When Steve Ballmer left the CEO’s office at Microsoft, he went and spent a good chunk of the fortune he had amassed buying the Los Angeles Clippers. If instead, he had chosen to become an automotive marketing executive, I could picture him stomping around the stage at a dealer meeting in a sweat drenched shirt shouting “Utilities! Utilities! Utilities!” As consumers increasingly opt for either traditional SUVs or more modern crossover utilities, automakers are scrambling to add more nameplates. For Kia, 2016 seems like the perfect time to launch an all-new version of the oldest continuous model in its lineup, the Sportage compact crossover.
After building two generations of subcompact cars for Ford in the late-1980s and early-1990s (the Festiva and Achieva), Kia decided to set out on its own in the U.S. market and launched the brand with the compact Sephia sedan and the original Sportage utility. Let’s just say early Kias, like Hyundais of the era attracted customers through low prices rather quality, style or reliability. They weren’t Yugo bad, but they weren’t very good either.
The only nameplate that has survived Kia’s entire history in America is the Sportage and this year the fourth-generation model has arrived and it clearly represents the new Kia which is tied at the hip with Hyundai. On June 22, 2016, J.D. Power and Associates announced the results of its 2016 Initial Quality Study and for the first time in 27 years, the top brand was not a premium nameplate. The brand with the fewest reported problems in the first three months of ownership this year is Kia, coming ahead of Porsche with sister brand Hyundai in a close third. My weeklong experience with the Sportage clearly demonstrated why customers are so increasingly enamored with Kia.
The previous third-generation Sportage epitomized the design language that had been introduced by Kia design boss Peter Schreyer with the 2007 Kue concept. The prior generations of the Sportage were the antithesis of sporty but the sleek modern look of the third-generation fit perfectly with the evolution of the utility segment in the past half decade.
Like other recently redesigned Kias, the fourth-generation Sportage retains signature elements like the grille and swept back headlamps along with overall proportions while applying a new layer of sophistication to the whole body. Despite the softening of the sharp creases, the sheet-metal as a whole has more depth to the contours. The result is an air of athleticism that wouldn’t look out of place in a German brand lineup.
From outside the rising beltline and relatively short glass create the impression of an off-road rally raid machine and yet from the inside, the comparatively slim pillars provide better visibility than the thick pillars of the Ford Escape and you never feel like you’re laying in a bathtub. Compared to the 2017 Escape I drove immediately before the Sportage, the whole interior is superior in its design and layout.
Like all current Kia and Hyundai models this Sportage has a central touch screen that is nearly flush mounted rather than deeply recessed like the Ford. As with its stablemates, that screen is exceptionally readable as well with vivid colors, excellent viewing angles and no washout when viewed through polarized sunglasses. Toyota in particular would be wise to find out who supplies the displays used by Hyundai and Kia and go shopping there too.
The default screen layout on all of the current generation Korean vehicles is easy to use and responsive. As with most OEM voice recognition systems today, it does a reasonably reliable job of recognizing what you want as long as you match its limited vocabulary of commands. However, if you want more robust recognition that is much closer to natural language, you’ll need to plug in an iPhone or Android phone and use Apple Carplay or Android Auto. When you do so, the places icon on the home screen switches over to the corresponding phone interface icon and a tap will launch a more phone-like interface.
As an Android user, I’ve come to really appreciate Google’s car interface with its card-style layout similar to Google Now. The home screen displays cards with an audio player widget, recent calls, recently searched destinations and if a destination has been set, the prompt for the next turn. If you’ve recently looked for something in Google Maps on the phone, those cards appear on the home screen and a single tap will set that as your destination. At the Google I/O developer conference that took place the week before I had the Sportage, updates to Android Auto were announced that would add support for using Waze as an alternative navigation service and that should roll out later this summer.
With the improvements to the controls and electronics in this Sportage and other current Kia models, it’s no wonder the brand moved to the top of the IQS rankings this year. The SX trim level I drove was equipped with driver assist features that include blindspot monitoring, lane departure warning and automatic emergency braking.
The LX and EX trim levels get a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter direct injected four-cylinder engine while the SX gets the latest iteration of the 2.0-liter turbo found in numerous other Korean-built vehicles. In the 2017 Sportage it has been retuned to deliver 240-horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque from just 1,450 rpm. Those figures are slightly less than the refreshed 2017 Escape but overall performance with the six-speed automatic transmission feels about the same. One feature that is standard in the Escape but not available in the Sportage is automatic stop-start for the engine. Despite having to run at idle when the vehicle stopped, I still got about 1 mpg better overall with the Sportage at 23 mpg than I did in the 2.0-liter Escape.
If you’re looking for a crossover with serious off-road capability but you’re not ready to fully commit to a Jeep Wrangler, the Cherokee is probably your best bet right now. However, if you live in a region that gets socked with particularly nasty winter weather, the AWD Sportage does include a locking center differential to help make sure you get power evenly distributed to both axles. Of course if you do live in that sort of environment you should also consider replacing the all-season tires with proper winter tires to help make sure you aren’t just spinning all four corners.
Back in the mid-1990s as a young engineer I had the “opportunity” to spend time driving the first generation Sportage on the test track when the company I worked for at the time was developing the ABS system for it. Not only was that a vehicle I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, but I would actively discourage people from considering it no matter how cheap it was. Fast forward 20 years and it’s clear what a concerted effort for design, engineering and manufacturing can do for a brand.
So far in 2016, Kia has only sold about one quarter as many Sportages as the segment leaders from Ford, Honda and Toyota and that’s a shame. This is arguably the best looking entrant in the compact crossover field and while it isn’t as cheap as it once was, it still offers very good value. The front-drive Sportage LX starts at $23,885 and the loaded AWD, turbocharged SX I drove came in at $34,895 including delivery charges. Maybe if Kia hired Steve Ballmer as a pitchman, they could sell a few more of these. Or not.