2011 Kia Sportage EX

Even those paying half attention to the auto world know that it’s a whole new ballgame these days. The old guard has struggled lately but there’s a smattering of brands that are thriving.  Count Kia as one of them.  There’s bad news for RAV4, CR-V and the aging Ford Escape.  The 2011 Sportage is trickling into Kia showrooms as you read this.

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Sportage is not historically known as a front runner in this segment.  The first gen was part of Kia’s initial assault on US shores back in 1994.  Some info for the next time you’re playing Trivial Pursuit Car Edition, it’s the only one of their vehicles to keep it’s name from the brand’s launch.  Sportage beat RAV4, CR-V to market and came well before Escape.  Only Suzuki Samurai beat it to the US (and where is it now, huh?).

Things didn’t go all that smoothly at first.

First doesn’t always mean best and let’s just say the original body-on-frame trucklette had some teething problems.  The second version was a big improvement, switching to a car based unibody chassis. It was a wallflower though, designed it seems by the same team that brought us beige.

Exterior style is now first and foremost to Sportage.  Drawn up by a team headed by former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, the 2011 model has a unique but overall Euro look to it right down to LED daytime running lights similar to, ahhh, hmmm, could it be…. Audi?  This element and the planted stance brings a good amount of presence to Sportage when seen on the road.

Right on Kue.

Based on the Kue concept car first shown at the 2007 New York Auto Show, the distinct bold shape of this CUV should appeal to it’s new target market- guys (historically Sportage has skewed female).  Kia has tooted their horn about their new design philosophy with the Forte and Sorento.   They’re nice but they’ve hit their stride with Sportage and the upcoming Optima.   Kia was keen on tossing around the phrase “sports car with a backpack”.   A little forced but hey, I used it didn’t I?

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It’s easy for the eye to glom onto the thick D pillar as a design feature but check out the upper windshield when you see this rig for the first time.  The line juts forward a little forming a sort of tab, mirroring the shape of the grille somewhat.    Something the designers debated?  The turn indicator in back blinks on the lower bumper mounted lens, not the upper area where where other drivers expect it.

Driving dynamics.

At launch the only engine is a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder that makes 176 horsepower. There’s no V6 anymore but that’s fine, this 4 makes more power.  Base models have a 6-speed manual transmission, top ‘o the line EX models Kia has on hand at the Seattle press launch come standard with a 6-speed automatic.

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Longer, lower and wider, the new Sportage is now slightly lighter.  0-60 happens in around 9 seconds, OK for a compact sport ute.  Speed junkies will want to wait for the more powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces an expected 270 horsepower available sometime in early 2011.  At least the normally aspirated 2.4-liter power plant feels quicker than it’s performance numbers and is never harsh, even when pushed.  Many shoppers will be fine with it.

At the press launch we are driving preproduction vehicles and the various examples Kia has us jumping into have slightly different ride qualities.  It’s clear they’re going for a firm handling dynamic. The electric power steering has an almost magnetic need to return to center, much like the Hyundai Tucson that shares this architecture.  The structure, loaded with high strength steel is quite solid.  Sportage is on the quiet side for those who do the road trip thing.  Fuel economy is EPA rated as high as 22 city, 31 highway for front-drive automatic models.  AWD drops that to 21/28 which is fine considering it’s size.

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UVO is on it’s way

Remember, this is a top-line EX with the $3,000 Premium Package meaning there’s fancy stuff inside.  Leather seats are heated (expected), the driver’s chair is ventilated (not expected).  A big piece of glass is installed in the roof and navigation gets thrown in as part of the package. The wheel is leather wrapped too.  Despite the stout signature rear pillar, visibility is fairly good, audible parking aids help when backing up.  The throttle pedal is hinged on the bottom, not unlike a certain German manufacturer.  EXs get dual zone climate control.

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The materials inside are decent but not up to the promise of the sheetmetal.  They’re what would be expected in this class, hard with a nice matte finish.  Seats are nicely bolstered too, there were no cloth versions to look at, only leather.   I mention that because with it the black interior gets a bit dark and monochromatic.  With the cloth seating, optional blue or orange colored inserts on the door panels bring more depth to the cabin.  Know that the wheel tilts on all models but to get a telescoping feature you have to go with higher trim levels.

Coming soon to Sportage is UVO, a Microsoft based system similar to Ford’s Sync.  It’s designed to simply electronics like phones, MP3 players and music filled USB jump drives by making them voice activated.  Want to hear Coldplay on your iPod?  Push the steering wheel button and say “iPod” then “play artist Coldplay”.  It’s just that easy.

