We were recently in Puerto Rico, a beautiful place that also seemed to double as some kind of Kia Sportage museum. In every little town, seemingly every generation of the model was represented from oldest to newest, giving us plenty of time to contemplate just how much it’s evolved in the past 21 years. Introduced for the U.S. market in 1995, the Sportage is Kia’s longest-serving nameplate, and as such, it’s the perfect way to measure the growth of the brand — which if you haven’t noticed, has been off the charts for the past decade or so. At first, the Sportage was a compact, sub-Geo Tracker (if you can believe that) SUV, based on a Mazda compact van platform that was already a dozen years old. A small model in a small segment from a small company, the original Sportage was known more for its tendency to have the rear axle fall off and its atrocious crash safety than anything else.
Flash forward to today, and the Sportage is one of the most competitive compact crossovers out there. In March, we took a long drive from San Diego harbor to deep into the Colorado Desert in an all-new 2017 Kia Sportage. We came away impressed, saying: “From the brand ‘least likely to’ a few years ago comes a smart, stylish, well-built crossover that actually knows how to have a good time.” Recently, I was able to spend even more time with the Sportage (an all-wheel drive SX model), and was pleased to find that it was still enjoyable, even without breathtaking desert vistas unfolding in front of me.
The compact crossover segment has quickly become a place where there’s serious money to be made, and virtually every automaker — from Mitsubishi to Porsche — has something in its lineup that roughly fits the description. In most cases, they follow the path of least resistance: something safe and bland to attract as many buyers as possible without offending any. Kia didn’t do that; instead, it decided to go bold. In our opinion, it worked.
We’ll get this out of the way first: We like the way the Sportage looks. A lot. Company design chief Peter Schreyer has done an incredible job creating a bold, cohesive design language for the entire brand since he left Audi in 2006, and the Sportage may be his boldest production model yet. It was designed between Kia’s Frankfurt and Korea studios, and instead of following the status quo, looks unlike any other crossover/SUV on the market, including Kia’s own midsize Sorrento and soon-to-be-released hybrid Niro.
The Sportage design seems to come from a place that’s largely been lacking in mass-market cars for a long time, and by that we mean it looks futuristic — boldly, unabashedly futuristic. Sure, cars like the Porsche 918 and Tesla Model X look futuristic, but you have to pay six figures for them. For the masses, the status quo has long been “soft and safe.” The Sportage does safe just fine — it’s an IIHS Top Safety Pick + for ’16-’17 — but if you look at it just right, it looks like something out of science fiction, sent to satisfy your inner Walter Mitty. Bold color options like Burnished Copper, Pacific Blue, and Hyper Red make it stand out even more.
But back to more earth-bound matters. The 2017 Sportage is 55 pounds lighter than the outgoing model. It’s mostly built out of advanced high-strength steel, and many body panels are attached with an exclusive structural adhesive, greatly reducing squeaks and rattles, and helping to make the ’17 model 39% more rigid than the outgoing one. The all-wheel drive SX stands out from front-wheel drive models thanks to its revised front fascia with a better approach angle to show that it isn’t afraid to leave the pavement every now and again. Love-it-or-hate-it front end aside, the Sportage looks interesting and purposeful from every angle. That’s more than we can say about a lot of its competition.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Even for Kia, the Sportage is bold. Kudos to the carmaker for it.
+ A revised front end for AWD models lets people know the Sportage can get down and dirty.
+ Kia’s trademark quad-foglight design looks great on the Sportage.
– For an all-new model, the rear end doesn’t look all that different from the outgoing model.
– Yes, we love the new sheetmetal. Not everyone will.
Even with that bold new design, Kia spent a lot of time upgrading what you don’t see on the Sportage. The engines from the previous generation return — a 2.4-liter naturally-aspirated inline-four that makes 181 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque, and a range-topping 240-horse 2.0-liter turbo four — but outside of that, everything is either new or revised. The six-speed automatic has been updated, and it has bigger brakes, an all-new steering system, and an exclusive all-wheel drive system designed by Magna, the same people who build the G-Wagen for Mercedes. The SX comes standard with the 2.0 Turbo, an engine that feels perfectly matched to it. The six-speed auto is unobtrusive and lets the engine rev when you mash the go-pedal, and Sport mode actually feels like it does something. It all adds up to a decent amount of real, live fun in a small family crossover. What more could you ask for?
