Karma can be a mean bitch.
What the Japanese did to the Americans in the ’70s and ’80s – shivving them on price and snatching away their former customers – the Koreans are now doing to the Japanese.
Latest example, the 2011 Kia Sportage. It’s very similar in looks and layout, features and capability, to medium-small Japanese crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
But it costs (hold onto your lunch bucket) $3,630 less to start than the RAV4 and $3,400 less than the CR-V.
Oh yeah. It also gets better gas mileage. And gives you twice the big-ticket (powertrain) warranty coverage.
As Dr. Smith on Lost in Space used to say, “Oh, the pain. The pain… ”
WHAT IT IS
The Sportage is a medium-compact-sized, five-passenger crossover SUV. It’s available with either front wheel drive (standard) or (optionally) all-wheel-drive. Prices start at $18,295 for the base FWD model with 2.4 liter engine and six-speed manual transmission and top out at $23,295 for an AWD/automatic version.
By early summer, a sport-themed SX version will be available. It will feature the same basic 2.0 liter turbocharged engine used in the new Optima sedan, where it is rated at 274 hp. The sticker price for this model should be around $26k.
The 2011 Sportage is all-new.
You could buy yourself a decent used Corolla for a back-up car with the money you saved vs. buying a CR-V or RAV4.
Available six-speed manual transmission (a rare feature in this segment).
When the turbo’d SX version comes out, it will be a game changer. Watch out, BMW X3.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Standard (non-turbo) engine could use some more power.
Sleek design results in slightly less cargo-carrying space.
Six speed manual only available in base model; higher-trim versions are automatic-only.
UNDER THE HOOD
At first, the Sportage will have just one engine – a 2.4 liter four rated at 176 hp. This is a virtual dead heat, output-wise, with the engines powering the Honda CR-V (2.4 liters, 180 hp) and Toyota RAV4 (2.5 liters, 179 hp) but one very big difference is that the Kia’s engine can be paired with a six-speed manual transmission, while both the CR-V and RAV4 are automatic only.
Unfortunately, the base model Sportage is only available with the six-speed manual – while the higher-trim LX and EX models are automatic-only. So, to get the stick, you have to stick with the lower-trimmed model and also skip AWD – which you can’t order on the base model. And if you want the automatic, you can’t just add it as a stand-alone option to the base Sportage. You have to move up to the $20,295 LX to get it.
You can choose either FWD or AWD in the higher trim LX and top-of-the-linew2 EX, but either way, you get the six-speed automatic.
Hopefully, when Kia launches the sport-themed SX later in the year it will be available with a manual transmission. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be. Odds are Kia will pair the 2.0 liter turbo engine from the Optima with both AWD and the six-speed automatic.
But maybe not.
The AWD system is supplemented by Hill Descent Control and a locking differential, but this is more a bad weather car than an off-road car.
Max tow capacity is 2,000 lbs. – better than the Honda CR-V’s weak 1,500 lb. maximum rating (ditto the four-cylinder RAV4, which also maxes out at 1,500 lbs.)
ON THE ROAD
The Sportage is strung pretty tightly. It has a noticeably firmer ride than either the CR-V or the RAV4 and the upside to this a lot less body lean when you tackle curves at a faster pace than the lowing masses. For buyers looking for a bit less middle-aged spread and a bit more youthful spring to its step, this will be just the ticket. Those who find it over-firm will probably not be interested much in cornering at faster-than-the-speed-limit shenanigans anyhow – and will find the softer settings of the RAV and CR-V more to their liking. Reportedly, an adjustable suspension system will debut with the pending SX turbo – and this may become available as an option on non-turbo Sportages, too. That would be even more the ticket, since you could dial in firmer settings when you wanted, but dial them back out again when you don’t.
Acceleration is mediocre.
It takes about 9.5-9.7 seconds to get to 60. Given a curb weight of 3,157 lbs. (empty) this is about what you’d expect. It’s also slightly quicker than the even heavier (3,386 lb.) CR-V, which takes about 10 seconds to do the deed. A RAV4 with its optional 269 hp V-6 will smoke them both – for now. The V-6 RAV4 is one of the most powerful and quickest – maybe the quickest – in a straight line compact crossover in the low-mid $20ks on the road, with a 0-60 time in the low 7 second range. But it’s going to face a fair fight in a couple of months, when Kia launches the turbocharged SX version of the Sportage. In the 2011 Optima, which weighs about the same as an AWD Sportage at 3,206 lbs., the 2.0 liter engine gets the car to 60 in about 6.5 seconds. The Sportage SX with the same 270 or so hp should be able to cream the RAV4 V-6 by half a second or more.
