2016 Kia Sportage- The Ultimate Battle of Sport VS Utility


Ask any Kia enthusiast (and yes, they do exist) which model is the longest running nameplate in the brand’s history, and the easy answer is “the Sportage!”.  Sure, the Kia brand has been around since 1944, but didn’t reach U.S. shores until five decades later; 1994.  The Sportage arrived a year later and has been a common sight in Kia showrooms ever since.  That first Sportage, along with the Suzuki Sidekick/Geo Tracker twins, and the Toyota RAV4 shortly after, helped kick-start the small “cute-ute” SUV craze that continues to this day.  That inaugural Sportage was indeed cute, adorable even, and being based on a Mazda truck platform, was a rugged, capable off-roader.  A random, useless triva note is that it was also the first production vehicle ever to have a knee airbag, way back in 1997.  Despite all of that, a lot has changed with the Sportage and Kia since then.  That’s our excuse to look at Kia’s most well-established model.


The second generation Sportage mimicked the RAV4 and Honda CR-V becoming more civilized, but less adventurous, by switching over to a car-based platform in 2005.  Our 2016 tester is the third generation, which debuted for 2011 and has recently been cannibalized by an all-new 2017 fourth-generation Sportage that’s been on sale for a number of months.  Please forgive me for being a little behind the curve on getting a chance to review the outgoing Sportage, but there’s not many rentals out there.


Despite being a six year design, this Sportage still looks as fresh as it did at its debut.  It was Peter Schreyer’s second design for Kia and represented a dramatic change in direction for the company’s image.  Schreyer, you may remember, was the head of the prestigious Audi and VW design studios and was responsible for some of those company’s most famed trendsetting creations, such as the original Audi TT and VW New Beetle.  His move to humble and economy-minded Kia in 2006 was a controversial one and started many rumors within the industry as to how much Kia had to pay to coax him over.  Whatever the amount, it has proven to be a successful investment for the company and sales have skyrocketed ever since.


The Sportage was one of his first works of art for the Korean carmaker, and garnered a lot of attention when it came out.  The beefy wheelwells, thick D-pillar, and burly, no-nonsense front end give this car a muscular and purposeful look that’s more befitting for a concept car than a production model.  It almost reminds me of the Isuzu VehiCross and what Arnold Schwarzenegger would look like if he was reincarnated into a car.  Small details, like the “tiger-nose” grille, clever and unique pinched windshield and slanted taillights have all since trickled down through the Kia lineup.  I really enjoy looking at this car and its clean shapes, and find the design much more cohesive than the new 2017.  That new Sportage uses essentially the same bodyshape, but with much fussier details.


The industrial theme continues inside as well.  Like the exterior, the shapes on the dashboard are robust and industrial.  Large swaths of imitation chrome and bulging shapes in the doors, dash, and console give off a tough, Austrian-born vibe.  Although solidly built and appearing rugged, some of the interior pieces were misleadingly cheap and brittle to the touch.


Since the looks of this car give the impression that it’s ready to haul the Terminator to duty, it has to be roomy, right?  Correcto!  Korean cars have a knack for being able to accommodate large American builds and the Sportage is no exception.  Up front there is abundant leg and head room, even for my 6’4” frame.  Seat travel is generous, and I had to pull the driver’s seat forward to reach the pedals.  That rarely happens, and often in many cars I embarrassingly try to get the seat to go further back than it mechanically is capable of.  No worries here, as the Sportage has my back!  Speaking of back, I did find the seat bottoms to be a little flat, causing some backaches during longer drives.


The rear is equally vast and there is sufficient head and leg room for even the tallest passengers.  The head-turning looks do not sacrifice any function at all.   With 37.9 inches of rear legroom, the Sportage does have more space for knees than a Toyota RAV4 or Ford Escape, but can’t match Honda’s clever packaging on the CR-V.  The seatback also adjusts and can be reclined; a thoughtful touch.


Boasting 6.8 inches of ground clearance, getting in and out is easy due to a moderate ride height and wide opening doors.  Small SUV’s have been extremely popular with older buyers as there’s no crouching to get in, and the Sportage is no exception.  Access to the back seat is a little narrow near the bottom of the door openings, and may require folks with bigger feet (such as myself or Ronald McDonald) to have to twist their ankles while entering.


Trunk space, at 26.1 cu. ft. with the rear seats up, trails behind most competitors.  Despite this, the cargo hold is a useful shape and will still accommodate large suitcases easily.  The rear seats do fold down and create an almost flat, yet generous loading area.  The opening to the rear hatch is large and the cargo bay floor is low, making loading a cinch.  The exterior, electronic release to the hatch itself is located at the bottom lip of the gate; it’s not obvious for styling reasons and requires taller folks to have to bend down.


Another causality to the styling is visibility from the driver’s seat.  To the front and sides it’s not bad and you ride up high with a commanding view in the Sportage.  But it’s no surprise that the thick D-pillars and small rear window do make it very difficult to see directly behind the car while reversing.  The upright hatch window does give some perception to where the back of the car is, and large side mirrors do aid when changing lanes.  A reverse camera is available on higher trim Sportages or with the $1,000 “Popular Package”, but our lower level trim did not have one.  Due to the Sportage’s modest dimensions, it was still easy to maneuver in tight spots.


