2012 Kia Sportage SX: A BMW X3 for about $10k less?

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What the Japanese did to the Americans in the ’70s and ’80s – shivving them on car-for-the-dollar and thereby, snatching away their former customers – the Koreans are now doing just as mercilessly to the big-name Japanese car companies.

This time, maybe even to the Germans, too.

Case in point: The 2012 Kia Sportage.

It’s similar in general layout, features and capability to popular medium-small Japanese crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. But its base price of $18,500 is almost $3,400 less than the least expensive CR-V and almost $4,000 less than the entry-level RAV4.

But it’s not just about the money.


The Kia offers 260 turbocharged hp and sub 7 second 0-60 times – on par with (or better than) the $36k BMW X3 and $35k Audi Q5. Along with 22 city, 29 highway – vs. the wheezy CR-V’s 180 hp (max), 10 second 0-60 crawl and not-so-hot 21 city and 28 highway.

The RAV4′ optional V-6 does match the Kia’s turbo four on power, but it drinks more gas and comes with a ’90s-tech five-speed automatic vs. the Kia’s more up-to-date six-speed transmission.

Plus you get twice the warranty coverage.

Oh, the pain, the pain… . If you’re Honda or Toyota.

Maybe BMW (and Audi) too.


The Sportage is a medium-compact-sized, five-passenger sporty crossover SUV. It’s available with either front wheel drive (standard) or (optionally) all-wheel-drive. Prices start at $18,500for the base FWD model with 2.4 liter engine and six-speed manual transmission and top out at $26,900 for a turbocharged SX with all-wheel-drive.


The much-anticipated SX, which uses the same basic engine that powers the Optima sport sedan, has joined the Sportage lineup – adding a high-performance element that’s absent from rivals like the CR-V.

Base models also get firmer suspension tuning and EX and SX models now come standard with Kia’s voice-activated Uvo cell phone/Bluetooth hook-up.


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.

Much better performance/power – and higher gas mileage, too – than the much pricier, far slower and thirstier CR-V.

Much sportier-looking and feeling (even base/non-turbo versions) than the stodgy-looking and driving RAV4.

Turbo SX version has more power and delivers performance on par with higher-priced entry-luxury sport crossovers such as the $36,850 to start 2012 BMW X3 and the $35,200 Audi Q5.


Sleek design means slightly less cargo-carrying space than competitors like the more practically-shaped RAV4.

Six speed manual transmission only available in base model; higher-trim (and turbo SX) versions are automatic-only.

No manual with AWD.

Honda and Toyota both have all-new and likely much more competitive versions of their crossover SUVs in the works for early 2012.


The Sportage’s standard engine is 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, only the base model Sportage is available with the six-speed manual – while the higher-trim LX and EX models (and the new SX turbo) are automatic-only. So, to get the stick, you have to stick with the lower-trimmed model, which also means you skip AWD – which you can’t order with 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 $20,800 LX to get it.

You can choose either FWD or AWD in the higher trim LX and EX trims, but either way, you once again get the six-speed automatic only.

The new-for-2012 SX comes standard with a 260 hp 2.0 liter turbo, direct-injection engine derived from the Optima sedan (where it’s rated at 274 hp).  It comes teamed with a six-speed automatic and either FWD or AWD.

This engine matches the muscle of the current RAV4’s optional 3.5 liter V-6 (269) hp and puts many furlongs of distance between its back bumper and the poor little under-gunned CR-V, which needs more than 10 crippled-up seconds to heave itself to 60 – vs. mid-high sixes for the turbo Kia. (FWD versions are fastest.)

Even more embarrassing (for Honda): Base versions of the Sportage are still quicker to 60 (about 9.4-9.6 seconds) than all versions of the CR-V, too – because you can’t order an optional engine in the Honda.

Because there isn’t one.

Gas mileage is another Sportage strong point. Even when equipped with its optional turbo engine (and packing 80 more hp) the Sportage SX’s EPA rated mileage of 22 city, 29 highway, is actually slightly better than the 180 hp CR-V’s 21 city, 28 highway (and also the V-6 RAV4’s 19 city, 27 highway).

The Sportage’s optional AWD system is full-time and supplemented by Hill Descent Control and a locking differential – but like the other vehicles in this class, the Sportage is more a bad weather car (snow on paved roads) 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 but also (surprisingly)  500 pounds more than even the V-6 powered RAV4, which is only rated to pull 1,500 lbs, too.


The new SX turbo I tested really moved out.

If you like high flash turbo boost that comes on strong like right now  – strong enough to skitter the front tires (FWD versions) not just coming off the line but while you’re moving, too – you will dig this unit. Get the AWD if you want more modulated delivery but the same sort of forward thrust. Either way, the SX is an express.

Ride and handling-wise, the Sportage is strung pretty tightly – SX versions even more so.

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 AARP-set. For buyers looking for a bit less middle-aged spread, 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 probably find the softer settings of the RAV4 or CR-V more to their liking.

The SX notches it up with standard 18 inch wheels and more aggressive tires that sharpen up steering feel plus firmer suspension settings. The adjustable suspension that had been rumored is not – yet – on the menu.

Power delivery from the non-turbo Sportage is better than average for the segment but the big news is the hot rod SX, which knocks three seconds off the 0-60 time and is now among the quickest (and best handling) things going in this segment. In fact, if you ride shotgun with a blindfold on, you’d have a tough time telling whether you were a passenger in a ’12 Sportage SX … or a new BMW X3 or Audi Q5. All three get to 60 in about the same spread; all three are snappy handlers which can be driven with great confidence at much-higher-than-legal speeds even by average-skill drivers. But the turbo Kia’s price tag is an easy $10k less than either of the Teutonic Twins.

Buyers not obsessed with brands might want to at least do some cross-shopping.


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 front headlights on the SX have Audi-esque LED eyebrows, too.

The overall layout is very hip – and very functional, too. For example, twin 12V power points are 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 several other vehicles of this type. 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 close to what you get in the physically larger RAV4 and the boxier, more conventionally styled CR-V, despite the Kia’s aggressively sporty roofline. There is 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 probably 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 UVo GPS and similar primo car features – all of which you can order and still be out the door for around $28k.

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. – for $3-$4k less than the base CR-V or RAV4.

It comes with a much better warranty, too. Five years/60k on the whole thing; 10 years and 100k on the driveline.


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.You won;t see that kind of thing when you raise the tailgate of an X3 or Q5. The paint in every nook and cranny of those cars is as nice as the paint on the hood. 

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. They could have added another $200 to the base price and it would not have significantly changed the value equation but would have really upticked the Wow Factor.

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, eventually, it will.

Otherwise, touchdown. I really liked this thing and if I were buying a medium-small sport crossover,  a Sportage (especially the new SX turbo) would be high on my shopping list.


The Sportage has very few flaws, none of them functionally significant – and just one significant compromise (cargo space) that may not even be an issue for you. It has many sterling attributes 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.

At least, until the 2012 Hondas and Toyotas get here!

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. I concur Eric, great little rig.

    If the AWD had been available with the base four and manual tranny, and had the seats laid flat for cargo, this rig would already be in my livery.

  2. When we were shopping for a small SUV (2004) we also looked at Kia and Hyundai. Both were extending 10 year warranties to customers in the US of A, but only 5 years to Canadian buyers. That turned us off completely and we purchased another make. And not only that, Americans enjoyed much lower prices together with the special double digit warranty!


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