Kia is on a roll. Capping sixteen consecutive years of market share growth in the United States, 2010 was the company's best sales year ever. Not resting on its laurels, Kia has redesigned one of the pillars of its growth, the compact Sportage crossover vehicle. The 2011 Kia Sportage will arrive with base prices from $18,295 to $24,795, including 5-year/60,000 mile basic warranty, a 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates from 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway (AWD AT) to 22 city/31 highway (FWD AT). Let's drive.
First, a little bit of Kia history. Kia started out as a bicycle parts manufacturer back in 1944 in Seoul, Korea (it became South Korea in 1948). After progressing through bicycles to motorcycles to diesel trucks over the next 30 years, Kia began building gasoline-powered automobiles in the mid-70s, first as a subcontractor for Peugeot and Fiat. The first Kia-branded automobile to be sold in the US was the Sephia in 1994; the Sportage debuted as the second Kia in 1996. The first generation Sportage (1996 - 2002) was a compact, body-on-frame SUV. The second generation Sportage (2004 - 2009) ditched the frame for unibody (frameless) construction, and became a true crossover vehicle.
Rolling out for 2011, the third generation Sportage retains the unibody construction of the second generation. Like just about every vehicle these days, the new Sportage is longer and wider than its predecessor. Unlike most, the new Sportage is a few pounds lighter than the vehicle it replaces, which is a welcome change.
Sportage has gone from "me-too" in the styling department to muy guapo. From the sculpted sides to the sleek headlights and "tabbed" grille to the bobbed tail, Sportage fits in with the cutting edge of crossover design of the moment, in the Nissan Murano/BMW X3/Ford Edge school of muscular jellybean. Only its weird wheels, a Kia specialty, jolt the senses.
In the Driver’s Seat
Inside, Sportage does not disappoint. I was especially taken by the futuristic, yet functional, dashboard. It is nicely symmetrical, with some very clever echoes of the exterior design snuck in to the interior. Note, for instance, the "tabbed" outline of the air conditioning vents, which mimic the shape of the "tabbed" grille. The pod-like instrument cluster is a nice touch, as well, with its deeply dished nacelle that keeps glare at bay.
As usual for Kia, there's a ton of standard equipment included, and the laundry list of features grows exponentially as you move up from the base Sportage to the middle of the line LX and top of the line EX. Factory navigation is a $1,500 option on the LX and EX trim levels, but not available on the base model. The EX model gets downright fancy, with available heated leather seats ($3,000), dual zone air conditioning with ionized filtration and a cooled glove box.
Fit and finish throughout the interior is excellent, and materials are quite good for the price point. Mazda's CX-7 might be a little cooler looking, but Sportage is right up there in the looks and function department. I love the auxiliary/USB inputs for the radio, but I wish that they were in the glove compartment or in the center console rather than exposed at the bottom of the center stack. Theft from vehicles is a big problem, and it's always tricky to remember to put away your electronic gadgets when you park. A little help, Kia?
On the Road
Beyond the exterior and interior changes, Sportage has undergone a major mechanical makeover as well. A single all-new (to Sportage) powertrain replaces the I4/V6 choices of the previous generation. Sportage's inline four-cylinder 2.4-liter engine produces 176 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque, almost equaling the output of the outgoing 2.7 liter V6 (173 hp/178 lb-ft of torque), but with better fuel economy. The rumor mill buzzes that the turbocharged 2.0-liter engine from the new Kia Optima Turbo will make its way under the new Sportage's hood soon as an option, which makes a lot of sense. I hope it does.
Sportage's four-wheel independent suspension (MacPherson struts up front/multi-link out back with stabilizer bars at both ends) does a good job of keeping the CUV on its toes. A six-speed manual transmission is fitted to the front-wheel drive base model; all others get a six-speed automatic with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (a $1,500 premium). I didn't get a chance to drive the manual version; my test vehicle was equipped with all-wheel drive and the automatic transmission. I would be perfectly happy with that combination, especially if I lived in a snowy climate.
Sportage is the vehicle that put Kia on the map back in the 1990s. This new Sportage doesn't have the burden of an entire company on its back -- Kia is doing very nicely with its sedans and small cars, and has hit a home run with its US-built Sorento. Still, Sportage faces some stiff competition, and still battles the perception that Kia vehicles don't perform well on resale. Kia's current residual values sit at about 41%, and the company says that it would like to get that number up to 57 - 60%. That would make new Kias a much better buy, and would definitely help Sportage sales.
The leader in the compact SUV marketplace is still the Honda CR-V, with the Toyota RAV4 hot on its heels. Kia corporate cousin Hyundai sports the Tucson to compete with Sportage. The US-built competition is a little bigger -- the Chevy EquinoxGMC Terrain, and the Ford Escape. Jeep's Compass and Dodge's Caliber aren't yet in the game. The other big competition for Sportage comes from Kia's own Sorento, just $1,500 more expensive at base price, but substantially bigger and more capable, and very close in terms of fuel economy. Kia has to be careful about slicing this market too thinly.
I returned the smart key for the 2011 Kia Sportage with some regret, though. I grew to appreciate its many standard features, and I was quite comfortable behind the wheel in most situations. A buyer who keeps their SUV for the long haul could be quite happy with a Sportage, especially with that 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty.