Kia likes to say it has the Power to Surprise. Back in the day (oh, five or so years ago...), the Korean automaker's customers were supposed to be pleasantly surprised that their new car, crossover or SUV was a better vehicle than expected. Perhaps you've heard the drill: "I bought it because it was cheap... and you know, it's really not that bad."
These days, though, being less mediocre than expected simply isn't good enough. See not-so-(inter)stellar brands Saturn and Mercury for proof thereof.
In other words, each new Kia has to be completely on-target and every bit as good as its competitors from America and Japan – and judging by the ambitions of its corporate partner, Hyundai, you might even be inclined to include Germany on that list.
And we've come to expect exactly that from Kia. If the company's first Sportage was a passable entry with a cut-rate price to make the masses take notice, and the second go-round was, you know... "not that bad..." then this crossover, the third-generation Kia Sportage, had better be good.
So, were we pleasantly unsurprised by the 2011 Kia Sportage?
Photos copyright ©2010 Jeremy Korzeniewski / AOL
Clearly, the new-for-2011 Kia Sportage is an attractive small crossover. The currently en vogue high beltline and low-slung, sloping roofline is present and accounted for, which also means outward visibility for the driver and passengers has been compromised. In the case of the Sportage, the view out back would be acceptable only in an exotic, mid-engined supercar from Italy. We were able to see the front hoods of the cars following us from our rearview mirror, but we couldn't see the face of the driver and had no clue if there were red and blue lights atop the car. Best to get those side mirrors adjusted to your liking.
With the exception of the rear view, the interior manages to feel airy, particularly when both the front and rear sunroof shades are slid back, and even more so when the front glass is open to the elements.
We don't have any complaints about the external design of the 2011 Sportage. Kia and head designer Peter Schreyer have done a commendable job of making all of its wares identifiable through the use of a similar fascia and nicely organic, even slightly aggressive curves. As we noted in our initial drive of the latest Kia Optima, the automaker's stylistic efforts add up to a much sportier appearance than similar models from sister company Hyundai. Proof positive can be seen when comparing the Sportage with the somewhat bubblier Hyundai Tucson, which rides on the same platform.
We appreciate the look of the 18-inch alloy wheels fitted to our tester as the hoops did an exceptional job of filling the wheel wells and were complimented on by passers-by. Note, too, the twin fender and hood peaks on either side of the driver's straight-ahead sight line. The effect looks cool from the outside, but we think its best angle is actually enjoyed from behind the wheel.
Speaking of the view from the driver's seat, we commend Kia for crafting an interior that's both pleasant in appearance and functional in operation. There's plenty of space available, both for rear-seat passengers and for luggage. We managed to fit one six-foot passenger behind a six-foot driver, with no cracked knees in the process. Just over 26 cubic feet of space is available for the taking in the way back with the rear seats in their full upright position; lowering the rear bench opens up 54.6 cubic feet. Put into perspective, that ought to be enough for a couple of nights worth of luggage for the average family, if not for an entire week.
As with every other vehicle in the Sportage's segment and price bracket (more on that later), pretty much every surface is covered in some type of black or gray plastic. But at least all of it is nicely grained and non-shiny in finish. Also, all the touch points – most every spot your hard surfaces (elbows, knees, etc.) are likely to come into contact with – are covered with a thin layer of cushion to somewhat soften the blow.
Kia has done a nice job with the steering wheel, covered as it is by a rather tough-feeling leather cover with stitching at the rear, fitted with the traditional cruise and redundant radio controls on either spoke. As you'd expect, the stereo can pump the jams from AM/FM radio, satellite or CD, and USB and auxiliary ports can be used to hook up an iPod or other music player. Also standard are buttons on the bottom spoke to operate a Bluetooth phone, which functioned flawlessly when paired with our smartphone.
Other optional electronic doohickery includes an in-dash navigation system that doubles as a back-up camera, remote keyless entry and push-button start with a smart key that knows when you're in the vicinity for key-free access. Once inside, all the buttons and knobs are thoughtfully placed and well labeled, and everything is slightly canted towards the driver.
