While the previous-generation Sportage was an also-ran, this fourth-generation redesign jumps almost to the top of the small SUV class. Distinctions like the rakish roofline and spry demeanor remain, but improvements include more civilized road manners, a roomier interior, improved crash-worthiness, and better visibility.
Although the Sportage shares its platform with the highly rated Hyundai Tucson, these two corporate cousins don’t share powertrains. That's a mixed blessing; we weren't jazzed by either Hyundai drivetrain, as they either felt underpowered or suffered from an unrefined transmission. However, they offered good fuel economy, delivering up to 26 mpg overall in our tests, on par with the best in class.
By contrast, most Sportages get a 2.4-liter, 181-hp four-cylinder with a conventional six-speed automatic. It's considerably more pleasant and responsive than either Tucson drivetrain, supplying ample power that never feels too taxed. The refined automatic transmission operates serenely in the background, showing good response to inputs. But fuel economy is just fair at 23 mpg overall, falling well behind the small SUV pack. The top-dog Sportage SX Turbo has a 2.0-liter, 240-hp four-cylinder.
Handling is mildly sporty for the class. When pushed, it proves secure with well-controlled body roll, quick reflexes, and reasonably quick turn-in response. However, the Sportage is short on steering feedback. In total, it falls short of matching the nimble feeling of the Mazda CX-5 or Ford Escape. While the ride soaks up bumps better than the old Sportage, it’s a touch firm compared to other in the class and less cushioned than the Hyundai Tucson or Toyota RAV4. Cabin noise levels are unobjectionable and are par for the course for this category.
Easy to live with, the Sportage has a roomy interior. Typical of a small SUV, cabin access is easy with a chair-height step-in and good head clearance. Large, wide-opening rear doors ease access. Visibility is better than the previous generation, but it's not as open and airy feeling as some rivals. The lack of a third side window remains a Sportage design cue that creates a blind spot there. Happily, a rearview camera is standard.
We appreciated the power driver seat with its power lumbar support and good thigh support, along with the heated seats--part of the optional LX Popular equipment package and standard on higher trims. The rear seat is roomy with a nearly flat floor, and the seatbacks recline and fold via a well-placed lever located next to the bottom cushion.
Interior quality is comparable to its peers. Soft-touch material trims the dash and window sills, and bits of matte-silver plastic trim add color to an otherwise stark-looking interior. Knobs and buttons feel almost retro in their simplicity. The base LX’s 5-inch infotainment touch screen is too small by today’s standards. EX models get a 7-inch (optional on LX) and SX Turbos boast an 8-inch display.
We tested an LX AWD version with the Popular package, which got pricey enough to make us rethink Kia's budget-pricing reputation.
Getting some desirable options requires spending a good deal of money. Nice features like a moonroof, power liftgate, or automatic climate control require getting a leather-equipped EX, pushing the price tag over $30,000 with all-wheel drive. Rivals like the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester offer this equipment at lower prices.
More important, getting forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking requires buying required option packages. The top-trim model gets these as standard equipment.
On the plus side, the new Sportage now earns the highest score of Good in the IIHS small-overlap front crash test, whereas the outgoing model rated a Poor, the lowest score.
With an improved ride, better noise isolation and visibility, straightforward controls, and a refined powertrain, the Sportage is a compelling choice that adds a dash of youthful style.