Pros: Distinctive looks, good fuel economy, fun to drive, excellent optional turbocharged engine, available UVO voice-recognition system.

Cons: Firm ride, limited cargo capacity, base model's steering wheel doesn't telescope.

What's New: The 2013 Sportage receives minor equipment changes, including standard sun-visor extenders across the lineup and standard LED headlamp accents for LX and EX models.

Introduction

First impressions count for a lot, and the 2013 Kia Sportage makes one that lasts. The Sportage is a compact crossover that is all about visual impact. From its crisp, angular lines and taut proportions to its available 18-inch wheels, the Sportage will have your friends saying, "That's a Kia? Really?" Tell them they'd better get used to it, because Kia's new design chief comes from Audi, a company that knows a thing or two about style.

The Sportage is more than just a pretty face. This is a truly compact crossover, and while that means cargo capacity is subpar, the benefits of downsizing are evident from behind the wheel. Whether you're darting through urban streets or making time on a rural byway, the Sportage feels more like a nimble hatchback than a high-riding utility vehicle.

Other strengths include car-like fuel economy and an available 260-horsepower turbocharged engine that really puts the "Sport" in "Sportage." Throw in surprisingly adequate back-seat room and a wealth of standard and optional features, and it's clear that the 2013 Sportage's strong first impression is just the beginning.

Comfort & Utility

The Kia Sportage compact crossover comes in base, LX, EX, or SX trim.

Standard features on the base model include 16-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, power accessories, two 12-volt power outlets, a tilt-only steering wheel, height-adjustable front seats, Bluetooth phone and streaming audio, and a six-speaker audio system with USB connectivity and Sirius satellite radio.

The LX adds 17-inch wheels, LED headlamp accents, body-color exterior mirrors, remote keyless entry, and eligibility for a number of options, including a tilt-telescopic steering wheel, the UVO voice-recognition system, a touch-screen navigation system with a rearview camera, and an Infinity audio system with a subwoofer.

The EX comes loaded with 18-inch wheels, roof rails, a rear spoiler, automatic headlights, fog lights, UVO, the Infinity stereo, the tilt-telescopic steering wheel, rear parking sensors, a power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, an auto-up driver's window, dual-zone automatic climate control, stain-resistant upholstery, and illuminated vanity mirrors. Among the notable EX options are navigation, keyless entry with push-button start, leather upholstery, and heated and cooled front seats.

The SX adds the turbocharged engine, LED daytime running lights, dual exhaust outlets, and standard amenities like leather upholstery, keyless entry with push-button start, and a "Supervision" gauge cluster.

In our interior evaluation, we noted that while the gauges and controls are generally user-friendly, the materials aren't as upscale as the Sportage's suave exterior might suggest. But this is a sensible mainstream crossover, after all, not a luxury pretender, so we're okay with that. Bottom line, Kia has come a long way with its interior quality over the past few years, and the Sportage's cabin is fully competitive for this segment.

Nonetheless, the base model's tilt-only steering wheel seems like a bit of a letdown for shoppers looking to save a few bucks. Same goes for Kia's decision to charge LX customers extra for the telescoping function. The EX and SX both have a standard tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel that helps folks of all shapes and sizes find a comfortable driving position.

No matter which model you choose, we think you'll appreciate the seat comfort all around, which is aided by firm cushions that provide satisfactory support on long trips. In typical crossover fashion, the front seats are mounted high for superior visibility, while the back seat is surprisingly roomy, even for taller passengers. Just don't ask adults to ride in the confining middle position if you can help it.

Due to the Sportage's compact dimensions, cargo capacity is on the small side, measuring 26.1 cubic feet in the trunk area and 54.6 cu ft with the rear seatbacks flipped down. There's certainly useful space back there, but most crossovers give you more.

Technology

As we've come to expect from Kia, even the base Sportage comes with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, two must-haves in the digital age. An added bonus is the availability of UVO, a nifty Microsoft-designed infotainment system that follows in the footsteps of Ford's Sync system, providing similar voice-recognition functionality for mp3 players, smartphones and so forth.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that you can't necessarily get all the tech features you want in a single Sportage, because UVO and the touch-screen navigation system aren't compatible. In other words, opting for navigation takes UVO out of the equation. Our preference is for UVO, as the navigation is pretty basic by current standards, lacking desirable perks like hard-drive music storage. It's unfortunate that Kia makes you choose.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Sportage starts with a 2.4-liter inline-4 rated at 176 horsepower and 168 lb ft of torque. The front-wheel-drive version technically offers a 6-speed manual transmission, but you'll likely see only 6-speed automatic transmissions at your local dealership. All-wheel-drive models come standard with the automatic. With either transmission, the 2.4-liter engine is adequate but unremarkable. It gets the job done without drawing attention to itself. Oddly, the manual gets worse fuel economy, checking in at 20 mpg city/27 mpg hwy versus a laudable 21/30 mpg with the automatic (though all-wheel drive drops those numbers to 20/27).

Exclusive to the SX trim is a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 that cranks out 260 hp and 269 lb ft of torque. Both front- and all-wheel drive layouts are available, while the 6-speed automatic is mandatory. This is essentially the same engine featured in the Optima midsize sedan, and it's a gem, delivering strong, lag-free acceleration that evokes fancier crossovers like the BMW X3. Fuel economy is impressive given all that thrust: 21/28 mpg with front-wheel drive and 20/25 mpg with all-wheel drive.

Safety

The Sportage offers standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, six airbags (front, front side, full-length side curtain) and active front head restraints.

The 2013 Sportage was a standout in government crash-testing, scoring a perfect five stars overall in both front and side impacts. Likewise, the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Sportage its highest rating of "Good" in all categories.

Driving Impressions

The 2013 Kia Sportage feels intimate and sporty from behind the wheel, and a spirited drive confirms this impression. Thanks to its firm suspension and responsive steering, the Sportage engages the driver like few other affordable crossovers can. Add the turbocharged engine to the mix and you'll really have some fun. The ride quality may leave something to be desired, though, so make sure you find some rough pavement on your test route. Similarly, road noise is more intrusive at times than we'd prefer.

Other Cars to Consider

Ford Escape - Based on the superb Focus, the Escape matches the Sportage for entertainment value and surpasses it in cargo space and interior quality. But it's also more expensive, and the styling isn't as special to our eye.

Mazda CX-5 - If athletic handling is what you're after, the CX-5 is the one to have; however, it's only offered with a lackluster 155 hp engine.

Mitsubishi Outlander Sport - A dark-horse pick, the Outlander Sport provides Sportage-like dimensions and maneuverability on the cheap.

AutoTrader Recommends

The turbocharged SX is pricey by Kia standards, but it's an excellent all-around vehicle that showcases the Sportage's potential. Check the spec sheet on an Audi Q5 2.0T, for example, and you might develop a newfound respect for this Kia.

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.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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