First Drive: Kia Sportage Turbo Makes A Convincing Premium Play

The 2017 Kia Sportage wins my award for most surprising attention-grabber – and that’s high praise for something aimed at the heart of today’s American car market.

It manages to do it in a rather conservative class of car, the compact SUV market that’s become the new staple for Americans over the last few years. The best new compact SUVs act like midsize sedans most of the time, providing space for some combination of adults and kids and their belongings with little compromise.

And like many of its recent offerings, Kia brings a healthy dose of style to its entry in the segment, which is one of the easiest things it can do to separate itself in a crowded field. Fortunately for the Sportage, the style is backed up with a lot of substance, too.

Nose noise

Stare first at its front and the Sportage splits opinion right away. That’s a good thing in my book, whether you like the stubby “tiger nose” or not.

Move to the side and the rear, however, and things are far less controversial if you skip the Burnished Copper paint. Nice 19-inch wheels come on this top SX model, but all Sportages get nice wheels now. The lack of a quarter window out back doesn’t impede vision as much as it could, although a backup camera and parking sensors help out. The overall shape is similar to other compact SUVs, but Kia at least sweated some details to make it look different and detailed and the Sportage is better for it, even if it’s a little controversial.

In fact, I thought the Sportage was the most distinctive-looking SUV on the market at the moment until someone suggested a resemblance to the Porsche Macan at the back. Then I couldn’t unsee it.

I guess there are worse things to copy.

Plenty to touch softly

Perhaps the Porsche comparison is timely now because Kia recently bested the German luxury brand in this year’s J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey.

Mainstream-branded cars getting sexy exterior makeovers has been common in recent years, but things have tended to go awry inside, where the low prices mean low-grade interiors. Things like heated and cooled front seats and a powered shade for the enormous glass roof impress in this class – and all standard on this SX.

Kia has finally mastered the art of balancing the soft-touch materials where they matter and cutting corners where we’re less likely to notice. The dash top has a convincing stitching to it, the upper door panels and armrests are sufficiently padded for bony elbows. The A-pillars aren’t swathed in a nicely woven textile, but the plastic is designed in such a way that it looks like they are. But how often were you going to grope those? The Sportage is nice where it counts.

It’s also so simple to use the corporate Hyundai-Kia touchscreen radio and the secondary buttons below. Pretty much every command is straightforward and the screen has one of the most immediate responses out there, to minimize the amount of time you’re screaming at it.

The only significant gripe I had inside the Sportage concerned the cargo area. It’s a decent size and shape, with rear seats that split 60/40 and go down flat. But the floor is so flat and shapeless that your two grocery bags spill over before you leave the parking lot. A cargo organizer or at least some nets or hooks to hold stuff in place would be better than having to climb into the back to get a loose apple.
Or stop buying fruit. Your call.

Ready to pounce

Most Sportages will get the 2.4-liter four with 181 horsepower that will be as adventurous as oatmeal with raisins. The engine that better matches the Sportage’s looks, however, is the 2.0-liter turbo four, with 245 horsepower.

The turbo is interesting in its old-school nature. There’s a throbbing you can feel through the pedals and wheel at idle, and then a good amount of lag from a full stop. But pulls pretty hard once the turbo gets in the game. You won’t mistake it for a V6, but the power is comparable.

Better still, there’s just enough engine noise in the otherwise quiet cabin. It feels solid unlike its most of its rivals. Kia seems to have channeled an Audi Q5 or Range Rover Evoque rather than a Mazda CX-5, and the planted feel inspires you to play with it in corners. Too bad the steering and tires aren’t up to that, but at least the suspension is willing to give it a try.

Unlike its mechanical relative, the Hyundai Tucson, the Sportage sticks with a typical 6-speed automatic rather than the Hyundai’s 7-speed dual-clutch auto, and it’s mostly better for it. The transmission wants to be in the higher gears a lot, but it’s pretty prompt to shift down when your right foot asks for it.

The obvious downside, however, is a dismal fuel economy figures of 20 city, 23 highway. Ditch the optional all-wheel drive and the 23 mpg combined rating isn’t much better than the 21 with the system. I managed to average around that, but V6-equipped three-row crossovers I’ve driven recently have matched or bettered that.

Combine the interior quality and driving experience, and the Sportage SX feels like a premium product more than a mainstream-branded one.


Going farther

As far as compact crossovers go, the Sportage SX is a good way to spend $35,000 on one. Aside from the pathetic fuel economy, it doesn’t do anything badly. I wish the fuel economy were better and the steering ever so slightly sharper, but it’s better than most here.

Importantly, it does more than is expected of it when compared to its mainstream rivals. No similarly priced Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 feels this substantial. The Tucson and Mazda CX-5 aren’t as powerful and a Ford Escape is more expensive still.

More than a decent drive, a useful box and a polished interior, the Sportage SX makes you question for a minute or two why someone would make the $10-15,000 jump to a premium-branded compact SUV. Sure, it says “KIA” on the front and back, but you’d have to be a real badge snob to let that bother you these days – especially coming out of a Toyota or Ford, for example.

And even if it doesn’t drive like a Porsche Macan, your friends will at least have a positive inflection when they look at the front and ask, “What is that?”

Photos Zac Estrada/

Photo Gallery

  • Grumpy

    So SX 2.0 turbo or a base NX?

    • Kash

      $4k more and you’re in the NX F sport AWD with better mpg.

      • Grumpy

        4k is a lot for most people. But you are right. Point here was that ever since Toyota dropped the v6 on the rav4, the nx has filled that gap.

        • Kash

          You’re completely right.

  • chippers

    If you’ve decided to buy a small crossover you obviously don’t care about the driving experience so why waste money on the turbo?


  • pcurve

    I appreciate the undoctored slightly ghetto interior shots. Sometimes interior shots make interior look nicer than they actually are, so this type of brutally honest pix are great.

    • BlackPegasus

      haha! I had to revisit the gallery after reading your comment. While the exterior photos were very nice the interior shots were in fact “ghetto.” 😆

  • Obsequious Lickspittle

    That’s a button-heavy centre console for the iPhone generation.

  • BlackPegasus

    Wow I thought this was the little Porsche from the home page. Nice looking vehicle.

  • thunder bolt

    $35k, that’s a lot of money. I’ll buy it when it’s 4 yrs old, and costs around 12k or below.

  • UZ

    To me, it’s the high position of the front lights that makes it look more like a Porsche. Interior wise, it still appears very cheap, but I guess we all have different standards. It also doesn’t appear to have the best ergonomics (with all those buttons low down, requiring you to take your eyes off the road to find the right one). Packed with features it may be (quantity), but it lacks in being better than others all round (quality).

  • dumblikeyou2

    I’m not a badge snob, but I still wouldn’t be caught dead in a KIA. Dead.

    • Polyester Poontang

      Love to see you in KIA.

      • kek

        I’d love to see you KIA.

      • dumblikeyou2

        Plastic Pussy

      • dumblikeyou2

        Ah, Plastic Pussy, long time no spew? How’s the vinyl snickare snatch doin?

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