Recently, we drove the 2013 Kia Sportage EX's boosted sibling, the 2013 Sportage SX, which is equipped with the Hyundai/Kia Theta II 2.0 GDI turbo engine. Cranking out 260 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque, the engine made the small SUV fun to drive but a bit of a handful when driven aggressively. Although we're rarely ones to proclaim a vehicle has "too much power," the Sportage SX, especially in front-drive form, toes the edge of that line thanks to sometimes darty torque steer from the potent turbocharged powerplant.

Those that like the style and amenities of the SX but don't have the need for speed will appreciate the fact that Kia also offers Sportage EX you see here. It is powered by the standard 2.4-liter port-injected four-cylinder that produces 176 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque and provides a driving experience that is considerably more sedate, as would be expected from a vehicle with 84 fewer horsepower and 101 less lb-ft of torque. That in no way implies, however that the EX is a less capable or inferior model to the hyper-caffeinated SX.

In some ways, the naturally aspirated powerplant is more appropriate for the class, with power figures that are in the same neighborhood as the segment volume leaders, the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, and Toyota RAV4. Fuel economy is also slightly improved over the turbo, at 30 mpg highway, compared to the turbo's 28, though the city figure for both engines is 21 mpg. In typical suburban stop-and-go driving, the 2.4-liter engine is entirely adequate, going about its business without undue fuss. Only during full-throttle passing and merging do you yearn for the added power of the turbo, as in the upper rev range, the 2.4 tends to produce more noise than accelerative thrust.

When we first picked up our EX tester, we noticed the persistent green "Eco" light on the dashboard. After some fiddling with the trip computer, we figured out how to disable this mode. It helped throttle response slightly, but could not make up for the substantial power deficit relative to the turbo. The EX's 0-60 time was an unremarkable 9.3 seconds, nearly a full second behind the Honda CR-V and 2013 Toyota RAV4. This time is also a full two seconds behind the time posted by the SX, but feels like even more. Chalk the drastic seat-of-the-pants difference up to the 101 lb-ft torque deficit, which while a handful off-the-line in the SX, makes passing and rolling acceleration a much more confident affair.

Power aside, our praise for other areas of the Sportage's design remains for the EX. Other than a single rear tailpipe and different badging, the EX is virtually indistinguishable from the hot-rod SX. You get the LED running lights in the front, 18-inch alloy wheels, and with the Premium package, the same navigation headunit and heated and cooled driver's seat, among other niceties.

The EX even wears the same-size 235/55-18 tires as the SX. The suspension tuning seems a little softer in the EX, but the ride could still not be accurately described as plush or serene. The Sportage is a small, short-wheelbase SUV in all its forms, and the suspension tuning can only do so much to hide this basic configuration. Going to a less-aggressive rolling stock than the low-profile 18-inch wheels and tires might help some.

The Sportage begs for a middle engine option, and the most obvious choice is the 2.4-liter GDI engine used in the base Sorento and Optima. Producing 190 hp and 181 lb-ft in its SUV applications, this engine would put a little more spring in the step of the Sportage without the hyper-adrenalized character of the SX's turbo. We would not be at all surprised to see this option appear on the 2014 model, possibly as part of a larger mid-cycle refresh.

In the hyper-competitive compact SUV market, the Sportage is a niche player, selling just a fraction of the units of the class leaders. But Kia seems comfortable offering the Sportage as a more stylish alternative to the more conventional Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. If you like the looks of the Sportage, but are happy with simply keeping up with traffic, rather than blasting ahead of it, the Sportage EX may be the perfect middle ground.


2013 Kia Sportage EX
BASE PRICE $25,000
PRICE AS TESTED $28,100
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.4L/176-hp/168-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3330 lb (58/42%)
WHEELBASE 103.9 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 174.8 x 73.0 x 64.4 in
0-60 MPH 9.3 sec
QUARTER MILE 17.1 sec @ 80.9 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 116 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.77 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.8 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 21/30 mpg
ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY 160/112 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.80 lb/mile