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We used to call them “cute-utes.” From the Ford Escape, to the Honda CR-V on to the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage, a generation of small sport-utility vehicles were pitched at first-time shoppers in the hopes they’d trade up to bigger, higher-profit SUVs in the future.
Now that the SUV time-space continuum’s been disrupted by gas prices and a sour economy, these compact crossovers are growing up a little, doing the reverse of their original intent. They’re becoming a good alternative for buyers trading down from the larger utes that fell out of fashion over what seems like a matter of months.
With the 2011 Sportage, Kia’s placed its bets in all the right places. The Sportage has grown up into real-world dimensions, with more cargo space than ever. It’s still among the smaller vehicles in its class but it fits adults better in all situations.
And though it’s a mechanical twin of the 2010 Hyundai Tucson underneath, the Sportage’s sheetmetal hits the sport-ute crowd squarely with its smart blend of rugged details and hatchback practicality. The Tucson’s “fluidic sculpture” theme is compelling, but it can’t beat the Kia’s refreshing, crisp take on utility—and the Sportage has an equally direct and good-looking cockpit that contributes a lot to the crossover’s newfound quality feel. It’s even tackling the hands-free-arena with UVO, a Microsoft-engineered system with much in common with Ford’s SYNC; the Tucson has to wait while Kia gets it all to itself.
Pricing has jumped considerably for this Sportage. Its base price of just under $19,000 means the coming 270-hp SX model will nudge the $30,000 bottom line. That pitches the Sportage into a headlong battle with the longtime titans in this group—CR-V, Forester and Escape—and overlaps the base price of larger vehicles like the 2011 Ford Explorer. A higher sticker price could turn off some shoppers, but most who kick the Sportage’s tires will be far more impressed with its magnitude of change.