2011 Kia Sportage EX: Driven

March 7, 2011
At first glance, there's a lot to like about the 2011 Kia Sportage. With its 'hot hatch on steroids' look, it's one of the most svelte crossovers from the outside. An impressive feature set and sporty, richly detailed cabin round out what feels like a very desirable package.

Start the Sportage EX's four-cylinder engine, a 176-horsepower, 2.4-liter, and it's right on par with expectations. There's none of the shake and shudder of some other large-displacement fours. It's quite perky, even with the added weight of all-wheel drive in our EX test vehicle, and the closely spaced gears don't provide the balky moments you sometimes get with four-speeds. Brakes feel confident, and the steering has a stout, confident feel—albeit a little stiff—as long as you're in gentle, suburban-style driving on smooth boulevards. Front seats are comfortable, too, and it feels stylish and better-detailed than most other vehicles you'd also have on the shopping list.

But the Sportage doesn't hold up as well when you take a long look at the details, compared to other rival models, or when you put it to the test on less-than-perfect roads.

To start, ride quality in our EX all-wheel-drive test vehicle, with the 18-inch alloys and low 55-profile tires, left a lot to be desired. The suspension clunks over seemingly small patches and potholes with little to no ability to soak up harshness, and coarse highway surfaces ring loudly in the cabin. In fact, it's one of the harshest rides we've experienced in this class, and a short stretch on a gravel road was downright jarring. What makes it all the more disappointing is that when you push the Sportage hard into a corner, the front end gives out quite quickly; there's an underlying softness that doesn't exactly make the Sportage feel athletic either.

Harsh ride, dull steering

For all that ride harshness, the steering is surprisingly dull. We broadly panned the feel of the steering in the related Hyundai Tucson, and unfortunately Kia hasn't done the same sort of software magic is did with the Optima sedan to improve on it. The Sportage's tiller feels unnecessary heavy and muted on center, and gets a light-then-binding feel on quick transitions that isn't so confidence-inspiring.

When you're driving a little quicker and the transmission commands downshifts—as it's very willing to do either with a press of the right foot or a tap back of the shift knob in the manual gate—the engine gets quite raucous, which is not unusual in this class.

The seating position is a little less upright than some other crossover, and the results aren't always for the better; you sit quite low to the floor, yet there's not really that much spare headroom either. In the back seat, headroom is surprisingly tight for average-height adult passengers. While we liked the look and feel of the leather upholstery included with the Premium Package, though. There are plenty of places to put smaller items, but the two cupholders in front are sized for Super Big Gulps—and much wider than the bottom of any of my travel coffee mugs (or standard coffee cups), leaving them to tip on tighter corners.

Inside, the Sportage feels downright fashionable. We loved the carefully sculpted look of the dash, in particular, and how it matches the new exterior in some respects; controls are straightforward, and the switchgear feels high-quality. Our (perhaps ragged) test car had a number of creaks and rattles, though, with one around the right base of the windshield and another emanating from where the console meets the dash.

The thick side pillar gets in the way when changing lanes, and visibility through the thin rear window is horrible. But we do like how the hatch goes all the way down to the bumper; and the load floor itself feels at an easy, natural height. But it's a bit surprising that cargo space is so small.

Tech delights and disappointments

Our very well equipped Sportage EX included items such as dual-zone climate control and LED running lamps—plus the Premium Package, which brought a nav system, rear camera display, premium audio, leather upholstery, heated front seats, a panorama sunroof, and heated outside mirrors, to a total of $29,990.

2011 Kia Sportage

2011 Kia Sportage

While the equipment list is impressive, the nav and entertainment system was disappointing. The sound system wouldn't hook up to my iPhone via the USB connector provided with the car, and after trying once kept giving a sound-system-muting warning, every five minutes or so, that the USB connection had failed. What's more, it wouldn't simply just charge the phone after the connection failed. The nav system has a sharp-looking display, but we found the map data to be poorly updated in several cases, with the nav system stubbornly requesting that we turn against a one-way, and in another case, into a street that didn't exist. Cementing our unease with the whole system is that any of the screen-based functions have an annoying lag or latency, as if its processor is overtaxed by the software. And the live traffic system gave us several chances to reroute when traffic slowed, but its reroute options were always much longer than the planned route.

The Sportage remains true to one of its main promises, which is efficient yet stylish transportation; we averaged about 24 mpg over almost exactly 400 miles of driving, with much of it on the highway. From studying the trip computer, we noticed we were only getting 18 mpg or so in around-town stop-and-go, but out on the open road mileage jumped to the 25-26 range.

Ultimately, we see why the Sportage might appeal to some shoppers; it's affordable, well-equipped, quite fuel-efficient, and good-looking to nearly any taste. But we can think of several other crossover models that have both better handling and a better ride (most of its rivals, in fact), and inside, there's less usable space than most other alternatives. We'd love to do a back-to-back with Kia's much more affordable Soul, in fact, but it is another look—and argument—altogether. And for some Sportage buyers, Kia's newfound sense of style alone might be enough.

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