The Kia Sportage is a sporty crossover utility vehicle, conveniently sized and well-executed in almost every way. The Sportage coaxes both ample performance and decent fuel economy from a choice of two moderately sized engines.
The 2013 Kia Sportage with the standard 176-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine earns an EPA City/Highway rating of 20/27 mpg with automatic and all-wheel drive (AWD); front-wheel-drive 2013 Sportage models achieve an even better 21/30 mpg rating. Aiding fuel efficiency is a relatively lean curb weight of 3200-3400 pounds.
The Sportage SX, with its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, delivers the power and torque we'd expect from a V6: 260 horsepower and 296 pound-feet, respectively. The 2013 Sportage SX gets a respectable 21/28 mpg EPA City/Highway rating with front-wheel drive and 20/25 mpg with AWD.
We found the standard 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.
The steering feels heavier in the AWD version but is reasonably responsive in both, with good directional stability. All-wheel drive comes with a limited locking feature for low-speed use in adverse conditions.
The 2013 Kia Sportage is changed only slightly from last year. 2013 Sportage models can be distinguished by revised Kia badges. Power folding mirrors and sun visor extenders come on all 2013 Sportage models. LED accent lights come on 2013 Sportage LX and 2013 Sportage EX models; the 2013 Sportage SX gets LED daytime running lights. The 2013 Sportage EX is available with a new blue interior package. Sportage was redesigned for the 2011 model year. Some interior features were added for 2012.
The styling looks fresh and sharp from every angle. 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.
We found the interior accommodations comfortable, though the Sportage lacks the interior roominess of its competitors, the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Subaru Forester. The front seats offer good support. Leather-trimmed seats and an air-cooled driver's seat is available. An AM/FM/CD/MP3 six-speaker stereo with SiriusXM radio comes standard, with a subwoofer and external amplifier optional. An optional navigation system with a touch screen includes a rearview camera, an excellent safety feature. Sportage EX and SX get dual-zone, automatic climate control.
Cargo capacity is a generous 26.1 cubic feet behind the second seat but a less-impressive 54.6 cubic feet with the second seat folded. Translation: It's handier for hauling people than large amounts of cargo.
Kia Sportage styling is unconstrained by cliche or convention. From nose to tail, from footprint to luggage rack, Sportage shares almost nothing outside of its overall proportions with more conventionally styled crossovers and mini-SUVs.
The upper grille is a bigger, bolder rendering of the Kia-signature tiger nose. Underlined by a free-flowing, vaguely bow-tie-shaped black insert in the bumper fascia, the overall effect is an I'm-about-to-eat-you grin. Compact headlight housings with slightly protruding clear lenses curve around the front fenders, adding their own contribution to that menacing smile.
Fog lights on the Sportage EX and SX nestle comfortably at the outboard ends of the bow tie, assuming their vertical-oblong shape from the surrounding trim. The SX sports its own, subtly different grille, which replaces the delicate horizontal-over-vertical mesh of lesser models with a more rugged chain-link texture; and the bright-chrome surround with chrome of a darker tone.
The concaved hood flows smoothly back into the decently raked windshield. Viewed head on, it's a more planted look than you'd expect from a crossover, a direct consequence of a wide, 63.5-inch track (distance between the tires side to side), and a roofline that peaks just 64.4 inches from the road.
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 Sportage a wedgy 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. Dual exhausts with bold oval openings distinguish the SX.
The Kia Sportage interior displays as much bold imagination as the exterior, while remaining ergonomically friendly and eye-pleasing. 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.
Measured against the expected competition, the Honda CR-V, the Subaru Forester and the Toyota RAV4, people-room in the Sportage is disappointing. In most interior dimensions the Kia is the smallest of the group, albeit in most cases by only an inch, give or take. The Forester, however, tops the Sportage in front seat headroom by more than two inches, and in rear seat headroom by almost the same amount. And the CR-V, which leads the group in rear seat hiproom, betters the Sportage by a full four inches. The Sportage's cargo space also trails all of the competition, surrendering a significant 12 cubic feet with the rear seat up and 19 cubic feet with the rear seat down to the class-leading Toyota.
We found the 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, while delivering decent fuel economy. Measured again against the Subaru Forester, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, the Kia Sportage 2.4-liter delivers horsepower and torque numbers that are just about dead-on average for the group.
Only a few years ago this class offered a few V6 options, but those have disappeared with rising gas prices and tighter fuel economy regulations. Now the only optional engines in this group are the turbo-fours offered by Subaru and Kia. The Kia 2.0-liter turbo is the far stronger of the two, with 260 hp for the Sportage vs. 224 hp for the Forester, and 269 pound-feet of torque for the Kia vs. 226 for the Subaru.
Kia's 6-speed automatic handles gear changes reasonably smoothly, including downshifts when necessary for passing and merging, whether in regular auto or Sportmatic mode. We have not tested the manual gearbox.
The brakes in the Sportage 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 our Sportage EX wearing the low profile tires and 18-inch wheels, with understeer more easily induced with front-wheel drive than with all-wheel drive. 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 (lean) in tight corners was modest. Directional stability, the tendency for the car 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.
For mud or snow, the AWD system offers a Lock Mode that puts equal amounts of torque to each wheel at 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 Subaru Forester feels about the same in terms of road holding and overall stability (very good, in other words), 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 on average 100-200 pounds heavier than the Sportage (depending on equipment), and riding on a track that's narrower than the Sportage's by about 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 is comparable for the cars in this class.
The Kia Sportage is a compact sport-utility that's refined, comfortable, well-developed and sharp-looking. The standard engine delivers respectable power, more than respectable fuel economy and a competitive price.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Francisco; John F. Katz contributed to this report.