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.

Aside from sheetmetal, Kia is especially proud of its new all-wheel-drive system called Dynamax and co-developed with German supply giant Magna International. The highly responsive, full-time, electro-hydraulically controlled system constantly analyzes road inputs and reacts with haste, varying torque distribution and belaying wheel slippage as much as mechanically possible. An electronic locking center differential is available in times when even torque delivery is needed in particularly slippery, low speed scenarios.

The sole engine option at launch is a 2.4-liter inline-four with 176 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque. It's slightly more powerful than the outgoing 2.7-liter V-6 but don't expect to easily earn speeding citations marked for "demonstration of speed." The four-banger needs 6000 rpm to develop peak power and because the six-speed automatic transmission isn't in any rush to change gears, the Sportage reels off a 9.3-second jog to 60 mph and covers the quarter mile in 17.1 seconds at 81.6 mph.

Lop off the driveshaft to the rear and the front-wheel-drive model does the duty with an 8.8-second 0-60-mph time and traverses 1320 feet in 16.8 seconds at 82.9 mph. We chalk up the quicker times to a lower curb weight and more power to the ground but the Dynamax-equipped version eagerly makes up ground when the steering wheel is cranked. We measured 0.80 g on the skidpad and a respectable 28.3 seconds on our figure-eight at an average of 0.58 g. The front-wheel-drive example was noticeably less spry and returns 0.77 g on the skidpad with a figure-eight time of 28.7 seconds at an average of 0.56 g. If you plan on continuing those winter trips to the cabin, definitely opt for the all-wheel drive.

Overall, the Sportage is easy to operate but how are the interior appointments? The optional, $3000 Premium Package with Leather makes long trips a breeze, partially thanks to the breezy air-cooled driver's seat that pushes a chilled flow to the back and posterior end. Kia says the seat is a first for the segment and we found the feature to be useful at all hours of the day, not just when it's over 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside. The center stack is well organized and the HVAC controls are conveniently angled towards the occupants, a very nice touch that complements the well-laid steering wheel controls.

Behind the trunk lid, there is 26.1 cubic feet of cargo volume and the second-row seats fold easily to reveal 54.6 cubic feet. From large cardboard boxes to a lengthy snowboard (due for seasonal storage), the Sportage is quick to load and unload.

It won't be out at launch, but Kia is looking towards its Microsoft-developed UVO system to lead the technological front. The hands-free multimedia system stands for Your Voice and uses spoken word for a range of commands, such as cell-phone dialing. Of course, a factory navigation option can also be ordered but the two cannot be combined until much later, likely not until the next model year. UVO will hit dealer order forms later this year.

UVO won't be the only Sportage asset with a later ETA. We said the 2.4-liter four-cylinder doesn't accommodate much power but speed enthusiasts will find use with the upcoming turbocharged, direct-injected 2.0-liter inline-four for the SX trim. The future Sportage with forced induction, due in January, will make around 270 horsepower and is sure to delight those who fancy power in a relatively incognito group of small people-movers.

As for the styling, well, we will let you decide that on your own. We think it's a positive move away from the truck-like designs of old, back when the Sportage would have been considered little more than a last-ditch option when scouring the lots for a soft-roader. It's an exciting time for Kia, and the new Sportage will surely make a splash.


2011 Kia Sportage
Base price $18,990
Price as test $29,990
Vehicle layout Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 2.4L/176-hp/168 lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight 3463 lb (57/43%)
Wheelbase 103.9 in
0-60 mph 9.3 sec
Quarter mile 17.1 sec @ 81.6 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 119 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.80 g (avg)
MT figure eight 28.3 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 21/29 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.93 g/mile

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