The 2011 Kia Sportage is the ritziest Sportage sport utility vehicle ever, and yet it only comes with a four-cylinder engine.
It's not as odd as it sounds. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder can generate as much horsepower as last year's Sportage V-6 and makes the SUV feel comfortably powered while earning higher fuel economy ratings from the federal government.
Meantime, the 2011 Sportage's sleek new exterior and new features, such as panorama glass roof and Microsoft in-vehicle communication and entertainment system, give Kia's least expensive SUV a pleasantly modern atmosphere. Best of all, the new Sportage includes surprising items that aren't standard in many competitive models. For example, even the base Sportage has standard Bluetooth wireless connectivity, satellite radio that has three free months of service, and steering wheel-mounted controls for audio and Bluetooth.
Another bonus: Like all Kias, the Sportage comes standard with lots of safety equipment, such as curtain air bags, electronic stability control, antilock brakes, traction control and even hill-start assist to help drivers easily get the vehicle moving after stopping on an upgrade.
With all the changes, retail prices for this new Sportage are up some $1,300 from 2010 models. But the Sportage remains competitive among compact crossover SUVs. The front-wheel drive, 2011 Sportage has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $18,990 with manual transmission and 176-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder. With automatic transmission, the lowest-priced 2011 Sportage starts at $20,990 and the lowest-priced Sportage with all-wheel drive has a starting retail price of $22,490.
In comparison, the 2010 Nissan Rogue, another small, four-cylinder-powered crossover SUV, has a starting retail price of $21,260 with automatic transmission, 170 horsepower and two-wheel drive. Another competitor, the 2010 Honda CR-V, starts at $22,325 with automatic transmission, 180 horsepower four cylinder and two-wheel drive.
The new Sportage uses the same platform that's in the 2010 Hyundai Tucson. Hyundai's automotive group based in South Korea owns both Hyundai and Kia. But the Tucson and Sportage look nothing like each other, and the 2011 Tucson has a higher starting retail price of $19,540 with manual transmission and two-wheel drive.
Truth is, the Sportage doesn't look like a Sportage anymore, either. The boxy shape is gone, replaced by a flowing roof line and styling that's more urban than outdoorsy. The size is a bit larger than the 2010 Sportage as dimensions here and there are tweaked, contributing to a roomier feel inside.
For example, the new Sportage is 2.1 inches wider than its predecessor and 3.5 inches longer from bumper to bumper. But in height, the new Sportage is 2.3 inches shorter, which helps explain why the back window provides a condensed view out back for the driver.
The 2.4-liter, double-overhead-cam four-cylinder in the test vehicle worked well to get the more than 3,100-pound Sportage moving quickly down city roads and flat highways. Torque peaks at 168 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm, and there was some noisiness during passing maneuvers on slight uphill grades, but the SUV still performed well overall.
I suspect some drivers and passengers might forget only a four-banger is under the hood, because the power is well-managed and the engine doesn't sound buzzy.
The most popular transmission will be the six-speed automatic, which worked smoothly in the test Sportage. But a six-speed manual is available on the base vehicle.
I only got 18 miles per gallon in combined city/highway fuel mileage on my first drive, not the 23 mpg rating that the government gives he all-wheel drive Sportage. The 18 mpg, by the way, was the fuel economy rating for last year's Sportage.
Later driving was better, however, when it returned 20 mpg in combined city/highway travel, and I didn't really try hard to maximize mileage.
For the record, the new Sportage is rated at 21 mpg in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway. This compares with 21/26 mpg for Nissan's Rogue with all-wheel drive and 21/27 mpg for an all-wheel drive Honda CR-V.
There was a good amount of road noise that came through to the interior of the SUV, and it can be fatiguing. Passengers felt vibrations quite often as the Sportage traveled over road bumps and uneven pavement. The front independent suspension uses MacPherson struts, while the back has new independent multi-link design that helps maximize cargo space.
Steering was comfortable, and while I could feel some body lean in curves and turns, body motions overall were nicely managed.
Although the tester was a top-of-the-line model topping out at near $30,000, with leather-covered seats, panorama roof, rear-view camera and other add-ons, the basic package of the Kia at a lower price still can convey a quality ride and be impressive.
Heated and cooled front seats are offered for the first time and worked fast in the test Sportage EX. But only the driver gets seat height adjustment.
In the back seat, I had to lift myself just a bit to get inside. Large side windows provided good views out. When getting out, I reached the pavement with my tiptoes.
Be aware that the rear lift gate handle is low and right atop the back bumper. Rear seat backs don't go down full flat, and cargo space tops out at 54.6 cubic feet, which is less than the 57.9 cubic feet in the Rogue.
Microsoft's UVO -- which stands for "your voice" -- includes voice recognition so you can talk to the Sportage to get it dial the phone and change music. UVO isn't available until later in the model year.