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.

Here's where it gets a little confusing. The EX Sportages at the event were all equipped with the upcoming SX's suspension tuning and shocks. In addition, they had the right wheel and tire package -- in this case, 235/55R18 100H Hankook Optimo H426 tires on the optional 18-inch alloy wheels -- but at the wrong offset. Kia is going to push the wheels 2mm outward by the time the crossover goes on sale. The Sportage shares its platform with the new Hyundai Tucson, but the Kia has its own driving feel on the road. It receives, among other things, a thicker front anti-roll bar, different tire size, and quicker steering.

The EX-meets-SX Sportages we drove provided a firm ride that let in road irregularities, but did well in twists and turns. All Sportages use a fully independent suspension, MacPherson struts in front and multilink in the rear. There was also considerable road noise. You can expect a more comfortable ride out of the production EX, and hopefully a quieter ride as well. The Sportage's steering is communicative and neither too light nor too heavy; according to Kia, the steering feel is not likely to change by the time production models arrive in the U.S. The large A- and C-pillars reduce visibility somewhat, but it's pretty easy to get used to.

The 2.4-liter is a good base engine for this compact crossover. Its 176 horsepower (170 in SULEV models) is a less than in the CR-V or the four-cylinder RAV4, but more than the Rogue offers. And around town, there is decent acceleration off the line -- and it has more horsepower than the outgoing V-6. Getting up to speed on the freeway takes a little longer, and the four could use more torque, but the six-speed auto does an admirable job of managing the power. The 270-horsepower turbo four should take care of those who want more power here, but there won't be a V-6 in the Sportage (even though the engine bay certainly looks roomy enough for one).

Dimensions have grown with this generation; wheelbase is up 0.4 inch, length increased by 3.5 inches, and it's 2.1 inches wider. (Height is down 2.3 inches.) While there is still plenty of room in the cabin, most dimensions, with the exception of rear-seat legroom, are down slightly. What the interior does gain is more cargo volume behind the rear seats, which went up from 23.6 to 26.1 cubic feet.

The interior is attractive, and the layout is uncluttered. Controls are easy to see and reach. There were some quirks, though, as the spot where you plug in the key fob for pushbutton start is in the center console storage area and the iPod jack is just below the center stack. If those two features were swapped, you could leave the iPod in the vehicle, out of sight, and you wouldn't have to open the armrest/storage area twice every time you drive (storing and removing the key fob).

As is often the case with Kias, there is a lot of value in this vehicle, and a lot of equipment comes standard, including cruise control, power door locks, driver-side one-touch down windows (one-touch up available), tilt wheel (telescoping available), aux/USB jack, Bluetooth, and steering wheel stereo controls. So are numerous safety features, including six airbags (including side curtains), four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, stability control with defeat switch, traction control, brake assist, downhill brake control, hill-start assist, and tire-pressure monitoring. Panoramic sunroof, navigation, rearview camera, dual-zone climate control, leather seats, handsfree UVO system, cooled glove box, and pushbutton start are optional. The new UVO system allows the driver to use voice commands to control iPod, phone, and, if the driver has the right type of phone, safely receive and respond to text messages. But the UVO system won't be available for the first six months or so, and at that point buyers will have to choose navigation or UVO; they won't be able to get both until probably the 2012 model year.

The Sportage is now much more in line with the rest of the huge crossover market, and has the cool styling to make it stand out. Official pricing has not yet been announced, but you can expect it to be fairly close to the outgoing Sportage's MSRP.


2011 Kia Sportage
Base price $17,000-$19,000 (MT est)
Vehicle layout Front engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engines 2.4L/170-176-hp/163-168-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmissions 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic
Curb weight 3200-3500 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 103.9 in
Length x width x height 174.8 x 73.0 x 64.4 in
0-60 mph 8.3 sec (MT est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 21-22/28-31 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.75-0.82 lb/mile
On sale in the U.S. July 2010
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