Kia's handsome new fleet of Peter Schreyer-designed vehicles now bears no resemblance to the platform-shared sibling lineup at Hyundai. Smart interior layouts, world-class engines and transmissions, and steadily improving reliability and quality rankings have helped bring a 48-percent boost to the brand's market share in just three years. Residual values are also on the upswing, rising 38 percent across the lineup, so leasing has become a reasonable option. With all that important work done, Kia is finally starting to back up its sporting good looks with actual sporting performance.

Henceforth when you see the letters SX emblazoned on the rump of a Kia, you can expect to find performance enhancements to go along with the slightly more aggressive fascias and trim that visually distinguish SX models from their lesser brethren, including a healthy dose of vitamins H and T under the hood and/or a bit more starch in the suspension. Heretofore the SX designation has simply signified top-of-the-line trim, options, and features. That tradition continues.

Perhaps the best example is the freshly minted Sportage SX cute-ute. Under the hood is a version of the Optima's impressive direct-injected, twin-scroll-turbocharged 2.0-liter Theta II engine bolted to a paddle-shifted six-speed automatic and your choice of front- or all-wheel-drive. Due to differences in exhaust packaging, heat management and tuning to suit the SUV's duty cycle, the Sportage turbo is rated at 260 horsepower and 269 pound-feet. That's 14 hp less than the Optima turbo, but it's 90 horses more than you can get in any other Sportage (the Optima and Sorento SX engines are also available on lesser trim grades). Weighing in at just 3459 our well broken in front-wheel-drive test car's 13.3 lb/hp rating and shorter gearing should have it running away from its turbo rivals, the VW Tiguan (17.8 lb/hp), Mazda CX-7 (16.1), and Acura RDX (16.6). Instead, its 7.3-second 0-60 time just eeks ahead of a Tiguan (7.5) and an AWD CX-7 (7.7), while trailing the AWD 5-speed automatic RDX (6.5). This has us questioning the calibration of Kia's dynamometers. At least it's 1.5 seconds quicker than the lesser Sportages, and uphill passing on a two-lane highway is no longer a problem.

Damping rates are stiffened to provide more body motion control to match the added scoot, and more aggressive MAKE MODEL tires add some stick, resulting in a figure-eight performance of 28.1 seconds at 0.61 average g-that's 0.6 seconds quicker than the EX and 0.2 ahead of the Tiguan but trails the other turbo cute-utes. The steering points the car accurately enough, but it provides minimal feedback and lacks a strong sense of straight ahead. Similarly, bumps never quite disappear into the suspension and are taken in a somewhat heavy-footed clompety-clomp fashion. Mind you, it's preferable to the Korean standard Sta-puffd marshmallow ride of yore, but the fast-learning engineers have yet to fully matriculate in their chassis studies. The price premium for a Sportage SX is $2500 over the EX-$26,490 for the front-driver, $27,990 with AWD. That's almost $7K under the RDX, and a strong bargain in a growing class.


2011 Kia Sportage SX
BASE PRICE $26,490
PRICE AS TESTED $30,490
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.0L/260-hp/269-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3459 lb (60/40%)
WHEELBASE 103.9 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 175.2 x 73.0 x 64.4 in
0-60 MPH 7.3 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.7 sec @ 88.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 123 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.78 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.1 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 22/27 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 153/125 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.81 lb/mile
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