Kia never had to downsize the Sportage, but along the way to its second generation, it gave up a hoary old V-6 engine in favor of a pair of four-cylinders--one turbocharged, one not. With either one, the Sportage has a heftier, more deliberate and better sorted feel than its Hyundai Tucson cousin, if only by a thin margin. But it has the turbo four all to itself, and as Robert Frost would argue, that has made all the difference.
The stock four-cylinder in the Sportage is a 2.4-liter producing 176 horsepower. It's adequate in a positive sense, measured in its responses and perky enough in pushing its power through the standard six-speed automatic when it's a front-driver. The transmission's not stressed at all, and it's responsive enough in changing gears when it's moved to its manual-shift mode.
Ticking the SX box on the Sportage's order sheet specifies a turbocharged 2.0-liter four, and lifts output to a breathy 260 hp. That's more than enough to overpower the front wheels a few rotations before the traction control cuts in on the dance. With the turbo also comes a set of shift paddles, for more natural driving response and less distracted operation.
The all-wheel drive system that's available through most of the lineup has a true locking differential that splits power 50:50 front to back at up to 25 mph. It’s great for peace of mind, less so for handling and fuel economy—but probably a necessity to handle the horsepower emanating from the turbo four. But the AWD system adds about 200 pounds, so unless you’re in snowy northern tier, pass on the AWD system to save on weight and gas if you're getting the base engine
In either front- or all-wheel-drive guise, the Sportage falls a little shy of the ride and handling delights of, say, a Subaru Forester. The ride’s a touch rumbly, especially on the big 18-inch wheels offered on top trims. Ride quality tends to be a little stiff and jarring, compared to other crossovers this size; another downside is road noise, which can reach an ever-present rumble on coarse surfaces.
Kia’s tuning of the electric power steering it shares with Hyundai is a bit better, with more dialed-in heft that muted some of the wandering you’d feel in a Tucson on the highway. Like the brakes, it gives up a touch of the controlled feel Subaru’s delivered in the nimble Forester.