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Wagons and minivans are fine for some families, but others need something in a more athletic style. The Kia Sportage fits that bill: it's a grippy, pert little hatchback that puts on some SUV airs when it needs to carry people and make it through foul weather. But it skips the whole live-axle, locking-differential fantasy world of loggers, swamp people, and anything truly involved in off-roading. It's the cosplay sport-ute--and it's great at it.
The Kia Sportage slips easily into its work togs, like a size 7 foot into a Nike cross-trainer. Bigger than in its first run around the neighborhood, the second-generation Sportage is still on the compact end of its class, and relatively unchanged for the 2013 model year, while it takes on other incumbents like the Chevy Equinox and Hyundai Tucson, as well as newer entries like the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V.
The Sportage packs convenience and features into a body that's as much a hatchback as it is a trim little utility vehicle, and offers all-wheel drive for the few who really need it--and the significantly higher number of people who'll pay for it when they really don't.
Spanning a price bracket from about $20,000 to more than $35,000, the Sportage crosses swords with those larger vehicles, but it does so with presence that's equally tough. The chunky, laid-back look owes a lot to the European hot hatches, but the high stance and slightly snubbed nose are pure ute, as is the rectangular, function-driven interior. Substance gets a workout all over the Sportage's sheetmetal and cabin, but there's an equal dash of style that's distinctive to Kia.
Four-cylinder engines are all that's offered on the Sportage in this generation, and they're all that's needed, since one gets a turbocharged horsepower lift. The base engine's a 2.4-liter four with 176 horsepower and direct injection. A six-speed automatic isn't the only gearbox, but its measured, responsive shifts are likely the only ones you'll find on dealer lots: we've yet to see one of the manuals.
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.
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.