are painted gloss black, just as on the Optima sedan), and you’ll see the opposite of Brembos. Instead of pizza dish-sized rotors, you’ll find sugar cookie-sized ones. They still do a decent job of stopping the Sportage, but don’t expect them to tolerate extended jaunts of tomfoolery without glowing orange. There is decent body control, but the Sportage’s electric power steering seems to really struggle with communicating road conditions through the steering wheel, and seems to struggle with getting the driver’s inputs to actually take effect as expected with the vehicle’s direction.
According to the EPA, the 2011 Sportage FWD with the automatic should see a dramatic improvement in fuel economy; it’s rated at 22 MPG city and 31 MPG highway, for a combined 25 miles per gallon. A 2010 Sportage V6 FWD was rated at 18/23/20. In the real world, driving pretty much the same trips that I did in 2008 with the old Sportage, I observed 23 MPG combined, while the 2008 Sportage returned 18.6 MPG combined. Even approaching hypermiler-style gentle throttle application, I could not get the Sportage to average 30 MPG over a sustained distance.
The Sportage lineup consists of base, LX, and EX trim levels. The base Sportage starts out at just $18,990 including destination, and is only available with a manual transaxle and front wheel drive. Stepping up to an LX costs $2,000 more, and to an EX costs $3,000 more than the LX. All wheel drive – not present on my tester – is available for $1,500 more. My otherwise-loaded EX tester had a $23,295 base price, and had just two options: the $1,500 navigation/backup camera and $3,000 premium package with leather (heated front seats, air cooled driver seat, push button start with smart key, rear parking sonar, panoramic sunroof, auto-dimming rearview mirror, heated outside mirrors, and cargo cover). The final tally, including $695 to ship it from Korea to your local dealer, was $28,490.
That’s not an insignificant sum for a compact crossover from Kia. Adding all wheel drive would put it on the cusp of $30,000. Within the next few months, Sportage Turbos are supposed to appear at Kia dealerships. The Sportage Turbo will boast Hyundai/Kia’s corporate 2.0 liter turbo, which produces an impressive 274 horsepower in the Sonata and Optima sedans. It would no doubt make the little Sportage scoot, and – by the way – bump its price comfortably over $30,000.
Kia has a competent, capable, attractive vehicle in the 2011 Sportage. With its attractive looks and Audi-like LED running lamps, felt like a cool kid when I drove it, and really appreciated the technology and comfort features in a reasonably low price point. Though it’s perhaps not the value that the old Sportage was from a pure price-comparison standpoint, it’s also delivering a lot more content in that $28,490 price than most of its competitors. The Sportage’s competitors are all due for a refresh in the next couple of years, so perhaps Kia has re-invented its entry-level crossover at just the right time to steal even more market share.