Dude, Kia Sportage got game

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I’ve always chafed at the name Kia “Sportage.” Sportage sounds like something MTV’s star beach bum Pauly Shore would say. Like “After I do some sportage, I’m gonna get some foodage.” Or “Like, dude, I’m totally spent. That was some serious sportage.” Hip. Funky.

Not something you’d associate with a compact crossover appliance in the high-volume, mainstream segment. But after driving Kia’s new 2017 Sportage, maybe I was wrong.

This is no appliance. This dude is loaded with personality.

In its ambitious climb to social respectability, Kia and Korean-twin Hyundai have slavishly copied German brand wardrobes. Hyundai’s luxury Genesis has aped Audi’s big grille and taut lines, while Kia just hired VW-Audi designer Peter Schreyer himself. Schreyer wasted no time sculpting a sexier Kia. Leaner stance. Signature, “tiger-nose” grille. Personality.

For the new Sportage, Schreyer reached for exterior cues from the Alpha male of the VW family: Porsche. Stroll around the outside and Sportage has an unmistakable echo of Stuttgart’s bullet-shaped Macan. Rake, dual-eyed headlights. Rounded corners. A menacing mouth. The Porsche’s egg-crate grille screams mean while the Sportage has ... cute-age? Yes, like an enraged Pokeman. GRRRRRR.

Stomp on the Kia’s turbocharged, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine and this box goes. It’s not the tire-squirming torque steer of Korean imports of yesteryear, but the refined pep of a German machine. This isn’t a quirky Kia Soul but a serious automobile with crisp handling and tailored interior to match its styling, right down to the alphabet-soup badge on my top-of-the-line turbo: SX-GDI.

The black instrument cluster behind the flat-bottomed steering wheel (sport-age!) is highlighted by white graphics and red dials. The dash is nicely appointed with matte-black row of buttons, air ducts, and horizontal lines. It’s right out of a VW-Audi parts bin.

The Sportage follows on the same platform as the handsome, 2016 Hyundai Tucson (big brother always gets the first wardrobe makeover). Last summer I tested the base, wonderfully-affordable, $23,720 Tucson, which goes about its business in a very, um, business-like way. My all-wheel-drive Sportage tester is a different animal. Not just because it was dressed to the nines at $34,895 (its base price just $300 more than the Tucson) — but because it cuts a more athletic stance.

The Kia feels less like the Tucson and more like Hyundai’s Sante Fe Sport — a sexier version of Hyundai’s larger, mid-sized Santa Fe aimed squarely at Ford’s Edge. Confusing, I know, but that’s how these Korean twins differentiate themselves.

Befitting their badges, Sportage and Santa Fe Sport get steroid-fed engines — 181 horsepower base 2.4-liter or powerful 240-horse turbo-fours. The Tucson is stuck with a 2.0-liter, 164-horse, 2.0-liter four or a 1.6-liter turbo-4 option with 175 ponies. In a 0-60 sprint, Sportage leaves Tucson in the dust.

If they were high school classmates, you’d recognize Sportage and Sport as the jocks — Tucson the nerd.

That said, Sportage’s safety and reliability numbers are class summa cum laude. The Kia is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety top safety pick and its J.D. Power reliability and dependability numbers shame even Honda and Subaru.

Brains and looks. Like Jennifer Grey’s nose job, Sportage’s new face has born a thousand opinions. I like it. The AWD model also gets less chin for more ground clearance — in case you want to take it off-road. The Sportage turbo’s prominent side gills — more Porsche inspiration — are lit up with four, luxurious “ice-cubes” each. Dude, LED-age. The flanks continue the athletic, rounded theme with the rear sporting a tasteful combination of Audi lights (ribbed LED inlays) and a horizontal, Lincoln-esque signature connecting the corners.

Kia has done its homework. So how does Sportage stand up to my favorite compact crossover, Ford Escape?

Where the Escape and Hyundai Tucson appear separated at birth, the Kia’s dramatically different looks will stand out on Michigan highways choked with Escapes (the second-best selling small crossover). The Kia offers lots of nifty features like lane-keep assist (handy on late interstate drives back from the sticks when your eyes are getting sleepy, sleeeeeepy — BEEEEEPP! — the warning tells you you’ve crossed the line). Unlike some of its peers, the system is calibrated to detect steering wander — not every lane change — so it never feels like a nanny. Thanks, Kia.

Kia’s instruments feel more luxurious than the Ford — that Audi influence again — though I craved more personality (like the unique Chrysler Pacifica I just drove). But in certain crucial details the Ford still sets the standard. Like the kick-open rear hatch, which even Audi has copied. Lay-flat rear seats (Kia still has an annoying hump that would impede storage) assist Ford’s superior cargo room. Little things, but this segment is so competitive it comes down to the little things.

Still, for just $34K — the price of an Escape Titanium sans trimmings — a loaded Sportage matches Ford’s full moon-roof so you can stargaze while doing spoon-age with your date.

Ford’s SYNC system I found more responsive to voice commands — but in truth, no infotainment system these days (shy of Audi’s sensational 12-inch instrument display) is worth the price with superior smart phones at our finger tips. On this point, Hyundai and Kia (and Honda and GM) are a lap ahead of the competition. With Kia’s Android Auto taking over the dash, I can use my Samsung phone’s superior “Ask Google” app to navigate me to some far flung point of interest — say, “The Lingenfelter Car Collection” in Milford. Try that with your car’s nav system.

Kia’s nicely-sorted console space even provides a large cubby in front of the gearshift so your essential phone is never far away.

But where the Sportage rewards you day-in-and day-out is with its on-road charisma. This is not a boring SUV. Acceleration is rabbit quick — and the SX-GDI even offers a Sport mode for a few more revs in the twisties. In a world where (my favorite 220-horse) hot hatches are in the Sportage price point, this grunt is a welcome addition to the family ute. As is the handling. The AWD system rotates beautifully and I tore up Oakland County esses with the nicely appointed chassis. When the venom seized me Mrs. Payne reached for the door handles — which are right where they are supposed to be.

Yeah, the Sportage comes with lane-keep warning. But this little hipster will never make you drowsy.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News.


Twitter: @HenryEPayne

2017 Kia Sportage


Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport utility vehicle

Price: $23,885 base ($34,895 SX as tested)

Powerplant: 2.4-liter, inline-4 cylinder; 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 181 horsepower, 175 pound-feet of torque (2.4-liter); 240 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque (turbo)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Zero-60: 7.5 seconds (AWD turbo, Car & Driver); 2,000-pound towing

Weight: 3,305 pounds (base, FWD); 3,997 (AWD turbo as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 combined (base FWD); EPA 21 mpg city/26 mpg highway/23 combined (AWD turbo)

Report card

Highs: Distinctive styling; peppy turbo

Lows: Polarizing styling; less cargo room than competitors