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2011 Kia Sportage first drive

CNET Car Tech gets a preview drive in the 2011 Kia Sportage.

The high beltline and thick rear pillar are elements becoming common in small SUVs, so Kia isn't breaking new ground here. Aggressive styling is supposed to appeal to male buyers in their 20s to early 30s.
Wayne Cunningham/CNET
2011 Kia Sportage
Kia's third-generation Sportage gets a new engine, new cabin tech, and a new look. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Something unexpected is happening at Kia. The Korean car company released new models, updated others, and put hamsters in its commercials. We took a preview drive in the Sportage, Kia's small SUV that has undergone a radical restyling.

With a base price of $18,295, the 2011 Sportage makes an economy play, and some of the car's appointments, such as hard plastics in the cabin, reflect that strategy. But other aspects of the car, such as the ride quality and handling, suggest something slightly more upscale. Think Honda when it ruled the economy roost.

At its highest trim, and fully loaded, Kia says the price only gets to about $28k. At this level, the Sportage includes features such as dual-zone climate control, a heated and cooled driver seat, locking all-wheel-drive, and navigation.

Following a trend Kia set with the new Forte and Soul models, all Sportage trims come with a Bluetooth phone system that lets you dial by name using voice command and a USB port for iPod integration.

Kia's new look
On a typically foggy San Francisco summer morning, we stepped out of a presentation on the new Sportage to find the car we would spend the day driving waiting for us. Its smooth sides gave it a very modern look, and a clean break from Kia's past. A strip of LED parking lights gave the car a more upscale style than its price would suggest.

Kia Sportage wheel
This new wheel design appears on more than one new Kia model. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Kia's new design language was apparent in the grille, with its up and down tabs. Our EX trim model, the top trim, also sported 18-inch wheels, the gloss black paint in the angular cut-outs another unique new Kia signature style. The back of the car was smooth and nicely molded, but the high beltline along the sides and the thick C pillar, combining to create a fortresslike look, are an all-too-common sight amongst new cars.

Raising its high-tech flag, the car's smart key let us unlock the door by touching a button on the handle and start the engine with another button. We noted the hard plastics, but the cabin looked nicer than it felt. The steering wheel was the same style as in the Kia Sorrento we reviewed earlier, with buttons for the stereo and the Bluetooth phone system.

No UVO yet
The responsive flash-based navigation system included colorful maps, although only in 2D, with traffic information displayed over the roads. The LCD in the dashboard came with the navigation option, and served as a display for our music library, once we had connected an iPhone to the car. Navigation, phone, and audio menus on this screen all combine good usability and a nice aesthetic sense.

Kia Sportage UVO screen
Kia's new UVO system offers voice control over MP3 players, but won't be available for a few months. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

But Kia disappointed us by not having its new UVO system ready. Based on Microsoft's automotive platform, UVO incorporates many of the features we've previously seen in Ford Sync. It integrates a variety of MP3 players with the car, enabling voice commands for playback. It also has a gigabyte of onboard memory to which you can copy MP3 files from a USB drive.

You can rip CDs to the onboard storage, although UVO lacks an onboard music database, and so can't automatically tag tracks from CDs unless they have a CD text file. Untagged CDs will just show up in the system as CD 1, CD 2, etc.

UVO won't be available when the 2011 Sportage first hits showrooms, taking a couple of months to follow the first models out. But probably the biggest strike against it is that buyers will have to choose between UVO or the navigation system. Kia promises to integrate these systems in the future, but for the time being, consumers are left with a bad choice.

A four-cylinder update
There is little choice with the Sportage's power train, as a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine comes standard at all trims. But this engine is no slouch, with an output of 176 horsepower, making it even more powerful than the previous model's V-6. The base model pairs this engine with a six-speed manual transmission, something not often seen among SUVs, but the LX and EX trims get a six-speed automatic. All-wheel drive is an option on the LX and EX trim vehicles.

Kia Sportage interior
LX and EX Sportage models come with a six-speed automatic. The base model gets a six-speed stick. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Although our EX model with all-wheel drive didn't exactly roar when we pushed the ignition button, it took off into city traffic with a reasonable amount of power. The steering wheel felt good, with a thick, leather-lined rim. The transmission shifted smoothly through its six gears. Going over some rough pavement, the suspension softened the jolts reasonably well, without a lot of bouncing around.

We particularly like the size of the Sportage in a dense urban area. It never felt ungainly, and the high seating position helps visibility on crowded streets. The electronic power steering offered a comfortable amount of resistance, and the turning radius proved tight enough for parking maneuvers.

A backup camera, using the navigation LCD for its display, also helped while parking. In a Sportage without navigation, Kia says that the backup camera display would show in the rearview mirror. But this camera is the only driver aid feature available in the Sportage, as features such as blind-spot detection have yet to appear on the option list.

On the freeway, the Sportage handled the higher speeds well, and we were able to carry on a conversation and listen to music without being overwhelmed by road noise. The ride continued smooth, but in passing maneuvers we found the limits of the engine. Slamming down the gas pedal, the transmission kicked down, letting the engine run up to peak horsepower. The Sportage did not bolt forward dramatically, and a painful whine sounded from the engine compartment, but we were able to overtake and pass other cars.

Although we didn't drive enough to test it, Kia claims fuel economy of 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway for a front-wheel drive Sportage with the automatic transmission.

But we did get to test the Sportage's handling on winding mountain roads. Although no track star, we were able to push the little Sportage reasonably fast in the corners. The car kept steady during these exercises, stabilizer bars preventing excessive body roll. The steering felt sharp, responding well to speedy turns. We also made use of the transmission's manual mode, which let us hold gears up to high rpms without interference, although shifting involved the usual torque converter slushiness.

Kia Sportage AWD buttons
The Sportage includes a locking diff, rare on all-wheel-drive vehicles. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The car we were driving had all-wheel drive, a new system from Magna called Dynamax. According to Kia, this system very quickly transfers torque from the front-biased drive to the rear wheels as needed. At the push of a button, you can also lock the drive ratio to 50/50, although this setting is intended for speeds less than 25 mph.

With all-wheel-drive comes hill descent control. We did not have the opportunity to take the Sportage offroad, but going down one of San Francisco's steepest grades (31.5 percent), we engaged hill descent. It let the Sportage slowly crawl down the hill while we touched neither brake nor gas, making odd groaning sounds all the way. After a while, we got bored with the 5 mph pace and pushed the hill descent button again, relying on our own braking foot.