In case you didn’t know it, Kia’s on a roll. Sales have more than doubled since 2009, propelling Kia from a Mazda-sized player in the American market to one that outsold established brands like Subaru, GMC, Chrysler and Volkswagen.
Kia’s transformation may seem like a night-and-day makeover, but closer inspection reveals that it’s really the result of consistent incremental improvements to its products, frequent designs and refreshes, and astute pricing.
You can think of the Sportage as the final piece of Kia’s evolving puzzle. Sales may be on a roll for the Korean automaker, but the Sportage has never sold in large numbers. It finished 14th in a segment of 17 models last year. (The Sportage beat the Volkswagen Tiguan, Mitsubishi Outlander, and Chevrolet Captiva Sport). It could be that the Kia Sorento did a better job of nipping at the heels of mid-trim Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V models. For 2017, Kia gives us a new Sportage targeted more at Mazda and Ford than Toyota.
While luxury brands usually defer to the “one sausage, different lengths” school of design, Kia opts to put the same nose on vehicles with slightly different themes. Therefore, instead of an 8/10ths Sorento, the Sportage looks more like the love child of a Sorento and Porsche Macan up front, and there’s a hint of Ford Escape out back.
Continuing the Porsche homage, the Sportage has a distinctly wide look from some angles, and it’s not an optical illusion. The 2017 Sportage is the widest in the segment despite also being one of the shortest in length. It also sports a wheelbase that’s half an inch longer than the RAV4 and two full inches longer than the CR-V, giving the Sportage a “wheels to the corners” look.
The compact exterior is further highlighted by the blunt front end and rear bumper, which barely extends beyond the rear hatch. The result is a crossover with boxier proportions than more minivan-esque entries, such as the CR-V.
Although the Sportage is more compact on the outside than the bulk of the segment, the long wheelbase and efficient packaging yield one of the roomier interiors. With 79.7 inches of combined legroom, the Kia lands in the middle of the pack, and the extra cabin width is noticeable when fitting three folks across the rear bench. Sadly, Doctor Who was not called upon to design the interior, so the compact exterior dimensions take their toll on the cargo hold where you’ll find just 30 cubic feet of space — about 20-percent less than Toyota offers in the RAV4.
Although the basics of the Sportage are shared with the Hyundai Tucson, Kia’s changes are notable. Although power seats, power lumbar and leather upholstery are far from unique in this segment, the Tucson has one of the steeper entry prices for these features and the Sportage has the lowest. Base LX ($23,885 after destination) models get manually adjustable seats, but an $1,100 option on the LX upgrades the seat fabric, adds heat, and gives the driver’s seat 10-way power adjustment with 2-way power lumbar. The $26,395 EX model gets you leather seats for $3,000 less than the Honda CR-V.
Infotainment is becoming increasingly important to the average crossover shopper and Kia isn’t letting grass grow under its feet. Base LX models get a 5-inch touchscreen entertainment system with Bluetooth streaming, iPod interface and XM satellite radio.
Optional on LX and standard on EX, a 7-inch touchscreen system features the latest UVO software. The new model includes standard Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, 8 GB of music storage, and Kia’s latest telematics software package.
Optional on EX and standard on SX is an 8-inch capacitive touchscreen (the same kind of screen tech you find on modern tablet computers) that uses the same software as the smaller screen. Bundled with the snazzier LCD is a 310W eight-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, power tailgate, ventilated front seats and Kia’s active safety package. This option is the only way to get autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, front and rear parking sensors and a compact spare tire instead of a can of fix-a-flat.
As before, there are two engines under the hood. Things start with a 2.4-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine good for 181 horsepower and 175 pounds-feet of torque. The base engine compares favorably with the meat of the segment. If you need more power, Kia is one of the few brands to offer a 2.0-liter turbo.
The new 2.0-liter turbo actually makes less power than last year’s engine because Kia re-tuned the engine for more low-end torque. For 2017, the new turbo makes 240 hp and 260 lbs-ft of torque, a drop of 20 horsepower and 9 pounds-feet versus last year, although the torque comes to a boil 400 rpm earlier. Either engine can be equipped with a predictive all-wheel-drive system for $1,500.
Kia’s predictive AWD system is something of a unicorn in the segment. According to Magna, the maker of the all-wheel-drive coupling, Kia overdrives the rear axle slightly, just as Acura does in its SH-AWD system, in order to give the Sportage an effective (very) slight rear-power bias.
