This ain’t the old person’s Kia anymore: This Sportage is new, it’s advanced, and it works…

This is the journal entry for day 7 and the final review of the 2011 Kia Sportage that I had in my possession (you can catch up on the previous journals here: Day 1, Days 2 &3, Days 4 & 5, Day 6). Sounds a little like I stole it… And to be honest, I wouldn’t mind having it. It wasn’t bad at all. But with giving a car back comes my painstaking review. So damn your eyes for a little while and concentrate on why Kia is becoming a brand you really need to take another look at. I say, look out Japanese car companies, Kia’s got your number and they’re only 3-5 years away from doing some serious damage to your sales.

Some people have bought Hyundai and Kia products in the past only to love and enjoy them in the future. And, congratulations to them. But for me, buying a Hyundai before the 2010 model year was akin to rubbing the lotion on your skin while the creepy man watched, just so you wouldn’t get the hose again. Kia was the hose.

The crazy thing is, Kia sold decently in the past, but they had no style; no class; nothing that made you want to buy them. Okay, so the Optima wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t great. The Rondo… Right, moving on. The Sedona was a good alternative to the pricier minivans, but a Rio was about as useful as a mouse trap. And that’s what it became once you purchased it. The Amanti was such a cheap, wannabe Mercedes that even Lexus cringed. The Sportage and Sorento of old, well, they were nice for a certain purpose. That purpose? Sitting on the lots unsold.

But enough of my personal distaste for older Kias and Hyundais and on to important truths.

Since having the Sportage, I’ve learned quite a few things about Kia, but also about what I like when driving cars like the Sportage. I’ve always known that the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V were never my flavor. They just don’t fit who I am. And if they’re for you, then more power to ya, just please don’t complain because I don’t like them.

Here’s the kicker with the Sportage: even though the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 are smaller in appearance and feel than the Kia, they have more interior cargo space, and the RAV4 can be optioned with a third row. Prices are about the same between all three vehicles. But what’s weird, and something I just can’t understand is that on the inside, the old Sportage is bigger than the new Sportage! Interior volume is down 3.9 cu. ft. from 2010 to 2011. Weird. Cargo volume is up by 2.5 cubic feet to 26.1 with the seats up. But with the seats down, the 2011 Sportage loses  12 cu. ft. of volume… How does that even happen? Moving on, though.

With that said, by far the most important thing I took away from having the new Sportage was that it’s not for the customer it once was. Driving past the Honda and Toyota competitors made me realize that it’s not actually competing against them anymore. It’s kind of like comparing radio to television. Sure, radio is far more versatile and you can take it with you much more easily, but T.V. is still way more interesting. You can see the colors, watch what’s happening, read into the story of a movie, etc. With radio, it’s only working your ears and your mind, while a movie or show is making your eyes, ears and brain work all at the same time.

Am I saying that the Kia Sportage is better because it’s like television? Why yes, yes I am. With the Sportage, it’s classy; it’s fun; it’s entertaining; most of all, though, it’s interesting. It actually makes you go nuts once you realize it’s a Kia. And as a former Kia salesman, I know and agree with every old-school stigma and bad relation. They weren’t great cars, at all. Not interesting on any level.

The new 2011 Kia Sportage was designed by Peter Schreyer, former designer for Audi who came over to Kia in 2006. Before he turned Kia’s dying vision around to one with an athlete’s pulse, he was responsible for designs on the original Audi TT, A3, Volkswagen’s new Beetle, Eos, among other products. Between he and Tom Kearns, the head of design for Kia NA, they’ve changed a brand that should have been killed off years ago. That is, if they had been run by Chrysler or GM. Or if they were owned by Ford, they’d have been sold to a Chinese firm, or Middle – Eastern investors. Instead, they’re owned by Hyundai. And although Kia was once the bastard child of the Hyundai brand, they’re now the most inspiring in terms of creative design language. The LED lights on the Sportage are brilliant looking and are very functional, providing 30 seconds of lighting when you lock or unlock your vehicle.

The model I had was the 2011 Kia Sportage EX AWD, fully loaded with nav, iPod adapter, leather, etc. and when you have the new Sportage in your driveway, you find it very easy to get into the car and just go, as mine had push button start. So no need to fumble for your keys to unlock the vehicle, as you can lock and unlock by hitting a little button the door handles on the driver or passenger side to do that. Power came from a 2.4-liter inline-4 making 170-hp and 163 lb-ft of torque; almost as much as the outgoing V6. But it still needs more power and less torque steer.

But this is all half the story of the new Kia Sportage. Is it great? No. It’s quite good, but it does need some work.

