The Kia Sportage is the most visually compelling compact crossover in a jam-packed category. Sleeker in appearance than most compact SUVs, Sportage stands apart from the crowd because of its tidy proportions, eager stance, and fashionably rakish profile. Focusing on practical efficiency, the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 dominate this category; but Kia’s entrant emits a livelier attitude.
Countering its visual flair, Sportage suffers from a comparatively small interior, which translates to tight legroom in the back seat. Sportage is smaller than some of its competitors, though it scores major points when judged by the fit and finish of its cabin.
Ride quality falls short, too, and Sportage can get expensive as you move up the trim-level scale. Sportage isn’t recommended for off-roading, though available all-wheel drive does include a differential lock that provides a 50/50 split, at up to 25 mph.
Changes are minor for 2016, aiming to simplify the lineup. The 2016 Kia Sportage EX gains leather-trimmed seating surfaces and pushbutton start. Contents of LX Popular and EX Premium packages have been revised for 2016.
Two four-cylinder engines are available. Sportage LX and EX get a 2.4-liter direct-injected engine, rated 182 horsepower in the LX and 180 hp in EX. Each drives a 6-speed automatic transmission. In the sporty and markedly swifter Sportage SX, a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine makes 260 horsepower, and its transmission includes shift paddles for improved responses.
By today’s standards, fuel economy is so-so. With the base engine and front-wheel drive, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates 21/28 mpg City/Highway, or 24 mpg Combined. The turbocharged Sportage SX gets an estimate of 19/26 mpg City/Highway. All-wheel drive drops the figures to 19/26 mpg with the regular 2.4-liter engine, or 19/25 mpg with the turbo. Several rivals return better than 30 mpg in highway driving.
Crash-test scores trail prominent rivals, and Sportage has few modern high-tech safety features. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the front-wheel-drive Sportage a four-star overall rating, while the all-wheel-drive version scored five stars. In the small overlap frontal crash test performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Sportage ranked Poor, which is poor. Hill-start assist and downhill brake assist are standard equipment.
More than most compact crossovers, the Kia Sportage has a look all its own, exuding what might be termed elegant simplicity. The front end is especially clean in style, while the roofline flaunts a tilted-back posture, similar to the profile of the smaller Kia Soul.
Although the tall stance and slightly stubby nose make it clear that Sportage is essentially a utility vehicle, its basic proportions almost manage to suggest something quite different indeed: one of the European-style hot hatches.
Functionally angular in form, the Sportage cockpit exudes a sporty attitude, led by large instruments mounted on a rectangular dashboard. Materials convey a feeling of substance, standing well above what’s found in several crossover competitors. Specifically, the interior has more soft-touch materials and surfaces than are customary in the compact crossover category, matched by thoughtful attention to detail.
Front-seat occupants get ample space for legs and shoulders. Headroom is good, too, though a sunroof (if installed) steals a segment of that space. Nicely shaped seats deliver sufficient support and offer adequate possibilities for adjustment to suit each rider. The Sportage SX features ventilated (air-cooled) front seats.
Back seats are tighter in both legroom and head space. In fact, rear occupants might find themselves slumped forward a bit.
Cargo space is useful enough, but could be bigger. With back seats upright, volume totals 26.1 cubic feet. That’s more than some, but the space is rather tall and the cargo floor isn’t all that big. With those rear seats folded down, cargo volume expands to 54.6 cubic feet.
Because blind spots are sizable, the available rearview camera and rear parking sensors would be a prudent extra-cost choice.
The Kia Sportage does not offer the lowest levels of noise, vibration and harshness, and optional 18-inch wheels make the ride worse.
Kia’s multi-mode Flex Steer system lets the driver choose from three possible levels of steering heft, yet fails to improve the overall feel appreciably. Handling, as a whole is less than impressive.
The 6-speed automatic transmission delivers smooth and adequately measured responses but gear changes are slow.
Both engines feel fairly spirited with front-wheel drive, but a bit less so with all-wheel drive. The turbocharged engine in the SX edition yields abundant midrange torque, which is especially noticeable when coming out of a swift corner. All told, the turbo qualifies as a pleasant surprise in a vehicle of this nature.
The throttle is touchy at tip-in — when starting off. This phenomenon can be overcome by engaging the Eco button, which subdues throttle response for improved fuel economy. However, that same button weakens response when it’s time to pass or merge.
The Kia Sportage can provide good value, but upper trim levels pass the $30,000 mark. A Sportage LX with front-drive is best for fuel economy; opting for the turbo engine or all-wheel drive reduces fuel economy. All-wheel drive can be a major boon in winter driving, however; because it adds 200 pounds we recommend pairing all-wheel drive with the more powerful turbocharged engine.
Driving impressions by Kirk Bell, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.