We were treated to a very controlled demo of UVO (pronounced YOU-voh) and it has a more streamlined voice command architecture than the version of Ford Sync I’m familiar with (but they’ve announced an upgrade so I’ll have to update my experience).  It can read incoming text messages from Bluetooth enabled phones and even send back pre-programmed texts, the best being, “can’t respond, I’m driving”.

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Order Dynamax AWD (developed by Kia and Magna International) and you get a system that continuously monitors conditions with a sort of ESP.  It keeps under and oversteer in check by reducing unwanted traction to the front or rear axels.  Not only does it have a super hero name, Dynamax normally delivers all of the torque to the front wheels for better fuel economy.  When a wheels slips, a percentage of the torque is automatically routed to the back treads.  There’s a lock mode for slipper and sloppy conditions that divvies up the torque evenly between the front and rear axels under 25 miles per hour.

Nice backside.

Loading children’s car seats?  The rear doors open very wide for easy entry and exit.  Once in back two average adults will be perfectly fine.  Three?  If they are the trim trendy buyers Kia is after no problem.  Foot and knee room is good, the shallow drive train tunnel doesn’t intrude on the passenger stuck in the middle (it is the safest position in the car). My 5’9” frame has plenty of headroom in back even with the panoramic roof.   A folding armrest with drink holders is here along with bottle slots in the doors.  No power port or fore and aft sliding seat though.

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Even raiding the hotel bathrooms, press launches don’t have enough bath tissue for me to do the famous TP test but Sportages cargo area looks to be very useful.  To get to it there’s a hidden latch on the underside of the hatch door.  It looks good but it’s location means it gets dirty so your hands will too.  On the plus side there’s divided storage under load floor and the wheel wells don’t intrude much, keeping the space very useable.  There’s a good amount of room back here.

That brings us to price. If you pay retail, a base front drive Sportage with manual transmission will set you back $18,990 (including destination because who gets a car without it?).  All-wheel drive EXs max out at $29,990.  That’s a decent deal for this kind of style and equipment level.   No doubt crossover buyers have a lot to choose from these days.  Sportage’s compelling mix of style, function, and value should put it on many short lists.

FULL GALLERY BELOW.  ALL STILLS PHOTOS PROVIDED BY KIA.

6 Comments

  1. Andy says:

    Hi Tom, great review on the Kia Sportage and as ‘Toaster’ points out let’s see the Sorento and Optima review soon. Any idea when Kia plan on releasing the Sportage in SX trim with the 274HP Turbo engine? Keep up the fantastic reviews!

    • TV says:

      Funny, I just spoke to Kia’s fabulous Beverly Braga a few days ago. She says the turbo is coming mid 2011 and Seattle is slated to get a press Optima sometime in November. I’ll get on it when it’s available. I’m interested too.

  2. Toaster says:

    Looks like another win for Kia. I find myself more and more interested in this brand. Tom, get on that Sorento review!! :)

    Can’t wait for that new Optima you previewed to hit the streets.

    Great style, great value, great warranty … if Kia has the reliability to back up that warranty they will become a force in the near future!

  3. crash says:

    Royce….I’m with ya! If I were to replace my current CUV – it’d be with an Esacpe Hybrid….not knowing what the future Escape (2012) will for sure look like (shocking we haven’t see spy shots yet) – however I hear it’s basically a Kuga.

    All this said – if Kia came out with a Hybrid version of this car – it would be a serious competitor for my $.

    Tom – any idea if they’re going to put the Sonta Hybrid in this thing?

  4. [...] Originally Posted by Mooseski My black cloth seats have Grey stitching and some Grey design in the backrest. The one thing I noticed in looking at the Canadian photos in the other thread is the storage tray under the cargo floor. I wish I had that. this might help your case with the cargo tray with the dealer if it ends up being a problem. This is a review on the EX US model and on the video it clearly shows the tray under the rear cargo floor around the 4:30 mark. 2011 Kia Sportage EX drivencarreviews.com [...]

  5. royce7 says:

    Great write up, thanks Tom. I’m extremely interested in the Ford Escape (preferably hybrid) for my next car, so it looks like I’ll be putting this on my test-drive list for comparison.

    Hopefully by the time I get around to testing the market that turbo-charged 4-cylinder will be available to test drive also.