While the front-end looks great, the side of the car starts getting a little bleh as you walk alongside it. It still looks good, but once you get to the C pillar, you start asking, “What happened here?” As you can see, there’s no window looking out from that way, so there’s a bit of a blind spot. However, realistically, a window wouldn’t aid that blind spot anyway. The back-end freshens up a bit as you see it from different angles, and the long rear-hatch door, where the latch is down by the license plate.

As for the interior, it’s clean and comfortable. I just wish the driver’s seat had a bit more bolstering, like the Sorento’s. Weirdly, though, the Sportage has a heated and cooled driver’s seat, but only heated passenger, while the 2010-2011 Sorento (the bigger brother) only has heated front seats. Once inside the car, though, you’re greeted with nice materials that are easy on the fingers. The weird plastics of the old Sportage are, thankfully, no more. The dash dials and buttons are easy to read, reach and press. You don’t really need to fumble around much, as the buttons you’ll need most of the time for the radio, cruise control and Bluetooth are right on the steering wheel in a way so there’s no interference to one another.

The navigation system is clean and easy to use. I had no real issues or problems with the nav system each time I used it. And my favorite part was, you could find pretty much any place, anywhere. You can also easily mute the nav lady with the quick push of a button so she won’t interfere with your music until you actually need her. It’s all laid out very simply, and it’s easily in my top 3 of best systems to use without fail. To go along with the navigation screen and interface, there is a very simple and easy to use iPod adapter. But while it may be just a nice way to hear your favorite music, it’s also better in this car than in many others that I’ve tested. It works quickly and seamlessly, but can trip you up from time to time when looking for the right buttons to hit.

How could you have all of this technology without a good sound system, right? Well, sorry, but the Sportage is lacking in that department. Technology inside the car is good, but when you try to hear it, it’s not so great. Messing with the treble, mids and bass don’t really help much. They’ll make it sound better at low volumes, but as soon as you try and turn the sound up to rock out, it’s never loud enough and rather distorted. Such a let down to the otherwise nice upgrades to the interior.

On the driving side of things, this is where you’ll really struggle to enjoy the Sportage. Everything starts off well, but there’s too much torque steer at all times, and because the steering system is a new electronic unit that helps to cut down on emissions, it’s not perfected yet. As you drive the car faster and faster the steering starts to tighten up, naturally. Except for the fact that it feels unnatural. At highway speeds, the steering is way too quick, never allowing for a gradual lane change. If it’s not sudden, it’s not going to be comfortable. At low speeds, that’s where it feels okay at times, but then you feel the torque steer kick in each time you make a turn.

Sad since the steering wheel is perfect. It feels good in your hands and all of the buttons are right where you’d want or need them. The only dilemma I had with the wheel is that it comes down at an angle, so you should pull the steering wheel a little closer to your body to compensate for the distance your arms will have to travel when making most turns. That is, if you keep your hands at 10 and 2. The steering rack is also very quick and allows for a true three point turn. You can make a u-turn in literally any place on the road. I’ve tested it a bunch of times in traffic and not once did I have to grab reverse. That’s a huge plus.

So the steering is mostly pretty annoying. But even with that unfortunate situation, the Sportage is comfortable and feels car like at times and truck like at other times. While it’s a crossover, it will ride like a truck in certain instances, but still feel like a car at other times. In that realm, I did notice the suspension working way too hard at soaking up/dealing with bumps on the highway. Say you’re in a lane that is rather uneven; with the Sportage, the suspension soaks everything up and relays it right back to the steering wheel and ride. It’s never at ease, so it’s agitating.

So while certain things of the car aren’t perfect, for the as-tested price of $29,990, it’s a pretty good deal for what you do get in terms of style, options and interesting features. Something that really is great at this price point is hill assist/descent, as well as a center-locking differential. Two things that you will undoubtedly need if you live in certain parts of the country, such as Vermont. Even though we had a good 8 inches worth of snow fall where I live in North Carolina, I didn’t really get a chance to test any of those features out.

For size comparison, I went and photographed the Sportage next to a Chevrolet Equinox equipped with a V6 (the V6 has sold zero models at the local dealership), and for about the same money the Equinox is bigger inside, but has a lot less kit.

While the 2011 Kia Sportage may not be the best value for your dollar now compared to its competitors, keep in mind that ALG, a company specializing in analyzing automotive data and determining residual values has placed the new Sportage at 61% for a three year lease. That’s up where Hondas usually are…

So how good is the new Sportage? I’ll have to give it a 3 out of 5. It’s good enough to work for most people, but not quite enough to be the right tool for each job.

[Photos by Corey Privette]