The 2011 Kia Sportage, all-new for the first time since 2005, represents the latest move by the South Korea car maker in its drive to become a household name, if not a regular dinner guest, in U.S. new car-buying families. And as far as conveniently sized, sporty crossover utility vehicles go, Kia has executed well.
With gas prices showing no signs of retreating, Kia's engine masters have stepped up by obtaining better fuel economy and more horsepower out of a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine than the previous model's 2.7-liter V6 produced. According to the EPA, the 2011 Kia Sportage earns a City/Highway rating of 21/28 miles per gallon (substantially reduced from the 2010 Sportage V6's 18/21 mpg). Helping those ratings is that, depending on the model and features, the 2011 Sportage weighs 100-200 pounds less than the 2010 version.
The 2011 Sportage lineup starts with front-wheel drive and a 6-speed manual transmission. Uplevel models use a 6-speed automatic transmission with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
We found the 2.4-liter engine delivers its power smoothly and mostly in a linear manner, with only an occasional, slight surge after an upshift in the automatic as the electronics adjust to the changing load. Those gear changes are clean, if not remarkably sharp, with ready downshifts for overtaking or merging. Steering feels heavier in the AWD version but reasonably responsive in both, with good directional stability. AWD comes with a limited locking feature for low-speed use in adverse conditions.
Kia's Southern California-based designers spared no pixels in styling the new Sportage. From every aspect, the 2011 Sportage is fresh and sharp, with the only obvious carryover feature the trademark oval logo centered in the grille and in the liftgate. Character lines are crisp but subdued, contrasting nicely with the overall rounded look. Blackened lower trim panels imply good ground clearance while keeping the tires visually in proper proportion to the body.
Interior accommodations in the 2011 Sportage are more comfortable than those in the 2010 model, if not as commodious. Front seats offer improved support in all areas, including for an occupant's often-neglected thighs. Leather-trimmed seats are available on the top model EX, as is an air-cooled driver's seat, which is a first for whatever the class segment is. However, the front seat passenger is left with fore-and-aft and tilt-seatback adjustments only, all manual. Hauling ability is a win/lose, with more space behind the second seat but less space with the second seat folded when compared with the previous model.
Creature comfort and entertainment features follow the traditional pattern, with an AM/FM/CD/MP3 six-speaker stereo and air conditioning standard. The upgrade audio system adds a subwoofer and an external amplifier plus what's fast becoming the required navigation system, in the new Sportage with a touch screen that also integrates the display from an included backup camera. The EX gets dual-zone, automatic climate control.
Initially, all 2011 Sportage models will be powered by the beefy 2.4 liter four cylinder making 176 horsepower. Due later in the model year is a turbocharged, 2.0 liter four cylinder Kia promises will pump out more that 270 horsepower.
The first major redesign of the Kia Sportage in six years shows Kia doesn't consider itself bound by any evolutionary constraints, with impressive results. From nose to tail, from footprint to luggage rack, the all new 2011 Kia Sportage shares almost nothing with the previous model except for the South Korea-based carmaker's trademark oval badge prominently positioned front and center in the freshly styled grille.
That grille graces a fascia that is more rounded in every respect. Compact headlight housings with slightly protruding, clear lenses curve around the front fenders. A contrasting, horizontal, cosmetic, barbell-like inset, the extremities of which host fog lamps on the EX, splits the bumper, which itself thins in the middle to open a lower air intake above a flat black lower body trim. The concaved hood flows smoothly back into the decently raked windshield. Viewed head on, it's a more planted look than its predecessor, a direct consequence of a track (distance between the tires side to side) that's fully two inches wider and a roofline that's more than two inches lower than the 2010.
Highlighting the side aspect is a beltline (generally, the bottom edge of the side windows) that arcs dramatically from the trailing corner of the headlights to the leading edge of the taillights, giving the new Sportage a wedgier but still soft profile. The high beltline reduces the real estate available for side windows, making for almost a chopped look, like street rods of the mid-20th century. A creased depression in the lower portion of the door panels breaks up the expanse of sheet metal, thereby lowering the impression of mass. The flat black trim from the front lower fascia continues around the sides, outlining the wheelwells, which the tires fill quite nicely, and underscoring the rocker panels.
Most of the styling lines on the backside pinch inward, toward, again, the trademark oval parked in the middle of the liftgate. The backlight is about the same proportion to the bodywork as the side windows, i.e., smallish. Taillights narrow as they look toward the centerline. Turn indicators are slotted into the rear bumper, an interesting location that at first blush appears to favor a closely following driver at the expense of one two or three cars back. A creased lip marks the bottom edge of the liftgate, above a license plate space that occupies the middle of the rear bumper where a continuation of the flat black trim panel completes its circumnavigation of the Sportage's lower body.
The 2011 Kia Sportage interior takes the same leap as the exterior, from the 2010 model's mundane, ultra-base look and feel and feature organization to a modern, ergonomically friendly and eye-pleasing presentation in the 2011. Nothing too fancy or gimmicky, just well crafted and eminently usable.
