2011 Kia Sportage SX FWD Review
Engine: 2.0 liter I4, Turbocharged
Drivetrain: Front engine/Front wheel drive
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating Capacity: 5 passengers
EPA Fuel Economy: 22 city/27 highway
Base MSRP: $25,795 + $695 destination charge
As Tested: $30,990
Kia officially made its U.S. debut in 1993 with the Sportage. Back in 1993, the Kia brand was received as well as Yugos. The 1993-1994 Kia Sportages were somewhat primitive and crude vehicles, although a slight upgrade from the likes of Geo Trackers and Suzuki Sidekicks of the same era. And Kia Sportage is the only last remaining trace of its original humble American beginning; sort of like our vestigial tail.
By contrast, Kia’s transformation in the last few years is nothing short of a miracle, since most third rate car companies do not make it out of the cellar dweller status (or just stay alive) – see Suzuki, Daihatsu, Fiat, Renault, Isuzu, Daewoo, etc… This Korean company has gone from being shopped solely on its bargain basement pricing to now being amongst the leaders in its segment. Let’s find out if this all-new Sportage continues that upward trend for Kia.
Note – Due to some scheduling issues, Kia sent us a 2011 model, but they tell us that 2012 model is virtually identical.
Lows: Cheap interior plastics, road noise on irregular roads
Similar Vehicles: Toyota Rav4, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape
The Kia design team with the design chief Peter Schreyer, the man responsible for the iconic designs as the Audi TT and VW New Beetle, has done another fantastic job on this one. Every line on this CUV (crossover) works. From the aggressive nose to its flowing lines, the Kia Sportage is easily the best looking vehicle in the segment.
This segment is a little odd, as you want your car to be visually distinctive, but small SUV’s tend to look a little overdone when they’re decked out with swooping lines. Something about a tapering roofline, tight hind quarters, and a high belt line just looks a little out of proportion with the dimensions of this Kia. That being said, it doesn’t have the “I was once a large SUV that shrank in the clothes drier” look that befalls many SUV’s in this segment when they try to mirror the design language of their larger siblings. Tasteful accents, distinctive front styling, and just enough design flair to not look boring.
The Sportage’s look is muscular, and the stance is definitely masculine. The grill is something that’s going to take a little getting used to; even after experiencing it on the a previous test vehicle. The rear of the Sportage looks as if it was cut short of where it should have ended. The wheels were similar to wheels on hybrids. The funny thing, when it’s all put together, it actually works (with the exception of the rear end).
As far as the design aspects of the interior is concerned, the Sportage gets a top grade; however, the grade of plastics used are among the worst. The leather quality is good. They have tried to lessen the cheapness factor by using different textures and colors, but the more time you spend it the Sportage the more it becomes obvious. Even with that said, I am giving it an above average score due to the fantastic design, low noise level, and the overall comfort.
I’ve said it before with Kia’s, but they really know how to impress. Gone are the years where the interiors were adorned with acres of cheap, hard plastic, and seats that were one part uncomfortable, and one part cactus. With bright, easy to read gauges in an instrument panel and radio stack that’s easy to use, you’re surrounded by high quality materials in an interior that’s intuitive and simple. Leather quality is on par with the competition, and it’s a must have options if you have young kids. Only slight annoyance was the Kings throne in the drivers seat (heat heaters, seat coolers, and full power adjustments), and the peasants seat on the right (lacking full power adjustments, no seat coolers). With plenty of leg room for full size adults in the back, it’s an easy place to feel comfortable on longer trips.
The interior is laid out well and controls are in reach, as well as sensibly placed. The fit and finish is very good, however some materials could be upgraded; especially the dash and door panels. The driver’s seat was powered and had all of the typical adjustments including heat and ventilation. The passenger seat lacked power adjustments and was fixed at one height (making it difficult for shorter passengers to see over the dash). Leg room for front and rear passengers was generous. The cargo area was quite large with a storage organizer under the mat. Overall, the interior is nicely designed.
Drivetrain and Performance
Kia rates this 2.0 liter turbocharged engine at 260HP… but it doesn’t feel like a strong 260HP. The engineers must have dialed in some type of a gas pedal nanny in the computer systems. When you slam the accelerator pedal, there is a bit of a lag. I couldn’t tell if that’s the calibration of the gas pedal itself or the turbo lag. Because of that initial start, the vehicle doesn’t have that manly, brutal launch; however, it does provide a smooth and refined rapid acceleration performance. I can see it being frustrating for some macho types, but the 95% of the buyers will love it.
Kia is riding the current sensation of turbocharged 4 cylinder engines, and it works well here. Usually small SUV’s don’t exactly light your hair on fire when it comes to acceleration, handling, or braking, but the Sportage handles all tasks competently. The engine has great torque for easy passing, especially on hills, and the transmission always seems to be in the right gear for the situation. It doesn’t quite have the high rpm smoothness of Volkswagen’s excellent 2.0T engine in the Tiguan, and it has it’s bouts of slight turbo lag, that get exacerbated during gear changes. While you’ll never feel like you lack power in daily situations, going from steady speeds to full power result in a moment of pause from the engine and transmission, and until you’re used to it, it’s a bit of a surprise, as is the course engine note at high RPM.
The Sportage had sufficient power in normal driving, and was quite smooth. After picking up a couple of family members from the airport, and a full load of passengers and luggage, the Sportage’s drivetrain was just as smooth. Shifts were a little rough when the turbo kicked in, but it wasn’t too bad. Off the line, when the pedal is “punched”, the turbo pushes you back into your seat nicely. This was not as present during passing on the freeway. Turbo lag is present whenever the pedal is “punched”, but when the turbo kicks in the power is plentiful for this hulky vehicle.
