After Kia Motors started selling vehicles in the United States under its own brand name in 1994, the second model it introduced was a compact SUV dubbed the Sportage. During the press introduction this week of the 2011 Sportage, that 1995 model was described as a humble beginning, which may have been the understatement of the year.
It's quite remarkable what a difference 15 years has made for Kia. In the years since it arrived in the United States, the company has gone bankrupt and subsequently absorbed by Hyundai. These days, Kia and Hyundai share platforms and technologies and both brands have a reputation for excellent value and increasingly high quality. While Kia's vehicles had been solid and affordable, until the last few years few would call them stylish.
Kia Kue concept
That all changed after Peter Schreyer came on as design director in 2006 after leaving Audi. The first project under Schreyer's leadership to be shown publicly was the Kue concept from the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. Since last years debut of the production Soul and Forte, Kia has introduced a string of vehicles that feature the design elements of the Kue. The closest in shape and size is the all-new Sportage.
Prior to the current generation, Kia never had a coherent look for its vehicles but that has very much changed for the better. Massimo Frascella who penned the Kue also led the team that created the new Sportage. From the double-tab grille at the front to the indentations along the rocker panels the Sportage carries the Kia signature.
At the rear Frascella has created a look that appears to be almost devoid of a bumper with a tailgate that stretches all the way to the license plate pocket. Compared to the outgoing model, the 2011 is 3.5 inches longer, 2.1 inches wider and 2.3 inches lower. Combined with its raised belt-line, the new Sportage has a much more aggressive looking stance and sets itself apart from the compact crossover crowd.
Despite lowering the roof, we found the Sportage to offer plenty of space inside for four passengers and five in a pinch. Stretching the body back to almost the edge of the rear bumper has also allowed the designers to increase the cargo by 10 percent to a full 26.1 cubic feet compared to the 2010's 23.6 cubic feet.
The Sportage passenger compartment is mostly covered in hard plastics to keep cost down, the finish, colors and textures are nicely matched and don't come off looking cheap especially in the lighter grey. The top-level EX trim that we drove was equipped with a touch screen navigation system.
Later this fall, Kia will start offering its new UVO voice command interface on the Sportage, Sorento and Optima sedan. This system is built on the same Microsoft embedded car platform as Ford Sync but uses Kia's own interface. Like the latest versions of Sync, UVO has an expanded vocabulary of commands it can recognize allowing drivers to issue instructions in fewer steps. Unfortunately the initial version is not integrated with the navigation and can only control the audio and phone. Expansion of the system's capabilities will be coming later.
Despite the raised belt-line and the absence of a window in the C-Pillar, we had no issues with visibility. The presence of the rear seat headrests would have blocked the view through a third window anyway. We would have perhaps preferred slightly taller rear glass for more a view straight back, but the Sportage was by no means the worst vehicle we driven in this area.
At launch the only engine available in the Sportage will be a 2.4-liter inline-four with 173 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque taking it past the optional 173 hp 2.7-liter V6 available in 2010. Early in 2011, Kia will add an SX model powered by a turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-liter inline-four that should produce over 270 hp. All Sportages now have six-speed transmissions with a manual available in the base model and all others getting the same compact automatic found in the latest Hyundai Tucson and Sonata.
Back in the mid-1990s when the original Sportage debuted, pretty much all SUVs had poor dynamic qualities and the little Kia was among the worst of the breed. Fast forward to the present day and it's a whole different ball-game. Crossovers like the Ford Escape have proven that it's possible to have decent handling and ride even in a taller vehicle.
Driving around the San Francisco bay area the Sportage proved to be fully up to the task of handling twisty roads. During a run down Skyline Blvd toward Half Moon Bay, the Sportage exhibited excellent body control with minimal roll and mild understeer at the limits of adhesion. The electrically assisted steering had no dead spots and was nicely weighted for the task at hand, neither too heavy or too light.
Some drivers might find the Sportage suspensions setup to be a bit on the stiff side but we found it to be just about right. The damping was just right to keep the Sportage from feeling floaty over bumps and springs absorbed most of the bumps. Our biggest complaint would be that a bit more road noise was transmitted into the passenger compartment than we my hope for.
Most drivers will likely find the current 2.4-liter engine perfectly adequate and the Sportage had no problem climbing hills or merging onto freeways. Based on the EPA ratings of 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, the Sportage should prove to be fairly thrifty with fuel as well as being reasonably affordable to buy. The base manual transmission model runs $18,990 delivered while an EX with every available option will top out at about $29,000. The 2011 Sportage should be arriving at dealers in August.