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2013 Kia Sportage SX review: Turbo makes the Sportage SX a power-mad SUV

With 260 horsepower, the Kia Sportage almost feels like it will lift its front wheels off the ground under heavy acceleration.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
6 min read

Car-focused movies, such as the "Fast and Furious" series, show high-speed chases where the hero hits a nitrous button, causing his car to rear up, the front axle leaving the ground. The 2013 Kia Sportage SX felt a bit like that when I mashed the gas pedal. And it was a front-wheel-drive crossover.


2013 Kia Sportage SX

The Good

The <b>2013 Kia Sportage SX</b>'s engine uses a turbo and direct injection to generate 260 horsepower. Its small SUV form makes it practical for many uses.

The Bad

Optioning navigation deletes Kia's more advanced UVO voice command system. iOS integration with the stereo requires a special cable.

The Bottom Line

With its turbocharged engine, the 2013 Kia Sportage SX offers a lot more power than most small SUVs, but its cabin tech tends largely towards the average.

The SX version of the Sportage gets near-uncontrollable power from a turbocharger.

The Sportage, Kia's answer to the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, checks in as a plump-looking crossover. Cargo area with the rear seat up measures 26.1 cubic feet, enough for a good stock of groceries or luggage for two on an extended road trip. The rear seats don't fold quite flat, but doing so still more than doubles the cargo area.

Kia offers the Sportage in base, LX, EX, and SX trims, with all but the latter powered by a 2.4-liter four cylinder engine. Each trim can be had with front-wheel-drive, and all-wheel-drive is optional on the LX, EX, and SX.

A turbocharged direct injection 2-liter engine sets the SX apart in the line-up. This motor sits dwarfed by the engine compartment, which looks big enough for a V-8. Yet that little engine also generates 260 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque.

The SX boasts 84 more horsepower than the other Sportage trims.

Turbocharged 2013 Kia Sportage is powerful and practical (pictures)

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Highlighting how well its efficiency technologies work, the SX also rates at 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway in EPA testing. Compare that to the other trims' 21 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. Adding all-wheel-drive knocks fuel economy down by about 3 mpg.

Over the course of my review, I came in with 21.9 mpg. In city driving, tackling hills, frequent stoplights, and traffic, I saw the average fuel economy fall to the high teens.

Power upgrade
When I reviewed a Sportage EX a couple of years ago, its 2.4-liter engine proved adequate for most driving situations, but made an awful whine when pressed. The SX's turbo 2-liter is far different. Flooring it from a stop, the six-speed automatic transmission let the engine speed run up near redline while the 269 pound-feet of torque generated such acceleration that the front end lifted.

2013 Kia Sportage

This 260-horsepower four-cylinder engine takes up very little space in the engine compartment.

Josh Miller/CNET

The front wheels did not actually leave the ground, but I could feel lessened grip in the steering. The looser traction up front made it feel like the car might dart off the road. Don't expect to hold a turn under this kind of acceleration.

Testing the turbo lag, I set the transmission to manual mode and put it in second, then performed a rolling start. The turbo took about a half second to kick in, but rather than a startling punch of power, it merely added a bit of thrust to already strong acceleration. The direct-injection 2-liter engine does a pretty good job by itself.

Aside from playing with the turbo, the Sportage SX performed comfortably in day-to-day driving. Taking off from a stoplight, it exhibited slightly uneven acceleration, due to the turbo but exacerbated by the transmission, which tends to seek higher gears whenever possible.

Kia includes an Eco button in the Sportage SX, something I was tempted to use after watching how the turbo hit the fuel economy. As is common with Eco modes, this one merely detuned the accelerator, without affecting other car functions. For those who find the gas pedal too sensitive, the Eco button works to dial it back.

However, I would really like to see Kia, and other manufacturers, make Eco mode do more than detune the accelerator. It should also dial down the air conditioning, one of the biggest power drains on engines.

2013 Kia Sportage

The cargo area is not huge with the rear seats up, but adequate for most grocery runs.

Josh Miller/CNET

To help fuel economy, Kia uses electric power steering on the Sportage SX, and manages to tune it for good driving feel. In low speed maneuvers, the linear boost of the steering was my only clue that it was electric. Driving fast along a mountain road, steering exhibited decent road feel with a pleasing heft.

