By Eric Peters
It is no easy task to find something worth telling you about crossover A vs. crossover B.
Usually, it’s like trying to put together 2,000 words describing the difference between a green M&M and a red M&M.
But Kia gave me something to work with here.
A couple things, actually.
They are brilliant toasters – if that’s what you’re interested in. Very useful, lots of room. But they come with one-size-fits-all powertrains (no optional engines or transmissions) and the powertrains they come standard with lack… power.
These two take about 9 seconds, best case, to lug themselves to 60. It’s not terrible, but it’s not terribly exciting, either.
The Kia offers the option of turbo power, 240 hp – and a six-something second trip to 60.
Not much in this class touches that.
The Ford Escape is one, but it’s an aging design. The current/2017 model is largely the same as the 2013 – and like Madonna’s wrinkles, it shows.
The Mazda CX-5 is another – and newer. It’s got an optional engine – and an available manual transmission, too. That’s rare in this almost-entirely automatic-only segment. But no turbo and power maxes out at 184 hp (155 hp is standard, less than you get in the toasters).
But it’s more than just about power.
The Kia stands out in other ways, too.
WHAT IT IS
The Sportage is Kia’s compact crossover SUV.
It actually is sporty – unlike many others, which claim to be. But aren’t.
It’s got a smaller footprint (about half a foot shorter overall than a Toyota RAV) and a proportionately longer wheelbase (105.1 inches vs. 104.7 for the RAV) which makes it more agile in close quarters while not having the bouncy “small car” ride typical of stubby/short wheelbase vehicles.
Yet it’s got about the same (generous) passenger room inside as the larger-sized toasters – and the also-sporty but also getting long-in-the-tooth Escape.
The other thing to know about this Kia is that it can be equipped with stuff like a panorama sunroof, 8-inch LCD touchscreen, Harman Kardon ultra-premium audio rig, LED lighting and other such features that are not commonly found in this price range. Loaded up, a Sportage compares favorably to entry-luxury compact crossover like the BMW X1.
The downside is, it (the Kia) actually costs more than the BMW when loaded: $34,000 for an AWD-equipped Sportage SX turbo vs. $32,800 for an X1 with xDrive AWD..
But – you can buy a Sportage LX (FWD, with a less powerful/not turbocharged) engine for $22,900 ($24,900 with AWD) which is a lot more manageable. There’s also a mid-trim EX version of the Sportage which adds some of the high-rent features (18 inch wheels, heated leather seats, a seven inch touchscreen, windshield de-icing system) but not the turbo engine for $25,500 to start with FWD and $27,000 with AWD.
The top-of-the-line Sportage is the turbocharged SX, which – also unusually – can be had with either FWD or (optionally) AWD. It is unusual because most car companies (BMW, for instance) only pair their powerful turbo engines with AWD, which is fine for winter traction but eliminates the fun of spinning the tires and also typically adds weight and cost.
You can get a FWD Sportage SX turbo for $32,500 – which is a couple hundred bucks less than the less-fun AWD-equipped BMW X1.
Other possible cross-shops include the toasters – the CR-V and RAV4 – as well as the aging Ford Escape and the Mazda CX-5, which – notwithstanding it doesn’t offer as much power as the Kia does – is the only other one in this segment that’s as or even more fun to drive, because of its available manual transmission and its brilliant suspension tuning.
The Sportage gets a major makeover for 2017.
While the base and optional powertrains are more or less the same, the bodywork is all new, as is the underlying chassis and the interior, which leapfrogs from being among the least roomy in the segment to among the most roomy.
Cargo capacity has also been increased from 26.1 cubic feet behind the second (and 54.6 cubes with the second row folded flat) for the outgoing 2016 to 30.7 cubic feet behind the second row (and 60.1 cubic feet with the second row folded) for the 2017.
This is not quite as much as the toasters offer (38.4 cubes behind the second row and 73.4 cubes with the second row folded flat in the RAV4) but it’s probably close enough to make the Kia a consideration if you can live with a bit less cargo capacity and you’d like more than a toaster.
Excellent packaging. Small on the outside but not small on the inside.
It actually is “sporty.”
BMW-comparable features and equipment.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
It’s a pig.
20 MPG best case in city driving, 23 on the highway for the AWD-equipped Sportage SX turbo. (The similarly engined BMW X1 manages 32 on the highway).
BMW price when comparably equipped.
UNDER THE HOOD
The standard engine is toaster material: 2.4 liters, no turbo, 181 hp – virtually the same as the Honda CR-V’s standard (and only available) 2.4 liter, 185 hp engine and the Toyota RAV4’s also standard (and also only available) 2.5 liter, 176 hp engine.
It comes with a six-speed automatic (as does the RAV4; the CR-V gets a CVT automatic) and you can go with the standard FWD arrangement or opt for a full-time/light-duty AWD system very much like the AWD systems used in the toasters and others like the Escape and CX-5.