Ride Quality and Handling
This is where the Sportage puzzled me. The interior is dead quiet – on smooth roads, yet the tire noise got louder as the quality of the road worsened. I realize all cars do this to a degree but in this Kia, it was like turning on a light switch. Also, there is some wandering issue, as if the vehicle is constantly off-alignment. Other than those two slight-to-moderate annoyances, the Kia was a joy to drive around.
While not as light on it’s feet as the VW Tiguan, it doesn’t have the stuck in the mud feeling you get from the controls of the Japanese competition. Mid corner grip if fine, and the handling balance of the car is relaxed, meaning you can drive swiftly with a lot of confidence. The Sportage also does a great job of balancing a smooth ride, and a reasonable measure of athletic handling. Too many SUV’s in this segment balance too far towards ride quality, but in the quest for that perfect ride, they give the SUV that tipping sensation that comes along with a lot of body roll. The Sportage remains reasonable flat mid corner, and bumps don’t send shockwaves through the truck that would require steering corrections in softer trucker. Overall, if you like the feeling of a nice European sedan (without upgraded sport packages), but your needs dictate an SUV, you’ll feel right at home.
Our test vehicle had about an inch of play in the steering wheel; surprising since the Sportage had just a little over 5000 miles on the odometer. Handling was decent, but even the slightness wind seemed to push the vehicle around. As mentioned previously, with a full load of passengers and luggage, the Sportage was comfortable. Everyone enjoyed the 45 minute ride from the airport, and commented on the smoothness of the vehicle. Freeway and surface roads were driven, and bumps and potholes were encountered; all handled by the Sportage with ease and the results were comfortable.
Unlike the Optima we had a few weeks ago, the Nav unit’s voice guidance wasn’t as stiff – and it was able to display foreign characters on the main screen. Hey, if you listen to K-Pop like I do, then this feature is a must! The sound system was also slightly better than the Infinity branded Optima’s system. Other than that, if you refer to our Optima review you’d pretty much have the Sportage. Oh yes, it is missing a cooling feature and power operation on the front passenger seat… I suppose that could be considered a cost-saving measure.
It’s the revenge of the angry navigation voice! The touch screen navigation is simple, easy to use, and intuitive enough that a grown adult (and not their kids) can figure it out quickly. Annoyances there go to the digital voice that always sounds like you’ve disrupted her from more important tasks. Typical gotta have it options like keyless entry and go, back up camera, and a quality sound system for a price that doesn’t break the bank is welcome.
The Sportage came nicely equipped with Navigation, back-up camera, and XM radio. All controls were easy to use; even pairing the Bluetooth to my smartphone was straight forward. The factory subwoofer was a pleasant surprise; it was enjoyed by teenage children, and their dad!
There is a surprising amount of cargo space in this Kia Sportage. I was able to make my Costco run without having to fold down the rear seats or put cargo in them. Only drawback is the sloping roofline that tapers off the hatch, which makes for a smallish opening.
Some small SUV’s in this segment forget that the “U” in SUV means utility, and the Sportage is on the borderline of forgetting that fact. While interior cabin room is high, the sloping roofline, and tight bodywork in the rear encroach heavily on the trunk space. The seats easily fold down to increase storage capacity, but then where to the rear sear passengers go?
Try not to think “is that it?” the first time you open the rear hatch. For daily use, the Sportage will swallow up runs to the local grocery store, but if it’s a run to Costco or Wal-Mart, you’ll need to fold the back seats down.
Space wise the “utility” portion is covered. Passenger space is good; luggage space is adequate. Although this vehicle is not a true off-road caliber machine, it did okay in light off pavement driving. Gravel and dirt roads with mild to moderate grades were handled with ease; I enjoyed it!
When compared to its immediate competitors, even at $30K, the Kia Sportage is a fantastic value. The equipment list is expansive with items such as panoramic sunroof, 18″ alloy wheels, leather interior, premium sound system, keyless entry and start system, backup camera, etc… You will get some equipment in the Sportage that you will not find in its competitors, but a step above it.
This is what Kia does best. They offer a total package that is not only on par with the competition when it comes to looks, interior quality, fit and finish, and options, but they do it cheaper, and with a longer warranty. If there is any small SUV you’re interested in, you’ll be smarter to take an objective look at the Kia, and realize that you can get a better overall package, and save yourself quite a bit of money.
Even with the rear end being cut short of where it should be, and the cheap plastic on the dash and doors, the Sportage provides a lot for your money. I would recommend upgrading to the power passenger seat, which would make the package complete. Decent power, good handling, adequate space, comfortable ride, and simple to use technology is definitely a good value.
I was pondering this question, oddly enough, while I was at a car wash. The vehicle in front of us was a brand new 2011 Audi Q5… in the same silver color. They are of similar size, both very stylish, but in the opposite ends of the spectrum – one price leader, the other premium SUV. Would I pay almost double the price for an Audi? No. But is this Kia worth $30K? I’m still debating on that…
Doesn’t look bland (like almost everything else it competes with), doesn’t look like a Jell-o mould that was left in the sun (like almost everything else it competes with), it’s wonderful inside, and pleasant to drive. Wrap that up in a package that costs less, has a longer warranty, and you have an excellent argument for why your next small SUV needs to be this Kia. It is simply that good.
As mentioned under “value”, the Sportage is a good package. If you want to stand out among a crowd of small SUVs, this one will do it for you!