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Sportage elevates CUVs to new level

Kia's new Sportage puts pressure on rivals with sophisticated safety, four-wheel drive and styling.

  • Driver

WHITEHORSE, Y.T.—The fuzzy boundaries between car segments get ever more blurred with the introduction of the 2011 Kia Sportage.

The new Sportage is technically a compact crossover, but the sleek lines make it look more like a sporty hatchback to me.

Nothing wrong with that.

Prices start at $21,995 and they are arriving in showrooms now.

Contrary to what you might read elsewhere, Sportage and its corporate cousin Hyundai Tucson are built on their own platform, sharing nothing with the larger Kia Sorento/Hyundai Santa Fe except powertrains.

The 2011 Sportage is 90 mm longer overall, 10 mm longer in wheelbase, 55 mm wider and 60 mm lower than last year’s car.

The extra length particularly benefits rear-seat legroom, and rear-seat headroom remains competitive despite the low slanting roofline.

The hatch lid is huge, and reveals a spacious and rectangular hold; a compact multi-link rear suspension doesn’t intrude unduly on cargo space.

The hatch release button is way down on the bottom edge of the lid however, making it susceptible to road dirt. It’s also lower than you’d expect; on both dirt and access counts; it would be better if it were mounted higher.

Ditto for the rear turn signals, which are embedded in the bumpers instead of the tail light clusters. Looks great in the showroom, not so much on the road where they’re hard to see at the best of times, and impossible to see when obscured by road dirt, which they will almost instantly be in inclement weather.

Citroën (many moons ago) and Volvo among others (more recently) have put these way up where the hatch meets the roof — much better idea.

Hyundai as a group has made great strides in interior refinement in recent years, and Sportage benefits here too. The base (LX) trim could perhaps use a little more colour, and on all models, the dash-top pad does not cover the tunnel-shaped main instrument cluster, leaving it appear a trifle unfinished.

But the design is clean and modern, the materials appear of good quality and construction; the gauges are easy to read; and even the optional satellite-navigation is intuitive to use.

The front seats are more contoured, more supportive, than usual in this class.

Kia has long embarrassed the rest of the automotive world by making the immensely important active head-restraints standard on even its lower-priced models. What the heck is keeping the rest of the industry? I only wish Kia would advertise this critical advantage more strongly, give it a bigger public profile, which might put more pressure on everybody else, since it doesn’t appear governments are going to force the issue.

Power assist for the driver is available on the up-level EX trim.

Isn’t it ironic every carmaker offers power seats to save their customers all that strenuous effort, but so few offer active head-restraints, which could save those customers involved in collisions a lifetime of expensive therapy.

The only engine currently offered on Sportage is the Hyundai Group’s Theta II 2.4 litre four, producing 176 hp and 168 lb.-ft. of torque.

The 2.7 litre V6 from the previous car is no longer offered, but the new four has more torque and gets much better fuel economy, so no big loss there.

A 2.0 litre turbo SX model will arrive in early 2011.

A six-speed manual is standard and only available on the LX front-drive Sportage; four-wheel drive LX and all EX models get a Hyundai-built six-speed automatic.

The Dynamax four-wheel drive system is new to Kia, and is built by Wia Corp. in Korea, under licence from Magna.

The system, mounted in the rear axle, operates essentially as a front-driver until it senses not necessarily that front wheelspin is happening, but even that it might happen, such as at wide-open throttle from rest. It will then direct whatever degree of torque it determines is appropriate to the rear wheels.

This predictive capability (which is rare, especially in this price bracket) means the system reacts before it is needed, so seldom will it let you down.

A lock mode maintains a 50:50 front to rear torque split for severe conditions. This can cause binding or “bunny-hopping” in a tight turn, because the front wheels have to travel farther in a turn than the rears, so Dynamax will momentarily disengage the lock-up to allow the rears to catch up.

Likewise if speed exceeds 50 km/h — if you’re going this fast, you’ve presumably got good enough traction not to need the lock-up.