Seats, leather-clad and heated on our tester (plus a segment-exclusive cooled driver's perch), are nicely padded and somewhat firm, with bolstering that seems suitable for the mission at hand. After all, this ain't a sports car, right? Well, now that you ask, Kia actually wants its customers to think of the Sportage as "a sports car wearing a backpack." While it's definitely no Miata-beater, we'd certainly slot the Sportage in at the sportier end of the small CUV yardstick.
Handling is surprisingly good, which is surely due at least in part to the sophisticated all-wheel-drive technology our Sportage was delivered with. According to Kia, the Dynamax system constantly monitors what's going on between the road and the tires and can almost instantaneously use its electronic brains to minimize wheel slippage. Best we could tell, the full-time system worked a treat, affording us a nice, secure and sure-footed vibe when pushing the Sportage hard through the bends.
We were mostly pleased with the 176-horsepower 2.4-liter four cylinder. In normal driving, there always seemed to be plenty of horses available, despite it peaking at 6,000 rpm, and passing maneuvers were dispatched without complaint – likely helped by the perfectly-matched six-speed automatic transmission. The only real area the rev-happy engine felt underpowered was when we put our foot down from a dead stop. There just isn't much low-end torque (168 pound-feet doesn't come on until 4,000 rpm), and the final drive ratio seems to have been chosen more for its fuel-sipping tendencies than for its jackrabbit starting capabilities. At least the powerplant isn't buzzy at high speeds, again helped by the abundance of gear choices and a low final drive ratio, so keeping it on the boil isn't what we'd call a chore.
It's a good thing that the Sportage feels like a class-leader when it comes to handling, because the ride certainly couldn't be described as soft. Similar to its larger brother, the Sorento, most drivers are likely to think it's tuned on the stiff side – especially those who live in areas with less-than-ideal road surfacing. In locales free of frost heaves and tar strips, you won't be as bothered, and over the course of the week we never found the ride objectionable on Arizona's smooth roads.
Which leads us to only serious demerit: steering feel... or the completely artificial sensation that's substituting for it. If you drive mindlessly for a couple of hours and stop thinking about the act of piloting the Sportage, you won't notice the constant tiny corrections needed to keep yourself on the straight and narrow. However, you'll find yourself cursing the brains behind the electronic power steering system and the continuously variable feel and effort that will have you sawing at the wheel. It's all rather frustrating, as these types of electric power steering systems are becoming commonplace and replacing the tried-and-true hydraulic units we've known and loved for years. There are better applications out there of the technology, but this isn't one of them. So why has Kia employed it on the Sportage? Fuel economy.
Hydraulic pumps are little parasites feeding off the engine that reduce precious miles per gallon. It may take a few generations for engineers to figure out the tuning required to make electric power steering units feel like a good hydraulic setup – some manufacturers are already showing adeptness at this, though not consistently. At least the 2011 Sportage delivers the efficiency goods with EPA-estimated ratings of 21 city, 28 highway (22/31 for front-wheel-drive models). We averaged a decent 23 mpg in everyday usage. That's one of the better performances managed by a small crossover, though the 2011 Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain offer similar EPA ratings and are about one size class larger.
Pricing for the 2011 Sportage starts at about $19,000 for the base model with a six-speed manual transmission, an example of which you'll likely never see in real life. Our Sportage EX AWD tester was nearly loaded and carried a sticker of $29,990. Expect most models on the dealership lot to fall somewhere between those figures. What that means is the Sportage is priced right in the sweet spot of its segment. It also means Kia's smallest 'ute isn't exactly the raging bargain some might expect from a vehicle wearing a Korean badge.
But then again, we shouldn't expect Kia to craft class-leading vehicles and then price them like bottom-feeders. Considering the equipment, ten-year warranty and the price, the 2011 Kia Sportage is a very good vehicle. We noted a couple of demerits – most bothersome being a somewhat flinty ride and artificial steering feel – but the same can be said of just about any machine engineered to meet the needs and wants of a large and diverse swath of the population. And that's exactly what Kia hopes the Sportage will do. And it will. Not very surprising anymore, is it?
Photos copyright ©2010 Jeremy Korzeniewski / AOL