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Small SUVs sometimes earn the nickname "cute-utes," and it's never been more true. Trucky imitation is so 2005; crossovers like the Kia Sportage are sleek little gym shoes, packing the same convenience in much more stylish duds. It's grown up and out, in size and price and performance, and that means the latest Sportage is now in the thick of things, alongside best sellers like the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V, its kin Hyundai Tucson, and the grassroots favorite Subaru Forester.
Priced from below $20,000 in base form to more than $30,000 as a turbo SX, the Sportage overlaps a lot of larger vehicles now, but it does it with a confident look. We think it's one of the best-looking compact utes, with its deft mashup of SUV and hatchback lines. The tipped-back stance shares some sass with the Soul, and a few well-chosen details lighten up thick body sides. It's chunky, but not at all clunky--we think, what the Jeep Compass could have been. The cockpit relates to the sheetmetal in a way most cars and utes gloss over. Big gauges are framed by a rectangular dash that's toned down significantly versus the one in the Tucson, though if you look hard, you can see how the two share some common hard points. It's workmanlike in the best way possible--it looks substantial, and feels authentic.
All Sportages offer a four-cylinder engines, and in most models the 2.4-liter four makes 176 horsepower. Direct injection is new this year; it hasn't changed the measured acceleration the engine and a six-speed automatic dole out (a manual's available), but pokey, the Sportage is not. It's fairly refined in motion, too, and the automatic's unstressed and reasonably quick to shift when you move the lever to manual mode.
Opt for the turbocharged SX and the Sportage's output rises to a breathy 260 hp, enough to spin the front wheels a little before traction control mellows out the party, and the automatic gets shift paddles for less distracted driving and better response. All-wheel drive is an option across the board, and comes with a differential lock that splits power 50:50 at speeds up to 25 mph. Gas mileage ranges from 21/30 mpg with the front-drive four-cylinder, to 20/27 mpg with the SX AWD.
In either trim, the base four-cylinder Sportage isn't quite as savvy at muting road surfaces as, say, a Subaru Forester. Ride quality's improved a bit this year with more sophisticated shocks on base versions, like those standard on EX and SX versions. Big 18-inch wheels don't help, so think twice before blinging out. Kia tunes its electric power steering systems on the heavy side, which gives them a little more realistic feel than its Hyundai cousins, and better control over minor road modulations. The SX makes great strides toward a truly sporty driving experience, something a little bit more tuning could bring home.
With its wider footprint, the Sportage delivers more interior space than its ancestors, but it's still on the smaller side of crossovers. The front seats benefit from the relatively high dash, and have good leg and shoulder room. As usual, add a sunroof, subtract headroom. The seats themselves are well-shaped and can be air-cooled on high-line Sportages. The back seat's like that in the Tucson--bigger adults will slouch a bit to find a good seating position perched on the otherwise nicely angled cushions. Cargo space measures 26.1 cubic feet, more than some luxury utes, and the rear-end styling means more of the cargo space is hidden behind sheetmetal--great for valuables, not so great if you carry pets often.
Standard curtain airbags and stability control are joined by optional rear parking sensors and rearview camera, which help with the Sportage's sizable blind spots. The IIHS calls the Sportage a Top Safety Pick, too.
Standard features include air conditioning; power windows, locks and mirrors; and 16-inch wheels. Moving up to more expensive models adds features like keyless start; satellite radio; Bluetooth; steering-wheel audio and phone controls; and a USB port. Top models get a telescoping steering wheel; a cooled glove box; a power driver seat; 18-inch wheels; leather steering wheel and shifter trim; roof rails; and a rear spoiler. Major options include leather upholstery; seat heaters; a cooled driver seat; and finally UVO, Kia's version of the Microsoft voice controller sold by Ford as SYNC. Kia's version has a more limited vocabulary and controls fewer functions, but it can search all your media to find the perfect soundtrack to your next drive, whether it lives on your iPod, an SD card, or HD Radio.
- Sport-shoe styling
- A higher grade of trim, all around
- UVO’s hands-free controls
- Genuine sporty driving in 260-hp SX
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- Still rides a little stiffly
- Steering is heavier than most cute-utes
- Smallish cabin has skimpy rear-seat headroom
- Easy to build a $30,000 SX