2013 Kia Sportage SX Road Test

A friendly companion with a few less desirable traits

What It Is
A stylish -- and fast -- compact crossover for not a whole lot of money.
Best Thing
If looks could kill, this one would be locked up in San Quentin already.
Worst Thing
Unfortunately, its ultra-harsh ride might commit the crime first, or just incite injury.
Snap Judgment
There's a lot of crossover here to love, but you get much of the same without its drawbacks from its competitors.

In every press release we get from Kia, there's a little boilerplate section at the bottom, headlined with "Design-Led Transformation." For any other automaker, this would just be something to skip over. For Kia, whose vehicles used to look like bars of soap that had sat over a shower drains for a few days, it helps explain why you're looking at something that rouses more emotions than simply boredom.

Just look at the 2013 Kia Sportage, the brand's smallest crossover. It doesn't have one bad angle that would make you question what Kia's designers were thinking. Its headlights are furiously angled; its wheels look as though they were poached from a concept car.

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Now in its third generation since entering the U.S. in 1995, the Kia Sportage has been the only nameplate to stick around as the company evolved from its humble origins. The current Sportage arrived on the scene for the 2011 model year with an engine sure to shake up the segment: a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that packs a stonking 260 horsepower, well above most of the competition. Of course, we had to try it out. But beyond a punchy engine and its curb appeal, we'd discover that the Sportage had a few glaring flaws that unraveled the little crossover's seemingly standout combination.

What We Drove

Our test Sportage was optioned well beyond the base model's $19,800 starting price, including $800 for destination. That model comes with front-wheel drive, a six-speed manual transmission, and a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 176 horsepower. Forgoing the slightly better-optioned Sportage LX and the mid-level Sportage EX, our Sportage SX with the more powerful turbocharged engine came in at $29,200, including $1,500 for all-wheel drive.

The Sportage SX includes unique 18-inch wheels, standard leather seats, power-folding mirrors, LED running lights, and a push-button starter on top of a long, long list of other features that are optionally available on other Sportage models. From there, our Sportage was further outfitted with a navigation system ($1,200), and the Premium package ($2,000) that includes heated front seats, a cooled driver's seat, a panoramic sunroof, heated mirrors, and a cargo cover. That brought the Signal Red Sportage up to $32,400, a number that's in line with plenty of other fully-optioned vehicles in its segment.

And, of course, the Sportage is plenty safe. Overall, the all-wheel-drive-equipped 2013 Sportage earned a five-star government safety rating, and the IIHS named it a Top Safety Pick; it hasn't undergone the new IIHS small overlap test. With a deceivingly upright stance, we didn't find it a problem installing child seats in the rear, which has LATCH points for two chairs, but the seat foam was a bit too firm for our fingers to easily reach the anchors.

The Commute

You learn quickly when driving the Sportage that it doesn't take a whole lot of pedal play between slow cruising and whiplash-like force due to the car's turbocharged engine. It's easy enough to stay out of the power-mad, gas-hungry mode, though. Rated at low-for-the-class 20 mpg city/25 mpg highway, we saw numbers as high as 26 mpg in steady 65-mph traffic, but we ended up with a less environmentally friendly 20.1 mpg overall when we returned the Sportage after a week. Disappointing considering the Sportage's size, sure, but at least we didn't drop below the EPA's meager projections.

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Our indifference broke with the Sportage's unnecessarily choppy ride, though. Perhaps suspended on four slabs of concrete, you'd feel every little divot in the road. We're pretty sure you'd be able to discern the difference between a nickel and a quarter by running over the two. Usually, we can forgive such a harsh ride in a sporty vehicle; seat-of-the-pants feel would tell you this is one heck of a muscle ute in a straight line. But its tires are the same kind you find on an Optima family sedan. It has a mild body roll in turns. It's nothing special. Most roads in the U.S. are miserable to drive on if the car isn't set up right, making the Sportage feel downright brutal in its lack of finesse. It doesn't help that there are better-handling crossovers in its class that don't have the same seemingly miscalculated ride/handling tradeoff.

