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.

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