Pros: Exciting styling; reasonable price; great fuel economy; IIHS Top Safety Pick
Cons: Unrefined 2.4-liter engine; stiff ride; small cargo area
One step up from the cute and quirky Kia Soul is the 2012 Kia Sportage, a SUV about the size of the Honda CR-V with radically different styling, a plethora of cutting-edge features, and one of the best standard warranties anywhere.
Beyond its sleek styling, the Sportage is a tour de force in technology, design, and comfort. The Sportage not only plays host to the latest in engine and transmission design, it is endowed with an elegant interior that actually shows that some imagination went into its creation. Of course, since the Sportage is an SUV, it also has a practical side. There are nearly seven inches of ground clearance to help with deep snow challenges and an available on-demand full-time all-wheel-drive system for when the white stuff starts to get the upper hand. Customers can also choose between two potent yet fuel efficient 4-cylinder engines, one of which is turbocharged. Try finding that on a CR-V or a Toyota RAV4.
However, as much as we like what Kia has built, the Sportage does have a few downsides. The narrow windows and high back end make for some pretty big blind spots, and although it has the same interior volume as many of its larger compact competitors, the allotted space is mostly reserved for passengers, not luggage. But the Sportage's biggest sore spots are its unrefined engine and its driving characteristics, which won't live up to the expectations of those accustomed to Honda's velvety smooth engines or the comfortable ride associated with Toyota and Subaru products.
Comfort & Utility
If you're a fan of firm seating and generous front-seat legroom, you'll find a friend in the Kia Sportage. Our SX trim included handsome black leather seating with French seam stitching and a massive panoramic glass moonroof. Oddly, the moonroof's dual front and rear shades must be manually operated - not very convenient when there is no one sitting behind you to help. The Sportage EX offers a handsome cloth fabric treated with an anti-microbial solution to help repel odor and stains.
Even with our tallest test drivers in the front seats, the rear-seat passengers fit comfortably without their knees touching the seatbacks. In fact, a quick look at the specs chart shows that although the Sportage is shorter outside than most of its competitors, it nearly rivals their legroom and headroom figures. Regrettably, the Sportage's cargo area has one of the smallest compartments of any compact SUV. However, the standard 60/40 split folding rear seats can help alleviate some cargo crunches.
From the driver's seat, the elegant dash and brightly lit instrumentation give the Sportage an upscale feel, as well as thoughtful features like the USB/iPod port that lets you control a portable MP3 player via the car's audio controls. Even the base model includes steering wheel audio controls, Bluetooth and satellite radio connectivity and 16-inch alloy wheels. LX and EX trims bring more features including privacy glass, keyless entry and several option packages.
Order the SX or the EX with leather, and you'll also get the option of a heated passenger's seat and heated and cooled driver's seat. Once comfortable, you can enjoy music from any number of choices including an MP3-compatible CD player, satellite radio, iPod or from your smartphone via streaming audio. Kia's UVO information and entertainment system lets you use voice control for audio, make outgoing calls and read and respond to text messages. The system also accepts HD radio broadcasts, and has a jukebox hard drive with 700 MB of music storage and a backup camera.
Kia's optional navigation unit is also voice operated. It and the Premium audio system can be ordered on the Sportage LX, EX and SX. Other notable electronic goodies include a backup warning system (standard on EX and SX), push-button start with Smart Key keyless entry and dual-zone automatic climate control.
Performance & Fuel Economy
Kia's 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, standard on the base, LX and EX models, generates 176 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque. It's not the most powerful or refined engine in this class, but the 2.4-liter has plenty of power for quick starts and confident passing maneuvers. Only the base model offers the option of a manual transmission; all others use a six-speed Sportmatic automatic with manual shift control. City/highway fuel economy figures for this engine are rated at 20/27 mpg (manual), 21/30 mpg (FWD, automatic), and 20/25 mpg (AWD, automatic).
The Sportage SX gets a much more potent turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that makes 260 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque. Using gasoline direct injection (GDI) technology allows this little 4-cylinder engine to deliver V6-like power without gobbling down gas. It's available only with the six-speed automatic; the EPA rates fuel consumption for this engine at a respectable 21/28 mpg (FWD) and 20/25 mpg (AWD).
In addition to the front side impact and side curtain airbags with rollover sensors, the 2012 Kia Sportage includes as standard electronic traction and stability control, 4-wheel ABS and Hill Assist that keeps the vehicle from rolling backward on a steep incline. Downhill Brake Control automatically applies ABS on steep grades to maintain a constant descent speed of 5 mph. The Sportage is rated as a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Additional optional safety features include a sonar operated backup warning system, a rear vision camera and integrated LED side mirror turn signals.
We love the way the Sportage looks, but we are less enthusiastic about the way it drives. The 2.4-liter engine feels a bit crude, is loud at wide-open throttle and isn't served well by the sometimes slow-to-shift six-speed automatic. We like the turbocharged 2.0-liter engine much better, not only for its additional power but for its more refined operation. Unfortunately, this engine is only available on the SX, so unless you're willing to pay bigger bucks and sacrifice fuel economy, you're stuck with the 2.4-liter engine.
On the road, the Sportage's ride feels stiff, with the smallest road imperfection telegraphed to the passenger cabin by a rude jolt. The problem only gets worse as you move up the line to models with larger wheels and tires. Aside from the harsh ride, we felt the Sportage handles well and does a nice job keeping road and wind noise from entering the cabin. Highway driving offers the most comfortable ride, but twisting back-mountain roads are equally welcome, just not at highway speeds.
Other Cars to Consider
Chevrolet Equinox - The Equinox has more cargo space and a bigger back seat, plus it offers the option of a V6 engine. But the Sportage is more maneuverable, costs less and has a better powertrain warranty.
Honda CR-V - Although the CR-V offers a lot more cargo room and has better resale values than the Sportage, it can't tow as much, offers only one engine choice and can't match the Sportage's high-end audio and information/entertainment systems.
Subaru Forester - The Forester has standard AWD and a turbocharged engine option. But it's not likely to turn heads like the Sportage, and its interior and options list is not as rich.
We love the SX's turbocharged engine, but we are not enamored by its relatively low average fuel economy and high sticker price; nor are we big fans of the harsh ride. We think the front-wheel-drive EX offers the most bang for the buck. Starting well under $25,000, it comes with plenty of goodies - and many of the SX's features are offered as optional equipment.
In November 2012, Kia and Hyundai adjusted the fuel economy ratings on some 2011-2013 models. This article has been modified to reflect the accurate EPA ratings.