The slick solution is an interesting twist for Kia in a segment where all-wheel-drive capability seems to be less important than ever. The CR-V’s system is designed to disengage when things get rough, Subaru has ditched its true center differential in favor of a clutch pack and a strong front-wheel bias. Even the Cherokee’s capable AWD prefers to let wheel slip occur before sending power to the rear for the sake of efficiency. Even on the sandy desert roads in Southern California, the Sportage was more likely to spin all four wheels from a stop than just the front rubber.
2017 brings an unexpectedly large 333 pound weight gain on top-end trims. Reading between the lines in the presentation, the gain comes mainly from the optional features you find on the SX since the “body in white” is actually a hair lighter than before. Now weighing 3,997 pounds fully-loaded, the Sportage is over 400 pounds heavier than a Mazda CX-5. On the bright side, the added weight had brought added refinement. On broken pavement, freeway expansion joints, and mild off-roading, the Sportage feels more like a Volvo XC60 than a CX-5, while handling sits only a hair behind a Tiguan R-Line.
The Tiguan comparison is especially apt. With 245/40R19 tires on the SX trim, the Kia likely out handles the CX-5 when it comes to lateral Gs (we didn’t have access to our usual test facilities). But, like the Tiguan, “feel” is where Mazda wins. The CX-5 feels like a Mazda3 on stilts with more feedback and sharper overall road feel. The Kia’s steering is accurate and well weighted, but there’s little feedback from the front tires like most cars with electric power steering.
Like the Tiguan, the Sportage excels when it comes to handling, but acceleration is somewhat muted. Because Kia has added weight and subtracted power, our tester did a preliminary 0-60 sprint in 7.5 seconds, notably below the 6.1 we clocked in the 2012 Sportage SX we last tested. That likely puts the Sportage on even footing with the Ford Explorer 2.0-liter Ecoboost and Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, but behind the Subaru Forester XT.
Respectable performance, a quiet cabin, sporty handling and an engaging AWD system come at a price, but that price isn’t at the dealer — it’s at the pump. Mazda’s CX-5 in its least efficient 2.5-liter AWD form delivers 24/30/26 mpg (city/highway/combined), which is a hair higher than the most efficient front-wheel-drive trim of the Sportage at 23/30/26. The AWD Sportage we spent most of the day in was rated at 20/23/21, but spirited driving kept our average from breaking 19.5 mpg. Adding AWD cuts fuel economy by up to 15 percent depending on your engine choice, likely because Kia’s system is so eager to send power to the rear.
Despite the changes, the Sportage and Sorento still have a large overlap in pricing. As a result, the savvy shopper looking for more bang for the buck is likely to gravitate toward the larger two-row crossover. That said, Kia has managed to differentiate the Sportage more than they have in the past with improved driving dynamics and a well-chosen price tag.
That price tag is Kia’s real win. The 2017 Sportage is the least expensive compact crossover with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and leather — three features that are on my must-have list. The bundling of options is my biggest complaint with the related Hyundai Tucson. On the Hyundai, you have to jump to the $30,000 Limited trim in order to get popular features like leather, dual-zone climate, advanced smartphone integration or navigation.
Thanks to the improved dynamics, excellent performance and comfortable interior, the Sportage ties with the Mazda CX-5 for my second favorite entry in this segment. The CX-5 feels light and nimble, but the Sportage feels more luxurious, and the turbo engine and wide tires will get you around the mountain twisties faster. The Mazda is more attractive, but the Kia is more comfortable.
Despite the Sportage snagging a place on my personal top pick list, I suspect the Sportage is destined to remain a niche player. While I’m willing to overlook the mediocre fuel economy in trade for improved dynamics, many shoppers are not. Finally, there’s that Sorento again. A Sportage SX AWD rings in at $34,895 and you’ll find it on the same dealer lot as the $33,795 Sorento EX. The Sorento will give you six inches more combined legroom, 33-percent more cargo capacity, and a more handsome front end for nearly the same price while delivering almost identical fuel economy and performance. Sure, the Sportage is more fun, but Kia’s big-boy crossover is a better deal.
Kia provided the vehicle at a launch event in San Diego. Kia also provided meals, lodging and transportation.