2011 Kia Sportage EX review: It deserves ‘truck of the year’

2011 Kia Sportage EX

2011 Kia Sportage EX

We’re wary of “car of the year” awards because in they tend to be somewhat artificial and are decided by self-appointed juries, but it’s still impressive that the 2011 Kia Sportage was even considered for the International Truck of the Year, much less win it, as it did this year.

Even if we’re skeptics—though that’s what we do—we can’t fault the truck of the year jury for its choice. The all-new 2011 Kia Sportage is certainly world class, related only by name and history to the funky little 1993 Kia Sportage, the first model with that name. In fact, the only the name–not even the concept–remains from that early soft-core SUV to today’s Sportage.

The new 2011 Kia Sportage is a compact crossover sport utility, a genre that has all but replaced the compact SUV, of which perhaps only the Suzuki Grand Vitara remains. The Sportage shares its platform and drive train with is corporate cousin, the Hyundai Tucson, although from there the vehicles go their separate ways.

2011 Kia Sportage engine

The 2011 Kia Sportage 2.4-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine is also used in other Kia and Hyundai vehicles. (click to enlarge)

Speaking of powertrain, the 2011 Kia Sportage dumps not only last year’s 2.0-liter inline four and 2.7-liter V6 in favor of a 2.4-liter inline-four with better fuel economy than the six. The four loses nothing in transition, however. With continuously variable valve timing, the new four produces 176 horsepower with better fuel mileage–22/31 mpg city/highway–than  last year’s six-equipped Sportage, whose power output peaked at 173 hp but fell several mpg  short of the new Sportage.

As previously, the 2011 Kia Sportage is available with either front or all-wheel drive. The Sportage uses the new six-speed automatic transmission manufactured by Hyundai.

The Sportage’s  all-wheel drive system isn’t reactive to wheel slip but “anticipates” a possible loss of traction based on throttle position and such,  and  changes to all-wheel drive from its nominal 100 percent front-wheel driven configuration. A “Lock Mode” allows the all-wheel drive Sportage to split torque 50-50 front-to-rear at speeds up to 25 miles per hour, locking the center differential for less wheel slip in super low traction conditions.

2011 Kia Sportage EX interior

The interior is the 2011 Kia Sportage EX is fresh , with high quality materials used throughout. (click to enlarge)

The new platform for the 2011 Kia Sportage includes new suspension under a lower, longer and wider body. Kia has retuned the front MacPherson strut suspension and uses an all-new multi-link rear suspension for improved handling and ride. A new bodyshell design uses more high strength steel and a rear subframe helps isolate the body from road noise.

The 2012 Kia Sportage fully goes over to the CUV side with design that abandons boxy completely. The A-pillars have more rake and the roofline tapers to the rear with stylishly thick C-pillars, abandoning the D-pillar altogether. The headlamp clusters sweep back from the Kia tabbed grille halfway up the fenders to the windshield. The upper edge of the windshield matches the grille with a slight “tab” of its own.

Standard wheels on the Kia Sportage are sixteen inchers, the same used on the mid-level LX trim. Our test 2012 Kia Sportage EX was equipped with 18-inch wheels  with glossy spokes extending to the wheel rim, making the wheels look even larger. The EX also comes equipped with leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, dual-zone temperature with ionized filtration, cooled glove box and a power driver’s seat.

2011 Kia Sportage EX instrument panel

The 2011 Kia Sportage EX instrument panel is legible and well laid out. (click to enalrge)

All Kia models come with extensive electronics and audio, including AM/FM/CD/MP3/aux/USB/Sirius satellite radio and Bluetooth capability. Kia’s UVO, developed with Microsoft, is standard in EX models. Among other things, UVO allows driver and passengers to send and receive telephone calls, receive and respond to text messaging and “access music from a variety of media sources and create custom music experiences.”

The 2012 Kia Sportage EX we tested was fairly topped out equipment-wise, including navigation with Sirius traffic, backup camera, rear sonar, heated leather seating, a panoramic sunroof and more. The sunroof is actually two panes, only the first opening by lifting upwards and sliding backwards. It’s hard to tell, at least from the outside, when the sunroof is open, however, as it doesn’t rise higher than the roof rails that are standard on the EX.

Kia has long been known, though, for lots of stuff at a low price but that came with equally low quality. That’s changed. We’ve seen it in the Kia Optima, for example, and now the Kia Sportage. While the dash and other interior pieces aren’t bunge soft, the plastic isn’t the brittle-feeling stuff recently banished in Chrysler products. In some places, the Kia’s plastic it feels like it should be thicker. Overly close inspection, too, shows mold lines in the plastic, though the quality of the interior is reflected in just how picky one must be to find any fault.

The door and center arm rests are elbow-pleasing soft, however, and the center console well laid out. The cup holders, for example, don’t have a cover but they are well spaced, with room for two Bladder Buster convenience store soft drink cups.  The design of the Sportage’s dash resembles the Kia grille. It’s distinctive without being bizarre.