On the Road Review: Kia Sportage SX



 

When Korea’s two primary automakers effectively merged over a decade ago, the hoped for economies of scale quickly developed with mutual car planning and design. Kia, initially the junior partner in the hook-up with Hyundai, gained access to greater financial resources and quickly carved out a more ambitious design emphasis than Hyundai by hiring several key architects from Audi. The strategy has been successful, with Kia making bold market gains in North America and other growing markets.

While a rampaging Subaru has recently passed Kia on the sales charts, the combined new vehicle sales of Kia/Hyundai in the USA would place the Korean automakers at the number six spot in this market, right behind Honda. Given the short life of these two brands — coming up on 30 years here — that is an impressive accomplishment.

This is especially true given how shallow the “truck” offerings are from Kia and Hyundai. While Hyundai is pushing into the luxury end of the sales pool with its expanding Genesis lineup, Kia has retained its car-focused lineup as the market has made a large shift into crossovers. Constrained by production limitations, even after building new assembly plants in the United States, Kia now offers three crossovers — the new sub-compact Niro (with a hybrid and plug-in hybrid model), the midsize Sorento, plus this week’s feature, the latest Sportage compact offering.

Each of Kia’s crossovers has drawn critical acclaim while the brand has marched up the quality charts with notable improvements in chassis designs, interior layouts and refinement, as well as feature content.

Sharing a basic design platform with Hyundai’s Tucson, the Kia Sportage is the more expressive looking of the two compact crossovers. Kia further departs from its more conservative sibling by offering two different engines employing conventional six-speed automatic transmissions; a 2.4-liter 181-hp four-cylinder is standard on LX and EX models, while the SX shown here uses a potent 2.0-liter turbocharged-four with 240 hp. Delivering boosted acceleration that is similar to Ford’s top Escape models, the SX is quick, responsive and a fine touring crossover with plenty of power in reserve.

The Sportage’s shapely design masks its efficiencies. Rear seat access is convenient and especially roomy for this segment with ample head and legroom provided, plus a wide cargo area that easily expands with the split-folding seatbacks. The floor for rear passenger feet is almost flat — making three-across seating a more pleasant reality than in some rivals.

Up front, SX trim provides a full range of features without abandoning basic common-sense controls. Buttons and dials still manage most vehicle operational situations despite the presence of the ever-trendy touchscreen in the center dash. Lane assist, blind-spot detection, forward braking assist: all here. The rear camera screen lays out your trajectory while backing, plus there are audio assists. The multifunction console retains three separate audio input ports while offering the latest Apple/Android access. Simple, efficient and intuitive, the Sportage’s interior earns praise for its practical yet polished presentation combined with supportive seating and respectable visibility.

Sportage SX trim starts at $32,700, while base front-drive LX models begin at $23,200. SX gets you AWD with locking 4WD buttons for low-speed operation, a real aid when the mud/snow is worse than expected, 19-inch sport wheels, plus three driver-selectable operation modes — including fuel-saving ECO. The Sportage’s face includes brilliant LED driving lamps that turned rural road driving into a more relaxing endeavor, while the rear liftgate can be optioned with SMART power assist — walk up to the panel with the remote key fob in your pocket, and it will detect your presence and open. Cooled and heated front seats plus a heated steering wheel are among the standard pieces, while a huge panoramic sunroof is available.

Only two knocks entered the logbook. The info screen is slow to start up each time you drive — a complaint that could be registered with many automakers as the on-board computers seem to need way too much time to catch up to what you are doing, sometimes miles down the road. The Kia’s screen didn’t remember what it was doing when you last left either, defaulting to a base setup that still applies the legal warning messages found in this space years ago. And the extra power from the turbo-motor actually displayed a hint of front wheel torque steer when you jumped into the throttle for quick acceleration around town. This added power is evident at the pump; EPA ratings are 20/23 mpg for the SX-AWD. We saw over 24 mpg in mixed use.

Satisfying to drive, it is clear that this is not your father’s Kia anymore.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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