Long had Korean brands been relegated to being afterthoughts to the average automotive consumer -- for the most part, they've been the little fish in a sea filled with larger predators. But the currents have been changing for the better of the small fish over the past few years. Waves of new product bearing Korean emblems have steadily chipped away at aged perceptions and lifted street credibility, but if Kia had any keepsake from its modest past, it would be the Sportage moniker.

The small sport-utility vehicle was first offered for the 1995 model year and remains the longest-running nameplate in Kia's United States history. It has tenure in the states, but the Sportage has never really been on the same plane of contemporaries, like the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4, top-sellers in the influential compact crossover class. It's highly competitive but, ultimately, rewarding to those who succeed. The three aforementioned competitors combined to sell over 513,000 units in the heavily depressed auto market of 2009 while Kia as a company sold 300,063 vehicles in the same time period. The now-previous-generation Sportage accounted for 42,509 of those sales and, needless to say, this particular sector of the auto industry has the proverbial dollar signs written all over it.

You can't harvest crops without sowing seeds, and Kia is ready to reap its reward. Sprouting from its Irvine, California-based design center, Kia's handsomely sculpted 2011 Sportage is a very clear deviation from the last two generations and shares a common platform with its sister ute, the also-new Hyundai Tucson. The Sportage takes visual cues from the Kue concept car unveiled in 2007 and drops its coefficient of drag from 0.40 to 0.37 with the newest incarnation. The unibody construction is matched to MacPherson assemblies with friction-reducing side-load coil springs up front and a multi-link out back. Our tester, a range-topping EX model, came with 18-inch alloy wheels bolted at the corners and LED running lights, the distinctive illumination a credit to head Sportage designer Massimo Frascella and Kia design boss Peter Schreyer, a former Audi man.