The Grocery Run

We'd be remiss to call the 2013 Kia Sportage's 26.1 cubic feet of cargo capacity small; it's not. But with a swoopy rear end, it certainly is a little more limited than its boxier competition, carrying just 13 grocery bags in our standard evaluation -- six with a stroller in back. The styling also makes the rear window about as useful as a panel van's; there were times when we simply couldn't see some small cars behind us. Sportage EX models and up come with Kia's UVO infotainment system as standard equipment, which also includes a small backup camera. Our Sportage, upfitted with a navigation system, ditches UVO for an old-generation system, albeit with a larger backup screen. We wouldn't recommend getting a Sportage without some kind of rearview camera.

When navigating parking lots, we noticed quite a bit of steering heft, which we didn't mind. Many Kia models have switched from hydraulic power steering -- like what the Sportage has -- to a lighter-feeling electronic system for the sake of fuel-efficiency and ease of use. But we like that the Sportage's steering feels smooth and linear.

The Weekend Fun

If there was one thing more baffling than anything else in the Kia Sportage, it'd be its interior materials. As the driver, you grip a leather-wrapped steering wheel that feels like it's been instilled with a quality feel; it's not the sort of peeling gator skin we earlier experienced in the larger 2013 Kia Sorento last year, which has subsequently been replaced with a nicer wheel (among many other things) in the 2014 Kia Sorento.

But that's the only quality-feeling surface inside. Usually, Kia has offered better, softer plastics in higher-level models, but in the Sportage interior all the materials are brittle and cheap-feeling. Couple that with the fact that their glossy sheen and black color absorbed every photon of light coming through the massive panoramic sunroof that spans the length of the roof, and the Sportage became uninhabitable in the bright California sun for the first few minutes before air conditioning worked its magic.

Having a cooled driver's seat helped, too. If you didn't grope dash plastics, the interior was generally a nice place to be; the stereo pounded with clarity, and the ergonomics were top-notch. We just with the Sportage had a bit more padding in its seats in addition to richer materials befitting a $30,000-plus vehicle.

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Last summer, I had the fortune of taking the very same Kia Sportage SX we tested this time around through an off-road course designed by Land Rover's specialists. It couldn't keep up with the serious off-roaders out there, but at least it made it all the way through without needing a winch. That was my first experience with the Sportage, and to tell you the truth, I came away impressed. It's a scrappy little crossover with plenty of features and a price that won't make you have to pull out a second mortgage or sell a kidney to get a heated and cooled seat and navigation system. It's a shame that it misses in the details in the real world.

It portends a sporting character, yet its ride borders on sadistic. It has features befitting a crossover costing much more with an interior that has worse materials than Kia's own $17,000 Rio SX. It has a powerful, and supposedly more economical small-displacement, turbocharged engine that's not markedly more fuel-efficient than the V-6 from the last generation that it replaced. We wouldn't advise against the Kia Sportage for anyone in the market who lives in a place with tolerable roads. But we'd put it a ways down our shopping list against the similarly priced Subaru Forester XT and Ford Escape EcoBoost, both far better all-arounders. This Kia needs to pick up its game.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $32,400
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 20 mpg
EPA Highway: 25 mpg
EPA Combined: 22 mpg
Cargo Space: 13 grocery bags/6 with a stroller Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Good
Estimated Combined Range: 336.6 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Poor

Notebook Quotes

"The suspension springs may as well be from a mechanical pencil." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor
"This Kia confirms a suspicion I've had about the brand for some time: Take away the price advantage, and suddenly its vehicles aren't quite as compelling. With mediocre fuel economy, a cheap-feeling interior, and no clear equipment advantage over other vehicles costing as much, this Sportage leaves a lot to be desired." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director