Kia's small crossover, the Sportage, is another example of the automaker's image makeover that includes its bigger sibling, the Sorento, and the new Optima sedan. In this segment, Honda's CR-V and Toyota's RAV4 are standard-bearers, so Kia's designers had to come up with a striking redesign to command attention. They succeeded.
Appearance: The Sportage has a taut, almost compacted, design. Unlike the previous generation, this one has banished the bland. Peter thinks it looks slightly futuristic. Up front, the sharply upswept headlights include eyeliner LEDs that remind us of Audi. (Kia chief designer Peter Schreyer held the same position at the German carmaker.) Coupled with Kia's "tiger tooth" grille with fog-light accents, the face does have a bit of a growl. The 18-inch alloy wheels have become another trademark and look carved. In the rear, the horizontal taillights sit high, as does the spoiler, yet the design looks a little simple in contrast to the front. But the wraparound taillights look sharp, especially at night when lit.
Performance: The Sportage has smooth-shifting 6-speed transmission and a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder that produces 176 horsepower. (We'd like to try it with the turbo engine, which we enjoyed in the Optima.) We found the acceleration fine for city driving, but sluggish when you need to give it the gas, like getting up to speed on the highway full of barreling big rigs. The upside is the mileage, which isn't bad for a small SUV — 21 in the city and 28 on the highway. (Up to 31 mpg highway with the FWD automatic). The all-wheel drive keeps the Sportage planted, but the stiff suspension can translate into a sometimes harsh ride. The steering is on the light side. Lyra found it twitchy; Peter did not.
Interior: The cabin is well laid out, with simple, intuitive controls. There is adequate head- and legroom. There is a lot of plastic, but it is attractive and the textures varied. Our tester came with the optional navigation and premium audio, plus the premium package that included heated and cooled leather seats, panoramic sunroof, parking assist, cargo cover and push-button start with smart key. The upgraded leather seats are well-contoured and have stitched accents. Lyra found them too firm, especially in the rear. We think a fifth passenger seated in the center would be uncomfortable. The two-pane panoramic sunroof brings in lots of light.
Our 3 favorites
Design: Easily one of the more distinctive small SUVs.
Drive: Yes, it's fun to drive.
Plug-ins: There are two 12-volt outlets and iPod/USB jacks in the console.
Panoramic sunroof: Views for front and rear passengers.
Personality: Stern, no-nonsense look. Very masculine.
Headlights: High-end look with LED eyeliners. Classy.
The bottom line: If you don't recall the previous generation Sportage, you're lucky. If you do, this one will make you forget it. It's a stylish, fun-to-drive crossover where the sum is greater than its parts.