And in the Optima, the turbo 2.0 liter engine still returns an incredible 34 MPGs highway, too – vs. 27 highway for the V-6 RAV4.
AT THE CURB
The Sportage’s swoopy, swept-back shell is quite a contrast to the boxy small SUV-ish conservatism of the RAV4 and CR-V. The clamshell-style hood folds over the front fenders; the roof seems to be tapering backward, an effect achieved by making the side glass shorter as you move from the A pillar windshield to the rear of the car. Inside, there’s a tray-like console for the AC and heater controls that might have been inspired by the LCD touch-screen look of the bridge on Star Trek The Next Generation. The overall layout is very hip – and functional, too. For example, twin 12V power points right there where it’s easy to reach them at the front of the center console, ahead of the shifter – not buried in the storage compartment behind the shifter (or in the glovebox) as in many other cars. In between the power points is the USB plug-in for your iPod. Nice. And standard equipment, even on the base $18k version.
What’s really surprising is that passenger space in the Kia is very close to what you get in the physically larger RAV4 and the boxier, more conventionnally styled CR-V, despite the KIa’s aggressive roofline. There’s about an inch less headroom up front (39.1 inches vs. 40.9 in the Honda and 40.8 in the Toyota) but the front seat legroom is almost exactly the same (41.4 inches vs. 41.3 in the CR-V and 41.8 in the RAV4). Rear seat headroom is a little tight at 38.5 inches (the RAV leads here, with 39.7 inches with the CR-V coming in at 38.6 inches) but unless you’re well over six feet tall, you are not going to have a problem. I’m 6ft 3 and my head just barely brushes the headliner; I wouldn’t want to ride back there for hours – but an hour or so would be ok. People six feet tall or less will be fine.
But there is one area where the Kia comes up short: Cargo capacity. With the second row down, you’ve got 54.6 cubic feet to work with vs. 72.9 in the CR-V and 73 even in the RAV4. With the second row in place, the Kia has 21.6 cubic feet of space; the CR-V 35.7 cubic feet and the RAV4 36.4 cubic feet.
But this may not matter to you; it depends on your needs.
Meanwhile, you may need things like a refrigerated glovebox (EX models), twin panel panorama sunroof, multi-stage seat heaters and coolers, voice-activated GPS and similar primo car features – all of which you can order and still be well under the $30k mark.
And the as-it-sits $18k model includes Bluetooth wireless, six-speaker stereo with Sirius-XM and MP3 interface, with secondary controls on the steering wheel – as well as power windows, locks, cruise, etc.
It’s also about $3,500 less than the equivalent CR-V or RAV4.
With a much better warranty, too.
Two small gripes.
First, Kia apparently decided it was worth saving probably a buck or two per car during manufacture to not cleat-coat the jamb area at the rear cargo door that you don’t see until you open the liftgate. But when you do open it, the paint in the jamb area looks chalky and dull (that’s how base-clear paint looks when it’s not clear-coated). It’s a very small detail and it doesn’t affect the functionality of the vehicle – but it’s exactly the kind of small detail that separates a high-end car from a not-high-end car. Kia is shooting for the moon – and mostly, getting there. It’s a shame they neglected such a small, easy to do thing – in order to save a tiny sum on per-car manufacturing costs.
Second, the rear gate opening handle is way low, mounted under the bottom lip of the one-piece, lift-up rear door – which can be awkward if you’re tall or carrying something in one hand. Stylistically, the seamless one-piece look is great; I understand why the designers didn’t want to interrupt the flow by placing a handle right in the middle of this. But functionally, it’s not the best idea – and because the opener itself is keyless/electronic, if (when) the electronic mechanism ever stops working you may face having to choose between an expensive repair or leaving the rear gate perpetually closed – since you won’t be able to manually unock/open it with a physical key. To be fair, Kia is far from alone in this respect. Many new cars either come standard with or offer some form of keylesss entry, which is nifty until it stops working. Which it will.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Sportage has very few flaws, just one significant compromise (cargo space) that may not even be an issue for you – and many things to recommend it, including a massive price break compared to what a similar (but less interesting to drive and look at) vehicle would cost you at the Honda or Toyota dealer.
And when that turbo’d SX version shows up in a few months, watch out!