2011 Kia Sportage EX 4-cylinder Road Test Review

Russ Heaps - CAP staff
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A "SmackDown" of sorts has been raging in the hotly contested compact Crossover Utility Vehicle (CUV) arena for several years, but the redesigned 2011 Kia Sportage should send handicappers scrambling to recalculate winners and losers. Listed among its key adversaries are Honda's CR-V, Toyota's RAV4, Chevrolet's Equinox and Subaru's Forester. Mediocrity is not an option.

Arriving on dealer lots in now, the 2011 Kia Sportage is larger, more powerful, more comfortable and better looking than the two generations of Sportage that have rolled into showrooms since Kia entered the Canadian market in 1999. In the US it was launched as a 1996 model in 1995. Sportage is, in fact, Kia's longest running nameplate.

At a glance, here are a few of the myriad changes and enhancements of the 2011 Sportage over the 2010 edition: It is longer (89 mm / 3.5 inches), wider (53 mm / 2.1 inches) and lower (58 mm / 2.3 inches). It has 10 percent more cargo space behind the second-row seat. Its base four-cylinder engine has more horsepower than last year's V6, yet fuel economy is notably better. A 270-horsepower 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder replaces last year's 173-horsepower V6 as Sportage's high-end powerplant. Trim levels have reduced from five to four, being that there's no Anniversary Edition for 2011. Handling is improved thanks to a newly engineered multi-link rear suspension setup.

Sportage's mid-summer roll out will be restricted to naturally aspirated four-cylinder versions (LX and EX). The turbo-charged SX will follow in early fall.

First seen at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Kia's Kue concept provided the styling inspiration for the 2011 Sportage. You won't need to compare the 2010 and 2011 versions side by side to notice the changes; the transformation is abrupt. It is something akin to snatching a bum off the street, cleaning him up, giving him a shave and a haircut, and dressing him in a tux. His mother probably wouldn't recognize him. So it is with the new Sportage.

More sophisticated for 2011, the Sportage has, in essence, grown up. It has adopted Kia's signature smiling-face grill found on updated models like Sorento. Upswept cat's-eye headlamps reach from the grille up along the hood line into the fenders. This styling treatment conspires with the flowing lines of the lower front fascia with its integrated fog lamps to direct one's eye around the highly defined fenders to the uncluttered flanks. Sportage's profile is more teardrop-shaped than last year. Gone is the rear quarter window, reducing the C-pillar to a mere line and widening the D-pillar. This provides more glass area in the rear doors, greatly improving rear-seat visibility.

Featuring similar radical change with an unintended consequence, Sportage's rear styling has compelling curb appeal. Its lines are also more horizontal. Sacrificing some utility in maintaining design parameters, the slab window in the rear hatch has been supplanted with one not nearly as generous. The downside is that the new window design provides less visibility than did the previous one. Replacing last year's tall taillamps are wrap-around ones that are also longer and leaner.

Powering the new Sportage is a 176-horsepower 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine with Continuously Variable Valve Timing (CVVT). Remarkably smooth and quiet, this powerplant generates three more horsepower than last year's V6. In the $21,995 base LX version, engine output is funneled to the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. In the $24,295 LX Auto and the $26,995 EX, a six-speed automatic transmission with Sportmatic clutchless shifting (Kia-speak for driver-shiftable) gets power to the wheels.

In fully automatic mode, the transmission shifts smoothly and doesn't seem to have a problem finding the appropriate gear when accelerating to pass or slugging up hill. Goosing the accelerator pedal won't pin you against the seat, but Sportage is quick enough to get you out ahead of traffic when the light goes green.

All-Wheel Drive (AWD) is available on the LX and EX, and Kia says its Dynamax system doesn't just react to changing road conditions; but actually anticipates changes, making corrections before problems occur. Under normal conditions, 100 percent of engine power is transferred to the front wheels. When the system detects wheel slippage, up to 50 percent of power can be sent to the rear wheels. A locking differential can be engaged at speeds less than 40 km/h (25 mph) to keep power evenly split between the front and rear wheels.

Utilizing unibody construction and a fully independent suspension, my test EX' ride was wonderfully pliant, and handled well for a CUV. The front suspension consists of MacPherson struts and side-loaded coil springs. The multi-link rear suspension is an all-new. Stabilizer bars at each end add strength and control. LX versions come with 16-inch alloy wheels and tires, while the EX rides on 17s and EX Luxury ups the ante to 18s.

At each wheel, disc brakes monitored by an antilock system help bring Sportage to controlled stops. All trim levels also feature electronic stability control, traction control and brake assist. Other standard equipment includes Hill Start Assist that prevents the vehicle from rolling backwards when starting out on an uphill grade, and Downhill Brake Control that automatically slows the vehicle to constant speed when negotiating steep downhill grades.

Inside, Sportage is roomy and inviting. Seating five, it provides plenty of head and legroom both fore and aft. Offering more than adequate side support, the front bucket seats are firm comfortable. The 60/40 split rear seat folds flat, increasing cargo-carrying space from 739 litres (26.1 cubic feet) to 1 546 litres (54.6 cubic feet).

Also completely redesigned, the dashboard is anything but boring. It's a cacophony of swirling lines, rounded edges, dips and bulges. Large and easy to see, the centre gauge pod houses key information like vehicle and engine speeds. All controls and switches are logically placed and intuitive in their operation. Redundant controls for the six-speaker audio system with its CD player, USB port and auxiliary input jack are on the three-spoke steering wheel. Air conditioning, full power accessories, LCD trip computer, Bluetooth connectivity, SIRIUS satellite radio, cruise control, and tilt steering wheel are all included in the base price.

Building on the LX, the EX has a leather-wrapped tilt-telescoping steering wheel, automatic dual-zone climate control, power driver's seat, telescopic steering, rear parking sonar, iPod integration, and more. Also standard on EX is Kia's new UVO voice-activated communications system for hands-free operation of cell phones and music features.

Keeping the pressure on the competition, Sportage is a revealing snapshot of where Kia is heading.

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Crossover, Kia, 2011, Sportage, $20,000 - $29,999,

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