Performance (acceleration) with this engine is par for the class – zero to 60 takes about 8.8 seconds – as is the mileage – if you stick with the FWD version, which posts 23 city, 30 highway (the FWD RAV4 rates 23 city, 30 highway; the FWD CR-V, 26 city and 33 highway). But if you go with AWD, be prepared to go to the gas station more often: 21 city, 25 highway – vs. a much better 25 city, 31 highway for the AWD-equipped CR-V and 22 city, 29 highway for the AWD RAV4.
Why the AWD-equipped Sportage is so much thirster than the on-paper-comparable toasters is hard to divine, at first glance. The Honda does have the efficiency advantage of the CVT transmission, but the Toyota has a conventional six-speed automatic, just like the Kia.
And they’re both physically larger vehicles.
But a closer look at the specifications clues us in. The Kia – though it looks (and is) smaller in size than the toasters is heavier than they are: 3,596 lbs. for the FWD version vs. 3,358 lbs. for the FWD version of the CR-V and 3,455 lbs. for the RAV4.
I’ll rant about this some more below… .
The Sportage’s optional engine – a turbocharged 2.0 liter four that produces 240 hp (and 260 ft.-lbs. of torque) is even thirster: 21 city, 26 highway with FWD and 20 city, 23 highway with the optional AWD system.
How suck-a-licious is this?
Here’s a frame of reference:
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the BMW X1 – which (unlike the Tahoe) is a vehicle similar in size/layout and even engine type and size (2.0 liter four, turbocharged). Yet it manages 32 on the highway – almost 10 MPG better than the hungry hippo Kia.
But, it does run.
Zero to 60 in the mid sixxes, which sucks the paint off the toasters and easily outclasses the otherwise fun but not particulary fast Mazda CX-5.
The Ford Escape is the only real challenger as far as performance. It the most powerful engine in the segment (2.0 liters, 245 hp) but while power (and acceleration) are praiseworthy in the Ford, the rest of the package (especially back seat legroom but also the rest of the car’s design) is – like Madonna – no longer a spring chicken.
Probably you could get one for cheap, precisely for that reason.
But when the ‘18s come out (looks like next summer) you might feel shortchanged.
If you haven’t had a chance to drive a car – or crossover – powered by one of these new-design turbo fours with the turbo being designed to deliver thrust seamlessly… well, you ought to. It’s not like it used to be – not so long ago – when turbocharged engines behaved like a sleeping Tomcat.
Until you pulled on his tail.
Nothing – followed by something.
Not much middle ground.
Very little down low.
So you don’t hear whistling (as you used to, when the turbo began to “spool up”) but you also don’t experience that turbo-typical (used to be) flat spot when you mashed the gas – followed by a blitz of power, often not well-modulated.
The Sportage’s turbo four (like the turbo four in the BMW X1 and the Ford Escape) mimics the personality traits of a non-turbo V6. Plenty of power on the low end, strong mid-range – and more up higher, if you keep your foot in it.
But why not just go with the six – and forget the four and the additional plumbing (and cost) of the turbo?
Note again the BMW’s 32 MPG on the highway. That would be hard to equal with a similarly powerful (and heavier) six cylinder under the hood.
But the head-scratcher, Kia-wise, is that the Sportage’s turbo four drinks almost as much gas as a V8. There’s certainly not much benefit, CAFE-wise (the acronym stands for Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency, the federal government’s mandatory minimum gas mileage requirements, which trigger fins if not complied with).
But, again, it runs.
And the Kia out-handles it.
Out-rides it, too.
The new model gets a wheelbase stretch (105.1 inches now from 103.9 inches before) as well as a complete overhaul of the suspension. The wheelbase increase (like riding in a bigger ship) makes the new Sportage feel less tossed around by road irregularities, potholes and such. Putting more distance between the front and rear axle centerlines has this effect, which is why bigger cars are esteemed (and smaller cars criticized).
What’s unusual here is the ratio of the Kia’s overall length vs. its wheelbase length. It not only has a longer wheelbase than rivals like the RAV4 (104.7 inches) and Honda CR-V (103.1 inches) it is also shorter overall than they are.
Of the major players in this class, only the Mazda CX-5’s got a longer wheelbase (106.3 inches) but it’s also (like the others) a longer vehicle: 179.3 inches vs. 176.4 inches for the Kia.
Which is why it also needs more room to turn (18.3 feet vs. 17.3 for the Kia – and 19.4 for the crows- feet-showing Escape).
The Kia is agile – like a small car – but drives like a much larger one. That’s a happy combo. Even with the SX’s stiff-sidewall 19 inch wheel/tire package, it’s very liveable. More than that, actually. It is as comfortable (if not more so) to knock around as the toasters – without the downside of being a toaster.
Cheers to that!
Small is the new big.
