If you look at the compact crossover SUVs on the market today, it's difficult to find many that pack a visual punch. Vehicles like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Hyundai Tucson and Ford Escape are all styled rather conservatively and can look overly similar. But as I approach the 2017 Kia Sportage parked in front of San Diego's Hard Rock Hotel, any notions of another me-too, soft-appearing CUV quickly disappear. Kia's Tiger-Nose grille continues to be a distinct visual hallmark for the Korean brand, while the high-set, swept-back headlights evoke the Porsche Macan. The ice-cube LED fog lights, which we've already seen on the larger Sorento, also appear on high-spec versions of the Sportage. All of this results in a compact crossover that isn't just another drab face in today's crowded compact crossover segment. Whether it's attractive or otherwise is, of course, down to personal preference, but I find it attractive.
The best part about the fourth-generation Sportage is that its beauty isn't just skin deep. Kia's newest also features a more premium feel and better handling reflexes. While the previous Sportage suffered from a loud cabin and a suspension that crashed over bumps, the 2017 model is quiet and comfortable rolling down the highway, yet it also does well tackling winding California roads. Steering feels responsive, with good weighting tuned into the wheel, which also is an improvement over the vague-feeling system in the outgoing model.
All those dynamic upgrades begin with the new Sportage's structure that's now built from 51 percent high-strength steel compared to the 18 percent in the old model and results in better torsional rigidity by 39 percent. Hot-stamped steel in the pillars, side sills, roof and wheel arches further improve body stiffness, while more liberal application of structural adhesives also reinforce the body, and bring down noise, vibration and harshness levels. A redone suspension adds stronger wheel bearings, new bushings and revised rear suspension mounting points to the equation, while my SX's tester also gets firmer shocks to sharpen handling further. To tighten up steering, engineers mounted the steering box further forward and upgraded the electromechanical system's ECU to a 32-bit unit from 16-bit.
On challenging roads a couple of hours outside of San Diego, my SX tester tracks confidently through quick bends, with its body motions staying in check without much roll or dive when braking. The brakes themselves are strong, with pleasingly firm pedal feedback. It's certainly a sporty ride for the segment, but the higher handling abilities thankfully don't necessarily come at the expense of ride comfort. Even on the SX's 19-inch wheel and tire package, the Sportage rides smoothly enough, with the suspension still taking the edge off of most road impacts I come across.
Adding to the Sportage's entertainment factor is a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine exclusive to the SX that produces 237 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque in my all-wheel-drive model. That makes it significantly more powerful than nearly every other vehicle in its segment. It's also worth noting that if you opt for front-wheel drive, the engine churns out an even 240 horsepower. While the 2.0T swiftly propels the Sportage out of corners, it's still not jaw-dropping quick. The very warm temperatures could have been playing a part in sapping some power, but I believe most of it has to do with a fully-loaded SX AWD having a curb weight of nearly 4,000 pounds. A brief drive of a slightly lighter SX front-wheel-drive version didn't feel amazingly quick, either, but dealing with a small case of torque steer is always fun. If you're targeting max fuel efficiency, it shouldn't be a surprise that the SX's more potent turbo engine isn't the ideal candidate, as it returns a modest 21 miles per gallon city and 26 mpg highway for front-wheel-drive versions. Adding all-wheel drive drops the fuel ratings even further, to a borderline acceptable 20 mpg city and 23 mpg highway.
Instead, Sportage customers who have fuel efficiency near the top of their shopping list will want to look to the 2.4-liter, 181-hp four-cylinder available in base LX and EX models. For the LX, the engine receives an EPA fuel economy rating of 23 city and 30 mpg highway with FWD, while AWD models get 21/25 ratings. These are middling-at-best efficiency figures for this class. Both the 2.4-liter naturally aspirated engine and 2.0-liter turbo work with a six-speed automatic transmission, which along with the standout styling, set the Sportage apart from its Hyundai Tucson cousin that offers a base 2.0-liter engine with a six-speed automatic or a 1.6-liter turbo four mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
In addition to the 19-inch wheels and ice-cube LED fog lights, the Sportage SX visually differs from the LX and EX models on the outside with xenon headlights, satin exterior trim and metal-look skid plates. A design aspect not related to trim level, but to the Sportage's drive configuration are the front fascias with all-wheel-drive models getting a specific one providing a greater approach angle for those who plan to do light off-roading.
For the interior, the SX gets a heated, flat-bottomed steering wheel with paddle shifters, gloss-black trim, aluminum pedals, a stitched dashboard and a crisp-sounding 320-watt Harman Kardon audio system. Add those together with the abundance of soft-touch surfaces, intuitive layout of center-stack controls, greater sound insulation efforts and overall roomier surroundings, and you've got a cabin that's both comfortable and high on refinement.
Available advanced safety technology features include forward-collision warning and autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection that will bring the Sportage to a complete stop if a front collision is deemed imminent. These sensor-based technologies are becoming more common, but Kia's integration of the sensors into the front grille on the all-wheel-drive Sportage models is unsightly. Lane departure warning triggers an audible warning if it detects the CUV veering from its lane without a turn signal, while blind-spot detection provides a visual warning in the side mirrors if a vehicle is hovering in those harder-to-see places. Rear cross-traffic alert will warn of oncoming rear side traffic, which comes in handy when backing out of parking spots and driveways.
On the infotainment front, the SX comes standard with an intuitive and responsive 8.0-inch touchscreen featuring navigation, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and Kia's UVO telematics functions. The midgrade Sportage EX gets a smaller 7.0-inch touchscreen that's also Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible. Entry-level LX models can be equipped with the 7.0-inch touchscreen system as part of a $900 option package.
The 2017 Kia Sportage is available in dealers now and starts at $23,885 for a LX front-wheel-drive model, while the range-topping SX all-wheel-drive rings up at $34,895 including destination fees. The wide price range positions the Sportage to be competitive against the usual suspects in the segment, but it's a downright bargain as a Porsche Macan lookalike.