The Sportage SX's suspension shows tautness similar to that of the steering wheel. The ride felt more rigid than soft, and over rough patches of road it became uncomfortable, as the car communicated all those bumps to the cabin. Speeding through turns, the tightly tuned suspension minimized understeer but not enough to keep the body from leaning.

Kia included a descent control mode in the Sportage SX, but without all-wheel-drive I'm not sure how effective it would be. In combination with the transmission's manual gear selection mode it would probably make a difference on wet or slushy hills.

Stale cabin electronics
Coming from a recent review of the all-new Kia Cadenza, and having seen the next generation of the Soul at the New York auto show, the cabin electronics in the Sportage SX looked very tired compared to what is coming. The Sportage SX uses the same cabin tech suite as the EX I reviewed a few years earlier.

This model came optioned up with navigation, a solid, flash memory-based system with good response times and traffic data integration. The touch-screen LCD worked well for destination entry and showed useful graphics to explain upcoming turns. I like the clean look of the maps, but they show only in flat or plan view, with no perspective option.

When the system detected heavy traffic on my route, it brought up a dialog box asking me if I wanted to reroute. I found some of the routing suggestions questionable based on my knowledge of the area, but those sorts of problems are not isolated to Kia's navigation system.

2013 Kia Sportage

The navigation system's route guidance graphics are clear and easy to read.

Josh Miller/CNET

The biggest problem with the navigation option is that it eliminates the standard UVO system, voice command that gives drivers control over phones and iOS devices connected to the car.

However, even with the navigation option, the Sportage SX included a Bluetooth system for hands-free phone calls. This system had a voice-command component that let me make calls by saying the name of a contact stored on my phone. The UVO system without navigation, which Kia calls UVO Powered by Microsoft, would have included more advanced voice control over music.

Another quirk of the Sportage SX's cabin electronics is its use of a Y-adapter iOS device cable. Kia mounts a USB and auxiliary input port for the stereo right next to each other at the base of the console. Plug in a USB drive, and the touch-screen stereo interface shows a file and folder structure for any MP3 tracks on the drive.

Plug in an iOS cable, and nothing happens.

Kia provides an adapter cable for 30-pin iOS devices with both a 1/8 inch and USB plug on one end. For newer iOS devices, I had to add a 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter to the cable. With all adapters in place, the touch screen showed a full music library interface, with categories for artist, album, and genre.

2013 Kia Sportage

With music stored on a USB drive, the stereo shows this file-and-folder interface.

Josh Miller/CNET

Along with USB drives and iOS devices as audio sources, the stereo supported Bluetooth audio streaming and satellite radio. However, it lacked HD Radio. New Kia cabin electronics, such as what I saw in the Cadenza, do not need a special adapter cable for iOS devices, and include HD radio.

The Sportage SX model comes standard with an upgraded audio system, using seven speakers. While short of audiophile quality, I liked the system's music reproduction. It did a good job with bass, using its subwoofer to deliver strong beats. Despite the bass response, there was no panel rattle in the car.

Mid and high audio reproduction was a little more mundane. Vocals sounded a bit hollow and highs lacked vibrance, typical with average audio systems.

Practical and powerful
The 2013 Kia Sportage SX exhibits all the practicality of a small SUV. It holds five easily and offers a little cargo space, which should be suitable for the needs of most families. Its size makes it easy to maneuver, while the six-speed automatic transmission and steering tuning lend to hassle-free driving.

The cabin electronics do a good job of covering the basics. Standard Bluetooth means easy phone connections with hands-free calls and music streaming. The navigation system makes a nice addition, although it is disappointing that Kia cannot offer it and the UVO voice command in the same package. Lacking in the cabin electronics is any sort of app-integration.

What really sets the Sportage SX apart from other Sportage trims and most other small SUVs is its engine. Direct injection and its turbo give it power almost beyond what the car can handle. Most people can probably live with the 2.4-liter engine in the other trims, but the power-mad will find no other choice but the Sportage SX.

Tech specs
Model2013 Kia Sportage
PowertrainTurbocharged direct-injection 2-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy21 mpg city/28 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy21.9 mpg
NavigationOptional flash memory-based with traffic data
Bluetooth phone supportStandard
Digital audio sourcesBluetooth streaming, iOS device integration, USB drive, satellite radio, auxiliary input
Audio systemSeven-speaker system
Driver aidsBack-up camera
Base price$26,900
Price as tested$30,900

2013 Kia Sportage SX

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 5Performance tech 8Design 7


Trim levels SXAvailable Engine GasBody style SUV