Powertrain pros and cons
+ 240 horsepower from the 2.0 turbo is a perfect fit for the Sportage.
+ Sport mode actually does make the Sportage feel livelier.
+ Six-speed auto is smooth and actually lets the engine rev.
– The 2.0 is good. We’d be hard-pressed to want the 2.4 instead.
Our test SX model was about as loaded as you could get, with heated and ventilated leather seats, soft-touch materials everywhere, and every tech and safety goody offered in the Sportage. With all that, it rang in at $34,895. That may sound like a lot for a family crossover, but when you consider the average cost of a new car is now $33,560, the Kia begins to feel like a bargain.
Schreyer’s team didn’t quit once the exterior was finished; inside, the Sportage punches well above its weight, with a clean design, great fit-and-finish, and high quality materials all around.
Interior pros and cons
+ Heated and ventilated seats make for a comfortable ride all year round.
+ Interior looks and feels upscale, an emerging Kia trademark.
+ From ergonomics to overall fit and finish, the interior feels like it was actually designed, not thrown together from the company parts bin — a pet peeve of ours in this segment.
– The all-black everything interior gets hot quick.
– The shiny piano black trim picks up fingerprints and smudges fast, especially when you’re reaching for radio controls on the road.
Tech and safety
The Sportage is a fun, stylish crossover, but it’s also likely to be the family car for most buyers. On top of the aforementioned IIHS safety ratings, Kia offers its full range of electronic aids to keep drivers fully aware of what’s going on around them. Our SX had lane change assist, blind spot detection, lane departure warning, rear cross traffic alert, and an autonomous emergency braking system standard.
The Sportage also benefits from Kia’s new UVO3 infotainment system, which in our opinion is one of the best for the money. The system is quick, and easy to read. Like a smartphone, the touchscreen can be swiped from screen to screen, and maps can be pinched to zoom in and out. While this is all great, we also love that Kia left buttons for radio presets and system functions, allowing us to make quick changes without having to take our eyes off the road.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ The electronic driving aids are included in the SX’s base price; no need to haggle for options packages that add thousands to the bottom line.
+ The UVO3 system is fast, intuitive, and hard not to love with its blend of smartphone tech and old-school button controls.
– While we love having buttons on the dash as a fail-safe, the Sportage’s four rows might be a little much.
– The driver’s MID display can give you a lot of information, but scrolling to get to it all can be distracting.
It’s hard to cross-up the Sportage. From tense city driving to winding mountain roads, it never seems to hesitate or show much weakness. Its suspension is firm and supportive, and its nicely weighted steering keeps you feeling connected to the road — even more so in Sport mode.
Throttle response is quick and rewarding, brakes are strong, and the interior keeps you comfortable after hours on the road. From bumper-to-bumper city driving to long, hilly stretches on the highway, Kia’s notably disappointing 20 city and 23 highway ratings (Mazda’s CX-5 gets 26 city/33 highway, but doesn’t have a turbo) proved to be right on the money, and inside and out it proved to be a great place to be. We can’t think of too many other crossovers in its price point where we can say the same.
Wrap up and review
If we hadn’t sat through Kia’s long press presentation on the new model in March, we’d probably call the 2017 Sportage a job well done and leave it at that. But the company went to great lengths to show how much time it spent reimagining and improving virtually every aspect of its crossover, and after spending time with it, all that talk checks out. After a decade of explosive growth, Kia still acts like a brand with something to prove, and as a result, its cars just keep getting better. We love that.
We get the feeling that most brands wouldn’t have bothered to go to such great lengths, especially with something like the Sportage. It had its best year ever in 2015, with Americans buying 53,739 of them. So far in 2016, customers have snapped up 42,229 — as many as it sold in 2014. And the 2016 version is a lame duck model. Even with an aging platform and older styling, most automakers probably would’ve stayed the course. We’re glad that Kia didn’t.
Instead it went bold, and while the new Sportage’s looks may take some getting used to for some, its combination of tech, comfort, safety, and style are undeniable. Kia has injected the compact crossover segment with some much-needed variety. We hope the new model is a success, if only because we want to see rival automakers raise their game to Kia’s level. Let the era of the interesting people mover begin, and let Kia lead the way.
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