Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Kia Sportage Re-imagined

The Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V are widely celebrated for being the first small crossovers in the U.S. market, but the Kia Sportage actually came out first--in 1993. I knew someone who drove one and loved it, but this was the early days of Kia, and sales were small in the U.S.

After a short hiatus, the second generation car arrived in 2005 and, with Kia and fellow Korean manufacturer Hyundai under one roof, it was a companion of the Hyundai Tucson.

But it's the third generation that concerns us here, and what a different set of wheels it is. Debuting in 2011, it introduced a whole new look and feel to Kia crossovers, based on the Kue concept car. You can thank the team at Kia's U.S.-based design center in Irvine, California, for the transformation. Presumably they were inspired by Kia Chief Design Officer Peter Schreyer, formerly of Audi's design team.

The first two Sportages had the two-box look set by the landmark Ford Explorer SUV in 1990. As these (sometimes) four-wheel-drive models have morphed more and more into tall cars with lots of cargo capacity, there's no reason to stick to this rigid design template.

The upswept nose is very much part of other Kias, with the now recognizable tab grille and grinning slivers of headlamp cluster, it's a smiling face but it avoids the Joker-like grin of recent Mazdas. The side shaping, high window sill line and blocky rear pillar are new and exciting developments.

Inside, my tester was pretty much all gray, and many of the surfaces were hard, as befits a truck. The armrests and center console bin were padded, at least. There are enough black panels and silver and chrome accents to keep the passenger space from feeling low budget, but this is no Mercedes-Benz, either.

The twin grab handles on the console reminded me of those in the first Audi TT--not a big surprise. A surprising forward-jutting section atop the instrument panel, in front of the driver, added some flair but no additional function. The windshield pillars are shockingly thick, but this is part of making the newest Sportage crashworthy. It also helped the new model gain recognition as a 2011 "Top Safety Pick" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

You can get your Sportage in four levels, starting with the base model and moving up through LX, EX and SX models. The LX upsizes the base car's 16-inch alloys to 17-inchers, places LED turn signals on the outside mirrors, adds keyless entry with folding key and most significantly, a six-speed electronically controlled Sportmatic™ automatic transmission, along with solar and privacy glass.

The EX, like my Signal Red test car, bumps the wheels to 18-inch alloys, slips in high performance dampers, LED daytime running lights, roof rails, a rear spoiler, fog lamps and chrome body trim and door handles. The top-of-the-line SX keeps the 18-inch wheels but makes them special, but puts a powerful yet fuel-efficient 2.0-liter turbocharged GDI engine producing 260 horsepower under the hood. This rates dual exhausts, and stands out with sculpted side sill moldings and a unique grille.

The standard engine in every level but SX is a 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine with Continuously Variable Valve Timing. It provides 176 horsepower and has been tuned to deliver a one mpg improvement on the highway over last year's model.

The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide gives the car with the 2.4-liter engine a 6 for Air Pollution and a 6 for Greenhouse Gas; there is one model listed with a 9 for Air Pollution. It's likely sold in California and other smog-legislated states. Both get SmartWay designation.

The base car, which comes only with a manual transmission and two-wheel drive, starts at $19,300. My two-wheel-drive tester came to $28,800. It's possible to get over $30,000 with option packages. These prices include $800 for shipping. 

So, the new car looks good, drives well, and fits right in with the complete repositioning of Kia in the marketplace. What's not to like?

No comments: