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2011 Kia Sportage EX

Kia Delivers a Stress Free Way to Dash Through the Snow.

      It was a blustery cold and snowy afternoon when I took delivery of the latest Kia crossover, the Sportage. Beneath the snow this 5-door crossover looked far different from the Sportage Kia introduced to the US market in 1995. That vehicle was offered as a 5-door SUV or 3-door ½ roof convertible similar to a Suzuki Samarai/Sidekick or an Isuzu Amigo. The days of a genuine rock-crawling, wind in your hair, 4-cylinder SUV are all but gone; replaced by bulbous vehicles designed with an emphasis on handling and cargo carrying abilities while neglecting outward visibility or even tasteful styling. The 2011 Sportage is no exception to the trend. In fact, it takes the small crossover category farther from its SUV ancestry than any other competitor. The original Sportage was a two-box design with a long hood and short overhangs. For 2011, the Sportage has a relatively short hood and eliminates the side windows in the cargo area giving the impression of a VW Golf that has morphed from mild mannered Dr. Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk. Thankfully, for 2011 Kia has finally managed to develop a family resemblance amongst its entire line up – Sportage included – with the implementation of a barbell shaped opening in the grille complete with floating Kia badge.
      As skeptical as I have been towards the small crossover segment, my confession is that having access to a vehicle with all-wheel-drive and a locking differential was a genuine plus as the snow relentlessly fell on metro Detroit roadways. The morning’s commute proved that Michigan’s current economic status had left even the most traveled highways largely unplowed and unsalted. The Sportage remained relatively surefooted as we cautiously ventured to the office. Pushing a button to the left of the wheel engaged the locking differential for the completely unplowed side streets. There was no need to cancel the function when reaching clear pavement–there was none in the 42 mile journey. The vehicle proved to be cut out for such inclement weather as the traction control engaged sparingly during the morning crawl.
      Unfortunately, the final 20 miles of that commute was pure gridlock with two semi-trucks blocking the center lane for lack of traction on a mild hill. Fortunately, the Sportage’s interior is a comfortable place to spend idle time. While one couldn’t describe the interior as upscale, the look is attractively modern and the fit and finish without fault. Shortcomings are limited to a plastic piece across the center of the dash that looks like it might scuff easily since it features very little grain and a steering wheel that felt nearly as cheap as the one we complained about in the much costlier Toyota Venza. We aren’t sure that we believe Kia’s claim that this wheel is leather wrapped. Perhaps they meant leather-like. A heated and cooled driver’s seat prevented the onset of fatigue allowing us to miraculously arrive at work rested rather than exhausted after our three hour trek.
      Day two with the Sportage had us in a second day of gridlock on (inexplicably) still snow covered roads. Fortunately, a quick zoom in on the navigation’s touch screen had us slowly zig-zagging off the beaten path through subdivisions and side streets. Of course, the navigation system didn’t tell us which roads had been plowed and which roads had steep and slippery hills. No matter, with the differential locked and the LED headlights piercing the night we ventured without pause through roads with deep ruts in the snow.
      The Sportage managed to remain quiet at speed. Its 176 hp 2.4L 4-cylinder proved adequate to propel the vehicle to rarely encountered highway speeds. The transmission shifts were ultra smooth and the all-wheel-drive performed seamlessly. Kia has truly built a quality vehicle, from the powertrain to the interior. Unfortunately, all the idling we did in traffic initially tanked our fuel mileage to 13 mpg on the first day of driving, but we managed to achieve nearly 24 mpg on a 70-mile stretch of open and wet highway. We expect that number would improve under normal conditions as the EPA 21/28 rating suggests.
      Unfortunately, there is little we can comment on regarding the sporting nature of the Sportage since we had little opportunity to push its limits on dry pavement. But is that really what the Sportage is about? The compact crossover market is targeted at buyers who get sweaty palms just thinking about driving in the type of weather we encountered with the Sportage. Never mind that few will endure this type of nasty weather more than a dozen times a year.  If crisp handling and direct steering feel were high on the general public’s driving priorities list crossovers wouldn’t exist at all and we would see families carted around in A4 Avants and CTS sport wagons.  For the as-tested price of $29,990 (destination included) Kia has managed to keep this vehicle relatively accessible when compared to the under-contented $36,385 Toyota Venza we had about the same time, but far more expensive than the almost fun-to-drive Mazda CX-7 FWD at $21,700. However, the Mazda’s cheapest AWD version starts at $27,955 without its $1,200 navigation system or $655 back up camera (both included in the $1500 Navigation/audio package on the Kia). Add in a $795 destination fee and the Mazda ends up surpassing the $30k mark. So for those who normally think about calling in sick when they see a blanket of snow covering the driveway, perhaps the newest Sportage is just the vehicle to make that drive seem less like a white knuckle experience and more like that ever elusive winter sleigh ride.

The Good:
All weather tractability, comfortable interior, pleasant powertrain, one of the quietest 4-cylinders we can remember.
The Bad:
Outward visibility necessitates the optional back-up camera, Incredible Hulk styling.
The Verdict:
Kia delivers a mainstream stress-relieving all-weather crossover with surprising value.

Photos by Jason Muxlow

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