The modern crossover, with its people- and cargo-carrying capabilities, makes for a perfect multipurpose vehicle, and the all-new 2011 Kia Sportage embodies all of these practicalities. Keeping up with the modern theme, the Sportage's simple and refined cabin tech takes care of on-the-road infotainment needs.
Honda has long ruled the economy car roost by offering quality in a lower-price segment, but this new Sportage shows that Kia can compete. Although the dashboard was a little plasticky for our tastes, our car's Premium package brought in leather seats, a smart key, and two sunroofs.
Kia really nailed it when it comes to the Sportage's design. The car incorporates smoothed metal for a modern look, and proportions that give it a tough stance. We particularly like how the roofline descends toward the wide D-pillars, and how the grille and headlight casings form a distinct unit below the hood.
Although modern, the Sportage's design isn't quirky. The tailgate hinges upward; the rear seats fold down to maximize cargo space; and the shifter sits upright on the console. In other words, everything works like you would expect.
Small and capable engine
Less expected is the single engine choice for the car, a 2.4-liter four cylinder--especially given that most small SUVs have a V-6 option. Although making only 170 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque, the Sportage did not feel underpowered. This minor miracle comes about because of the Sportage's low weight of only 3,355 pounds.
When pressed, such as during a passing maneuver, the engine made an awfully strained noise, moaning like the ghost of a Christmas yet to come. Variable-valve timing (pretty average engine tech these days) gains the engine some efficiency, but next year a turbocharged direct-injection 2-liter engine making 270 horsepower will become available.
The engine's power is fed to the wheels--all four of them in our EX trimmed version with all-wheel drive--through a six-speed automatic transmission. Despite the model's name, Kia does not offer a sport mode or paddle shifters in the car, something we did not miss given its utilitarian nature. There is, however, a manual mode that is useful for engine braking. The transmission itself is typical of automatics, seeking the higher gears and taking a moment to change gears when shifted manually.
Given the small engine, the six-speed transmission, and an electric power-steering unit, fuel economy for the Sportage is a comfortable 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. Our observed mileage fell far short of that range, however, with an average for city and freeway driving of only 20.2 mpg. During much of our driving, we watched the trip computer sit below a 20 mpg average. We could have possibly come closer to the EPA numbers by paying more attention to the green eco light on the instrument cluster.
Despite the rapidly declining gas gauge, we liked the feel of the Sportage. The car is built solidly and the power steering is well-tuned; it's responsive without being twitchy. As an SUV with a small engine, we refrained from any hard-cornering antics, but the car still felt quite stable on curvy mountain highways.
During most of our driving, in the city and on freeways, that stable suspension translated to economy car ride quality. Far from soft, we felt most of the bumps in the road as minor jolts in the cabin.
Interestingly, the car's all-wheel-drive system also included a differential lock button and descent control. The all-wheel drive is a new system called Dynamax, a compact torque distribution unit that, according to the literature, senses impending low-traction conditions and makes adjustments before problems start. As we were testing during a dry summer, we could not verify that particular claim, but having the capability to lock the differential will help the car get unstuck in some situations.
Two options for voice command
Our car came with a voice command system to control the navigation, phone, and audio system, but an even more advanced version is coming out in the near future. With the current voice command, we were able to place calls by saying the name of a person in our phone's contact list, and could input addresses by saying city and street names, only having to spell them out when the system did not recognize the name.