Essential instrumentation is easy-to-read analog, with a large, circular dial for the speedometer bracketed by a half-circle tachometer and inversely stacked temperature and fuel level gauges. A small, rectangular, LED display inset into the speedometer face shows gear selection and trip data. The center stack is properly organized, placing the audio/navigation interface at the top, the climate control panel midlevel and power points and USB and auxiliary inputs tucked into the lower section, which also contains a smallish storage bin. Controls for the optional seat heaters fit in side notches forward of the shift gate. Climate and audio/touch-screen navigation controls are logically arrayed, finger-friendly knobs and virtual and real buttons.
A satin-finish, smoothly sculpted panel that hosts the instruments and the audio/nav panel seems to pop out of the pod-like dash, itself topped in industry-standard, glare-suppressing, grainy-textured, but not cheap looking, plastic material. The shift lever perches on the forward end of the center console, in which sit two cup holders (which need inserts for anything smaller than a Big Gulp) between curiously placed grab handles. The storage bin beneath the center armrest holds the charger for the transmitter for the optional keyless start/stop system, a less than optimal, and likely more easily forgotten, location compared with other systems' placement in the lower dash on either side of the steering column.
Visibility to the front is good, aided by the high seating position and the sloping hood. To the side and the rear, the smallish side and rear windows and an expansive C-pillar (the rearmost support between the body and the roof) make working heavy traffic a chore. On the bright side, the two-pane panoramic sunroof optional on the EX lets rear-seat passengers assist in keeping a watchful eye out for state trooper spies in the sky.
Front seats are comfortable, with sufficient thigh support and adequate bolstering. The front seat passenger is shortchanged when it comes to seat adjustability, relegated to a four-way manual setup. The perforations in the optional leather in the Sportage we tested kept the seats from being clammy or overly slick. Only in rear seat headroom is the 2011 more accommodating than the 2010, by a tick over one inch. In all other measures, the new Sportage trails the old, and generally by more than an inch; rear seat hiproom, in fact, is narrower by almost half a foot. Likewise with cargo room, at least measured at its maximum with the rear seat folded, where the '11 comes up fully 12 cubic feet short of the '10; interestingly, with the rear seat up, the '11's cargo rating is up by 2.5 cu. ft. over the '10's. Apparently, that's where some of the passenger compartment's lost inches resurfaced.
Against the expected competition, the Honda CR-V, the Subaru Forester and the Toyota RAV4, the new Sportage's interior accommodations make up a mixed bag, in most dimensions measuring within an inch, give or take. The '11 Forester, however, is tops in front seat headroom, by more than two inches, the CR-V in rear seat hiproom, like the '10 Sportage by just under six inches. The new Sportage's cargo space also trails all of the competition, with the rear seat up by as much as 10 cubic feet against the RAV4 and with the rear seat down by almost 19 cubic feet also against the RAV4.
We found the new Kia Sportage enjoyable to drive, and the all-wheel-drive models more than the front-wheel-drive models, but neither is boring or outside of its element in the overwhelming majority of circumstances and situations.
Kia has done a commendable job of milking maximum power out of the 2.4-liter four-banger, actually bettering the 173 horsepower of the 2010's 2.7-liter V6, all while getting better fuel economy, by three miles per gallon in the city and by seven mpg on the highway, according to the EPA. And for shoppers wanting more punch, due later in the model year is a turbocharged, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder making 270-plus horsepower. The 6-speed automatic (there were no manual transmission-fitted Sportages at the press launch) handles gear changes reasonably smoothly, including downshifts when necessary for passing and merging, whether in regular auto or Sportmatic mode. Brakes did their job with confidence and no noticeable fade after several miles of reasonably rapid motoring on twisting two-lane roads winding through the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco.
Response to steering inputs was decent on the test EX wearing the low profile tires and 18-inch wheels, with understeer more easily induced in FWD than in AWD. The same held for steering effort, with the AWD feeding back a heavier, more solid feel. Given the relatively high center of gravity, body roll in tight corners was modest. Directional stability, i.e., the tendency to hold its line on straight stretches and through corners, raised no concerns, requiring corrections only in response to pavement irregularities. Suspension damping was decent over bumpy pavement, the worst of which produced something more like head nodding than head bobbing. If that bumpy road turns into mud or is blanketed with snow, the new AWD system offers a Lock Mode that puts equal amounts of torque to each wheel up to a maximum of 25 mph.
The test models we drove were early production models, i.e., not quite ready for prime time, so the minor squeaks and rattles emanating from somewhere in the neighborhood of the dash are likely not indicative of what will be in dealers showrooms. The tire noise from the stock Hankook tires, though, could be, which would be too bad, as otherwise, the ride and road holding were quite respectable.
Comparing overall handling, the Forester feels about the same in terms of road holding and overall stability, with its lower center of gravity making up for a track (distance between the wheels side to side) that's more than three inches narrower. The CR-V and RAV4 don't fare as well, tipping the scales at between 200 pounds and 300 pounds heavier than the new Sportage and riding on a track that's narrower than the Sportage's by two inches, the net effect of which is to allow more body roll in turns and to generate head gyrations that are closer to bobbing than to nodding over rough pavement. Basic ride quality, though, is comparable.
The all-new 2011 Kia Sportage is a refined, comfortable, well-developed and sharp-looking, but not cute, compact sport utility, with the emphasis equally on sport as on utility. With respectable power, more than respectable fuel economy and a competitive price, it continues Kia's transformation from a Pacific Rim wannabe to a confirmed contender in the U.S. market.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Francisco.