Though it’s only 176.4 inches long overall (vs. 181.1 inches for the RAV4, 179.4 for the CR-V, 179.3 for the CX-5 and 178.1 for the Ford Escape) the compact Sportage has about the same – or even more – interior space than these rivals:
41.5 inches of legroom up front and 38.2 inches of legroom in the second row vs. 41.3 inches up front and 38.3 inches in the CR-V’s second row. The RAV4 has about an inch more legroom up front – 42.6 inches – but about an inch less – 37.2 inches – in its second row. The Mazda CX-5 has slightly less up-front legroom – 41 inches – and slightly more backseat leg room – 39.3 inches. The Escape has the most front seat legroom – 43.1 inches – but in the back, it’s back to a mediocre 37.3 inches.
None of these rides – some of them (the toasters) now verging on mid-sized exterior dimensions – give you appreciably more in the way of interior dimensions. But they take up more room in the garage – and are harder to park on the street.
The toasters (RAV4 and CR-V) do have more room for cargo – 38.4 cubic feet behind the second; 73.4 cubes with the second row folded flat for the Toyota and 37.2 cubic feet behind the second row; 70.9 cubic feet with the second row folded for the Honda – but the disparity is no longer huge.
Without signifcantly up-sizing the Sportage itself (the ’17 is only 1.6 inches longer than the old model) Kia designers increased cargo capacity from 26.1 cubic feet behind the second row and 54.6 cubic feet with the second row folded to 30.7 cubic feet behind the second row and 66.1 cubic feet with the second row folded in the new model.
This is almost as much – with the margin of error – as in the Escape (34 cubic feet/68 cubic feet) and about the same overall as in the CX-5 (34.1 cubic feet/64.8 cubic feet).
And while the toasters do have more space available, keep in mind the lack of available horsepower – which will matter if you use all that space. An empty RAV4 or CR-V needs about 9 seconds to achieve 60. It passes just barely, given a big enough window of time and space. With three passengers on board and all their stuff… well, you get the drift.
As far as styling – it’s mostly up front, in terms of the noticeable differences from the other M&Ms. The recognizably Kia face with trademark modified hexagonal grille (credited to current Kia – and former Audi – designer Peter Schreyer) forms the “mouth,” with headlight slits above this on either side that sit almost on the hood and bleed back along the front fenders. On the lower left/right side of the grille are two huge recessed pods with four mini-projector beam/LED driving lights that look a lot like the barrels of four Kryptonese mini-guns, which was probably the effect desired.
But as is par for the course with these crossovers, all the design effort was spent on the front clip. From the side, the Kia is Clarke Kent.
Handsome – but easy to lose in a crowd.
What separates the Sportage from most of the others in its range is inside – in addition to the surprisingly spacious cabin. Which is also a surprisingly nice cabin.
The toasters are noticeably less nice.
The Mazda is one of the few that’s not also a BMW (or an Audi) that rises to the same level of niceness. That also makes you secretly feel the dealer screwed up about the price and now you feel slightly guilty about having bought this thing for only $26k or so when you just know it should have been $32k.
This Sportage (and other new Kias) are not like yesterday’s Kias. Which tended to be a bit under par vs. the toasters and pretty much everyone else in terms of the look and feel of … everything. You paid less… and got less.
That’s not the case anymore and you owe it to yourself to do some cross-shopping.
The SX, especially – with its richly leather padded/flat-bottomed and heated steering wheel, full-length panorama sunroof, 8-inch LCD touchscreen with UVO app suite and power folding exterior side mirrors with built-in LED turn signals. But also the less expensive trims, none of which reek of cheap.
Most of the SX’s niceties can be ordered as options for the less expensive trims, too. Everything except the turbo engine,which is exclusive to the SX.
At least it has a big gas tank.
16.4 gallons is large for a small crossover. But this one has a big appetite. Probably because it has a beefy curb weight. This is symptomatic of Kias generally. A few weeks back I had a K900 sedan to test. With 429 hp on tap (almost as much as a Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack muscle car) the thing should have been a rocket. Instead it was merely peppy.
And very, very thirsty.
Because it’s very heavy (4,610 lbs. vs. 4,082 for the Dodge).
Comparatively speaking, so is the Sportage.
It may be sound deadening/insulation or just more steel. Whatever it is, the compact-sized Sportage is a heavier than several of the almost mid-sized models it competes with, like the toasters. The disparity is particularly shocking when you compare the AWD-equipped iterations: 3,997 lbs. for an AWD-equipped Sportage SX vs. 3,630 for an AWD-equipped RAV4.
And this is the chief flaw with this Kia. It’s too damned heavy. If it weighed about the same as the toasters, it’d not only be even quicker (the SX would probably break under the six second barrier, 0-60) it’d also be acceptably fuel-efficient.
This is what Kia still needs to work on.
The rest, they’ve got covered.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The toasters are still appealing – but now you’ve got real options.
Models like the Sportage, which are more than just toasters.
Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive at ericpetersautos.com.
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