If either condition (turning or speed) ceases to exist, the auto lock re-engages automatically, unless of course you shut it off.

The MacStrut front and multi-link rear suspensions use something called “amplitude-selective” sliding valve technology for the shock absorbers on EX models, designed to allow smooth longer-amplitude suspension displacements with quicker reaction and better control on sharper bumps.

Steering is by electric power, which aids fuel economy (albeit slightly) because it need only deliver assist when you’re turning — a hydraulic system is pumping fluid all the time.

Four-wheel discs with ABS and electronic brake force distribution are standard.

Kudos to Kia again on the chassis safety front: Sportage offers electronic stability control as standard, a year before the government mandate takes effect.

The Sportage’s ESC also integrates downhill brake control to restrain speed on steep downhills; hill-start assist on the manual cars, to ease starts on uphills; and roll-over mitigation — essentially, doing in the longitudinal axis what ESC does in the vertical axis — determining if a roll-over is imminent and applying brake and throttle interventions to reduce the tendency.

I had never been to the Yukon prior to 2010; this was my second visit in six months. It’s nicer in summer.

The route consisted of what is known locally as the “Golden Circle” — more of a triangle really, essentially circumnavigating the neighbourhood of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush.

Most of our time was spent in a semi-loaded EX four-wheel drive. I bumped my head once or twice getting in — that low roofline — but once installed, I found the seats as advertised.

On the first two driving legs — from Whitehorse southwest to Skagway Alaska; from Skagway to Haines Junction — we were impressed by the condition of the road. With all the weather they have up here, you’d think the frost heaves would make it feel like a Canada’s Wonderland ride. Maybe it’s because there isn’t much truck traffic on these routes.

The Alaska Highway from Haines Junction back to Whitehorse was much rougher — lots of trucks — with many deep swells that really put those trick shocks to the test.

They passed.

Because the most impressive aspect of the Sportage is its ride — smooth and comfortable without getting all mushy in the rough going.

Electric power steering has a reputation for delivering less than optimum road feel. A deserved reputation in this case, as I found it a bit dull and lifeless. Chances are most Sportage intenders won’t care — this is a family vehicle, not a sports car.

More likely, they won’t even notice.

The engine delivers competitive performance with better-than-usual smoothness for a large-displacement four. Excellent fuel economy too.

The auto-box shifts unobtrusively. The manual override gate has been moved from the passenger’s side to the driver’s side, which makes sense.

A stint in a base LX front-driver with manual transmission suggested it is a viable candidate for those on a budget. A couple of colleagues who had driven this same car felt the clutch was a bit “jumpy,” as one of them put it; it felt okay to me, and the gearbox was light and reasonably precise.

As with all Kia’s new models, the 2011 Sportage is a well-styled, well-finished, exceptionally well-equipped and well-priced entrant in its segment. Even the $21,995 base car has ESC, ABS, air, and a boatload of other goodies.

The technically very similar Hyundai Tucson has an even cheaper alternative, but with a 2.0 litre engine and five-speed transmission, which Kia does not offer. When comparably equipped, Sportage appears to have the edge.

As it does over much of the immediate competition.

2011 Kia Sportage

PRICE: $21,995 (LX front-drive 6-spd man.) to $35,195 (EX 4WD 6-spd auto)

ENGINE: 2.4 L I4, variable valve timing

POWER/TORQUE: 176 hp/168 lb.-ft.

FUEL CONSUMPTION: FWD M6 10.0/6.9 L/100 km (xx/xx mpg); FWD A6

9.5/6.3 (xx/xx mpg); 4WD A6: 10.0/7.1 (xx/xx mpg)

COMPETITION: Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Mazda Tribute, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4.

WHAT’S BEST: Exceptional ride; class-leading standard equipment; unique and attractive styling.

WHAT’S WORST: Hatch release too low; tail lights ditto; steering on the numb side;

WHAT’S INTERESTING: A brief back-to-back drive in a previous-generation Sportage really showed how far Kia has come in a short period of time.

  • Sportage elevates CUVs to new level
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