The relationship between automotive writers and manufacturers is based on trust in the basic fairness (or pliability) of the writer, and usually it’s incumbent upon the writer to establish their reliability before being trusted with a week-long tester. What many PR types and press fleet managers don’t seem to understand is that allowing even the snarkiest writer to actually spend time with a product actually helps create a more even-handed review than might result from a brief encounter.
Such was certainly the case with the 2011 Kia Sportage EX. My initial reaction was “boy is this thing cheap,” and had I spent only a day in the car, that would have been my major conclusion. The fact that two days earlier I had to turn in a $70,000 Jaguar XF Supercharged certainly reinforced that initial impression. And after a week with the Sportage I still think it pegs the cheepnis meter, so it’s a cheap car… but it’s an honest cheap car that delivers some real value.
The Sportage makes no pretensions of luxury, like the rental Aveo with fake wood on the dash that my mom rented while her Saturn got a new used engine. Everything on the Sportage interior is some kind of plastic in some shade of gray or silver. Some kind of hard plastic. True, at ~$28,000 it comes very well equipped (press cars, even from more modest marques, tend to come loaded with optional equipment and packages), with most of the conveniences that would satisfy just about every driver who isn’t used to luxury marques. Nav system, smart key, backup camera, leather seating surfaces, dual zone automatic climate control, power moonroof, heated and cooled front seats with forced ventilation on the driver’s side, 6 way power driver’s seat, satellite radio, USB port (I copied some music files to a thumb drive and discovered that you can look at photos with the nav screen – why you’d want to I don’t know but you can select Images from the menu).
Yet even with all those toys, Kia doesn’t try to hide the fact that they’re working the customers in the cheap seats. Well, perhaps, except for the exterior design. Everyone that saw the car commented on its good looks. Peter Schreyer’s team has done well creating an attractive styling identity for the brand and did a fine job on the Sportage. Okay, so maybe they indulged in a few pretensions. The Sportage sports (couldn’t resist it) some Audi-ish LED eyeliners that I suppose are fog lights but don’t do much to light up the road and were of no use in the scary heavy fog I experienced driving north through the Poconos. The regular headlamp units do a perfectly adequate job lighting up the road under normal circumstances.
Other than the styling, Kia’s penny pinching shows. Everything is there, just lacking in some capacity. The cheap seats those aforementioned customers will be sitting in, for example, are, well, cheap. They do have leather surfaces, at least that’s what the sticker says. I do machine embroidery in real life and work with motorcycle and car enthusiasts so I handle and sew lot of leather. If Kia says it’s leather, I’ll believe them. It’s just not very fine leather, though it is more supple than the vinyl used on the non-seating surfaces of the seats. Comfortable enough for long rides, the seats are hard rather than firm, and there isn’t much contouring in the bolsters. The inflatable lumbar support did make a long drive (1,300 miles in less than 30 hours) bearable, but only on the highest setting.
That kind of lack of refinement abounds in the Sportage. Even the sound effect for the turn signals sounds tinny and cheap. Yes the Sportage has four wheel disc brakes and big aluminum rims with black paint. The wheels, though, look cheap, dwarf the tiny brake rotors and rather than effect a Brembo-like look, the rough castings of the brake calipers reinforce the fact that everything on the Sportage has been designed to a price point. The glass moonroof works nicely but they left out the little tab that opens the sun visor below as the glass slides back. You could be driving around with a hole in your roof and not realize it for a while.
I will say that the nav/audio system controls were very good, integrating the touch screen with real buttons for instant access to features. I had to RTFM only once, to figure out how to activate Bluetooth, everything else was intuitive, and unlike some systems you don’t have to scroll through all the modes and bands just to turn on the AM radio. So the infotainment system was first rate, until you listen to it and you realize that just because a subwoofer looks good on the spec sheet doesn’t mean the system isn’t going to sound muddy. It’s nice having dual zone ACC, with great control features, it’s not so nice having it blow cool air on you when it’s 15 degrees F outside. The ACC units on the Mazdas, Honda and Jaguar that I’ve tested recently were all much less obtrusive. The Sportage made me think that Kia had a checklist of features that they wanted included, but they didn’t bother to make sure the implementation of those feature was done well. As long as the feature sheet is long seems to be the design brief. Even in Korea a C is a passing grade.
The Sportage comes with the now de rigueur nannies but between the way the DSC [stability control] is programmed along with the aggressive traction control [TCS] and obtrusive ABS system, it makes the CUV harder to drive, at least for me. Though the Sportage was fine in most normal driving, some fairly common maneuvers seemed to confuse whatever electronic brain controls the Sportage’s dynamics. Sharp turns out of steep driveways would kick in the DSC as the rear wheels lost traction. Clipping a curb on a corner would do the same. Sometimes the Sportage would just react in a confused manner to steering and throttle inputs.