Gauges are crisp and clear, and despite having a tachometer, an attractive wraparound font on the speedometer, and being easy to read at a glance within their deep binnacles, the instrument panel comes across as spartan and more befitting for a econo-minded Rio than an SUV. Strangely, Kia offers a different instrument cluster on higher trimmed Sportages that looks more complete.  Our base model also did not have a fuel economy computer; a surprise and rarity these days.  “Sigh”, first world problems!


In typical Kia fashion, the radio is very user friendly and features large buttons and round knobs for volume and tuning.  The display is simple to decipher and, while paying homage to Pontiac, is backlit in an attractive and sporty red.  The ventilation controls are equally straightforward and easy to figure out.  All knobs and buttons are within the driver’s sight and can be adjusted by feel alone.  Oher automakers could learn a few ergonomic lessons here.  The red lighting theme follows through to a lit keyhole and cupholder surrounds in the console.  Nice touches!


Two four-cylinder engines are available on the Sportage; a 2.4 liter and 2.0 liter that both have 16 valves, dual overhead cams, direct injection, and variable valve timing.  It may be natural to believe that the 2.4 is the more powerful of the two, but the 2.0 liter has a turbocharger that bumps the motor’s oomph up to 260 horsepower.  Ours was powered by the naturally aspirated 2.4 liter that provides a still-decent 180 horsepower.  The 2.4 liter felt a little sluggish under hard acceleration off the line, but feels more potent around 4,000rpm and higher speeds.  In everyday use and under normal driving conditions, the Sportage’s 2.4 liter feels peppy enough on the freeway and around town.  Steep hills and onramps didn’t cause any concerns and the Sportage is a pleasant highway cruiser.


Part of this is due to a very smooth and intelligent 6-speed automatic that is on every Sportage.  There is no manual transmission offered on any trim, but that’s not a shame as the automatic is a perfect match to the engine.  There was not any gear hunting and it’s a very well sorted piece with undetectable shifts and well spaced gears.  As usual with Kia, there is a manumatic mode, but honestly, there was no need to take over the transmission’s duties as it’s so well-sorted.  Our tester was front wheel drive, but all-wheel drive is available on higher trims.


Engine noise is well controlled and the cabin is pretty hushed except while accelerating.  It’s not the quantity of the noise that’s the problem, but the quality.  The growls from under the hood sound raspy, as though the 2.4 liter has been smoking cigarettes every day since high school.  Wind, road, and tire noise is kept to a minimum at least.

Surprising for an SUV was the Sportage’s sure footedness while cornering.  It gripped the road well and felt well planted while going around curves.  There was a bit of kickback on bumps while in-mid arc, but on smooth surfaces, this small crossover can be quite fun on the twisties.


Part of that kickback could be due to the Kia’s firm ride.  It’s a four-wheel independent suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars, which would lead to the impression that it would be a carlike experience, especially being a unibody platform.  But the way the Sportage feels over road imperfections is almost truck-like and reminiscent of my rough-riding old Ford Explorer.  Every bump makes itself known and seemed uncharacteristic of a car-based CUV.


Steering is also another weak point, which seems to accompany many Korean cars.  At lower speeds and on suburban roads, the feedback is limp and the steering wheel feels completely dead on-center.  That does have an advantage while parking, providing little effort to turn the wheel.  At higher speeds on the freeway, the situation improves and the steering does tighten up, yet it has an artificial feel that belies its German influenced design.


The EPA rates the Sportage 2.4 liter at 21mpg city and 28mpg highway.  In a mixture of city and highway driving, and while doing some testing, we averaged 28mpg during the course of 600 miles.  Not bad at all considering how much we put the Sportage through its paces.


Our tester had 23k miles of rental abuse when we got it.  Mechanically, there were no issues and no noticeable creaks or rattles.  The only defect that we discovered were that some of the slats on the dashboard’s air vents had separated from their hinges.  Being hard, frail plastic, they felt pretty flimsy to begin with, and it wouldn’t take much pressure to snap them off.


The base Sportage LX, such as ours, starts at $22,150 and comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, rear privacy glass, air-conditioning, cloth upholstery, a height-adjustable driver seat, 60/40-split folding and those reclining rear seats, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, full power accessories, cruise control, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio, an auxiliary audio input jack and a USB port.  Our bright silver Sportage had absolutely no options, and once the destination charge was added, rung in at $23,045.  That’s pretty competitive with similarly equipped base variants of the Ford Escape, Mazda CX-5, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.


When it comes to the Sportage, it’s a matter of the left side your left brain vs the right.  Sure, it’s a handsome design and will probably continue to look great for years to come.  And it’s easy to live with and an enjoyable day-to-day partner. Despite the eye-catching, sophisticated looks, it’s a little short on refinement in areas, and some of its competitors do people and cargo hauling better.  Overall, the few sins that it possesses aren’t bad enough to dismiss it from your compact SUV shopping list, especially when style is a factor.  Perhaps the all-new Sportage addresses some of these concerns.  Kia has proven how much it has progressed with each new generation and there’s no doubt that the new Sportage will continue the trend.  I enjoyed our time with the Sportage and will gladly give it 3.0/5.0 boomerangs.


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