In some ways, the evolution of the Sportage reflects the evolution of Kia itself. Think back to the first Sportage in the mid-1990s: quirky, kind of cute, functional-like Kia. It didn't have a huge engine, but provided off-road capability in a small SUV package, and that was something fairly few vehicles offered at the time. Then, when it was time for second-gen in the 2000s, the market had changed and the Sportage was all new and completely redesigned to compete with the CR-V, RAV4, and Escape. Like Kias at the time, the Sportage quietly did a good job without really standing out on the road.

But Kia is changing yet again, and with it, the Sportage. Kia's design chief Peter Schreyer, credited with designing the TT, has been overseeing Kia's new styling direction for the last few years. So far, the results of his work have been seen in the Forte, Soul, and Sorento, and now the 2011 Kia Sportage. And the team at Kia's design center in Irvine, California, has given the Sportage new looks, new life, and a realistic shot at appealing to younger buyers.

We were invited to get behind the wheel of the new Sportage, and while the vehicle goes on sale in late July, Kia is still making changes. The ones we drove were all pre-production and more intended to provide an overview of the new model. When the Sportage initially goes on sale, it will be as a base model, LX, or a midgrade EX, with the choice of front or all-wheel drive (optional on LX and EX). These models will be powered by Kia's DOHC 170-176-horsepower, 2.4-liter four with CVVT. That engine will come with either a six-speed manual (base only) or automatic. About six months after the Sportage goes on sale, the topline sporty SX will make its debut. This will have a retuned firmer suspension with unique shocks, and a turbocharged 2.0-liter four said to put out around 270 horsepower. All of the prototypes at this drive were EX models with the automatic transmission, both FWD and AWD.