The Average CUV buyer wants the utility and space of a station wagon or minivan, but the looks and a fraction of the off-roading ability of an SUV to get to yoga class and run the kids to the mall. These are image vehicles and the current crop of CUVs tend to fall into two categories. The first leaning more towards a minivan in driving experience and layout and the second behaving more like a lifted hatchback. The aggressive looking Kia Sportage is far more hatchback than minivan. It offers a very car-like experience and sacrifices off-road abilities for on-road daily livability.

The EX model tested here is equipped with Kia's 176 hp 2.4 liter I-4 cylinder mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission. The mid-range Premium Package equipped offering arrived in typical Kia well-stocked fashion including navigation, rear view camera, heated seats, panoramic roof, smart key and even a cooled driver's seat. With the UVO Navigation system adding $1000 and the Premium Package adding an additional $2900 the total price with $800 destination adds up to a decidedly average for the category $28,600. While we do like the styling of exterior and interior quite a bit, the quality of the interior materials is definitely a letdown. Most of the competitive vehicles in this segment are using a combination of hard plastics and soft-touch materials for the dash and door panels. Kia has molded the dash almost entirely from hard plastic. The effect is a large mass of hollow plastic that looks great in photography and from a distance, but quickly takes on the feel and appearance of plastic beach cooler from inside the car. Any of our testers who drove the Sportage more than around the block logged complaints about the hard and unsupportive seats. It was also noted that the rear seats were decent, but not as roomy as other vehicles in the competitive set.

On the road, the Sportage exhibited behavior we have come to expect from Kia. The suspension is a bit harsh over bumps transmitting impacts from the road into the passenger compartment while still exhibiting a decent amount of wandering and distinct lack of preciseness. The damping rates are stiff, but the suspension movement just isn't controlled. The wheels catch grooves in the road or are deflected by road irregularities and it pushes the little CUV around and requires constant steering correction. It gives the Kia a feeling of already being worn-out and reminds drivers of other companies' vehicles from two decades past. On our figure-eight track, the Sportage turned in a 28.6 second lap time pulling an average 0.58g. For comparison, a 178 hp 2012 Ford Escape SE we recently tested turned in the same lap at 28.0 seconds and 0.61g. Admittedly, the likelihood of Escape and Sportage drivers ever racing is remote it is almost impossible to quantify how much more confidence inspiring and comfortable the Ford is to drive.

While the industry is quickly transitioning to smaller turbo charged engines for not only more torque, but also better fuel economy, many manufacturers are still offering larger displacement I-4 cylinders as the base engine. The 2.4-liter's 176 hp certainly sound competitive with engines like Ford's 178 hp turbocharged 1.6-liter I-4, it's the torque that really matters. The Kia musters up 168 lb-ft at a peeky 4000 rpm while the Ford can twist out 184 lb-ft at a lowly 2500 rpm. The Ford also delivers that torque over a much wider range which makes it feel like a V-6 while still delivering four cylinder fuel economy. The 3284 lb Kia turned in a 9.1 second 0-60 mph and ran through the quarter-mile in 17.0 seconds at 81.2 mph. For comparison, the 3490 lb 1.6-liter Ford did the same thing with a 8.9 second 0-60 and 16.7 seconds at 82.4 mph quarter-mile. For being older technology, the Kia is still holding its own in acceleration. Our first tests don't involve fuel economy testing, but the Kia is rated at 22/32mpg while the Ford is rated at 23/33mpg. Looking at the numbers on paper, we have to wonder how much of an improvement Kia would see with a smaller more expensive engine. We won't know for sure until we can do some real world mileage testing if the Sportage turns in the EPA rated numbers.

On paper we are fairly impressed with what the Sportage can do. On the road however, we are put off by the driving experience and the cheapish interior. Although no one is buying a CUV to blast through canyons or set new lap records, a basic level of road competency should be expected in any vehicle. There will be a fair number of buyers only looking at the cooled seat, the big sunroof and the 10 year warranty at a reasonable price. The Sportage is a bit like finding that expensive jacket you wanted on the clearance rack, just in the wrong size.