Detroit didn’t get a ton of snow in the blizzard that took down the Metrodome’s dome in Minnesota, but there was freezing rain first and a wet snowfall here followed by bitter cold so the roads as I write this are about as slippery as they can get. I found the DSC, TCS and ABS to make it harder to drive in bad conditions than easier. They may keep average appliance operators out of harms way but they can be infuriating to folks who can drive.
I’ve been driving in Michigan winters for over four decades. Front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, AWD and 4WD (this was the FWD version of the Sportage, which also is available in AWD spec), I’ve driven them all and haven’t gotten stuck even a half dozen times. I’ve kinda liked FWD in the snow since first driving my brother’s original Mini but with the exception of F-body GM products and empty pickup trucks, I’d feel safe in just about any layout in winter. I also prefer to use smooth, light, control inputs, including a gentle braking foot. In today’s severe snow and ice, the ABS was kicking in almost instantaneously, creating skids where manual (pedual?) control on braking wouldn’t have caused skids. Also in bad traction the DSC and TCS were making it harder to drive, not easier. In addition to taking control of the brakes, the stability system overrides the ECU. I’m trying to power my way through the crud out there and the damn DSC and TCS are conspiring against me, killing the engine just because of some wheel slip.
The suspension is harsh, rather than just stiff, though it mellows out on Interstate asphalt. Concrete surfaces are a different thing, with the Sportage being darty on the freeway, needing constant corrections from steering that is possibly the least-road-feel-imparting steering in automobiledom. I’d call it speed-insensitive steering. Kia calls it “motor” assisted so I assume it’s EPS. When I say that the steering is numb, I mean that, like it’s been shot with Novocaine, at all speeds, in all conditions. As good as the Mazda 3 steering feels, the Sportage is the polar opposite.
There is not a single soft surface that a human being can touch in the Sportage. Hard plastics don’t just abound, they proliferate. Even the fabric headliner has a coarse feel to it. I thought that acrid off-gassing smells in Kias were an internet legend, until I noticed some funny smells myself. There’s a very clever niche for a drink bottle molded into the storage bin on the door panel. There’s also a pictogram molded into the hard, gray plastic of the panel warning people to not put their Slurpees and other non-bottled drinks in there. Real classy.
Still, for all of the Sportage’s cheapness, the people who choose to buy one will not have buyer’s remorse. I say that not to demean anyone, I’m not exactly rich myself, but it’s no secret that Kia’s business model is appealing to the budget conscious. If “Imported From Detroit” is self-aware and self-destructive, doesn’t “The Power To Surprise” translate to “Not as cheap as you think”?
The Sportage may be cheap but it seemed to be screwed together well. Fit and finish was fine, metal surface quality, like on all Korean cars, is world class. Nobody will be embarrassed by the Sportage’s looks. Everything worked, all week long, even if somethings didn’t work outstandingly. By the time I turned the Sportage back in there were over 5,000 miles on the odometer. With the caveat that this is a pampered press fleet vehicle, there were no rattles or buzzes and nothing to indicate that you wouldn’t get 100,000 or more miles out of the car.
Though I was left with grudging respect for the new Sportage, it’s not a driver’s car by any means, nor was it intended to be. It was intended to be an inexpensive family sized crossover. Frankly the similarly priced Mazda 3 Grand Touring that I tested not long ago was a much more pleasurable drive and had a level of refinement that the Kia just can’t touch. The Sportage, though, is a much larger vehicle. While a family might be able to use the Mazda 3 as a daily driver, camping trips in it would be a bit of a squeeze. The Sportage dwarfed a Kia Soul that I passed on the highway (driven by a young black lady, not a hamster). The front seats are wide enough for my big tuchas, the back seat will fit adults so the kiddies won’t complain and there’s a nice CUV sized storage area with a large back hatch.
If space, features, good looks, and above all, price are what you’re looking for in a small CUV, the 2011 Sportage is probably on your short list already. It’s a new car with all the modern bells and whistles, and it comes with a long warranty. According to TrueDelta A fully equipped Sportage is about $1,000 less than a fully equipped Honda CR-V. It also comes with about $2,ooo worth of equipment that you can’t get on the CR-V. You can spec a Chevy Equinox with comparable options to the Sportage and, again, the difference is about $3,000. For many consumers, that savings of 10% or so is very important. For others, it may be worth it to pay a little more and get a more refined car.
Kia Motors provided the vehicle for this review, along with insurance and one tank of gas.