In theory, a turbocharged four-cylinder engine is an ideal way to combine the performance of a V6 with the fuel efficiency of a four.
The 2011 Kia Sportage SX keeps that going on paper. EPA ratings of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway are impressive for any compact SUV, much less one with 260 horsepower. Throw in eye-catching looks, and this SUV was to have been the bargain-priced Acura RDX or Audi Q5.
But although the shared Hyundai/Kia engine truly did deliver what it promised in a tested Hyundai Sonata midsize sedan (review coming soon), it didn’t quite work out in the Sportage.
Much of the blame appears to lie in the transmission, a six-speed automatic. Give the Sportage a little gas, and you get the tepid acceleration of a 2.0-liter I4. Keep pushing the accelerator, and you get slammed forward when the transmission finally decides to downshift and the turbo’s boost comes into play.
The Sportage faces some other notable weaknesses as well: The ride is stiff, rear visibility is poor and the cargo volume is lacking by class standards, all for $31,000 as tested (fully loaded except for all-wheel-drive, which adds another $2,000).
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of strength in the Sportage package. The interior is comfortable and well-finished, it handles well, it has distinctive styling, and the gas mileage is indeed quite good.
Even so, the Sportage SX isn’t the Sportage to buy; delivery of the extra power just isn’t smooth enough to be useful in real-world driving. Lower end models with a 176-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder are perfectly peppy, ride (a bit) more smoothly, get even better mileage and shave $2,500 off the price tag. Those LX or EX models, or the largely identical Hyundai Tucson, definitely belong on your shopping list if you’re looking for an affordable fun-to-drive SUV.
But with a steeper price tag and minimal real-world performance advantage, the Sportage SX, alas, doesn’t live up to its lofty promise.
The cost of style
A few inches wider and lower than most small SUVs, and with an unusually high windowline, the Sportage eschews preceding models’ forgettable looks. For some, the Sportage’s styling will be a key selling point.
However, a vehicle designed around its appearance often forces functional compromises, and this Kia is no exception. A quick glance at the car makes it clear that visibility has been compromised, for instance; the rear side window and windshield are small and have a large roof pillar between them. (A panoramic sunroof lets in light where window glass does not, but that doesn’t help the driver see his surroundings.)
Perhaps even more significantly, the Sportage comes up short on cargo space. Nearly any SUV has a useful amount of room, but the Sportage’s cargo floor sits high off the ground above a tall bumper. This both decreases potential volume and makes it harder to load heavy items. Past Sportages also featured a rear windshield that opened separately from the hatch for quick access to the cargo hold; that feature disappeared for 2011.
There is 26.1 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, and 54.6 when the rear seat is folded down – specifications that significantly trail most competitors. The Sportage’s folded seatback rests at an angle rather than lying flat.
There is still plenty of passenger space in both the front and rear seats, at least. The seats are a little hard, but well-shaped and comfortable. The rear could be a bit higher off the floor. On this fully-loaded model, the driver’s seat offers settings for both heat and cooling – the latter being a feature typically restricted to luxury cars.
The interior is well-finished but not especially luxurious. Most trim is hard black or gray plastic, though most of it looks nice enough and there were no evident assembly lapses. A patch of padded leather trim keeps the armrest comfortable, and unlike previously tested 2011 Sportages, this model didn’t have sharp, poorly finished edges on the center console around the cupholders.
See more photos of the 2011 Sportage SX in today’s slideshow
The Sportage’s turbo was designed to replace a six-cylinder in the model lineup, but, as described earlier, it didn’t successfully do so. Although a V6 can also be confounded by a hesitant transmission – and many are – there’s a more abrupt changeover in this Sportage from no power to all power that frustrates smooth passing and merging attempts.
There doesn’t seem to be a lag in delivery of the turbo boost, but the transmission’s reluctance produces the same negative effect, though less smoothly. (Like many automatic transmissions, the Sportage’s allows the driver to command a shift, but if you’re not already in manual mode, you’re not getting the performance you need any quicker.)
Conditions do exist where the SX’s extra punch is noticeable and appreciated: When you want to get from a dead stop quickly to a high speed, the power is right where you want it. Car and Driver magazine clocked its tested Sportage at 6.1 seconds from 0 to 60 miles per hour. But if you’re already moving and you just want a bit of extra punch, you’re out of luck – you get no extra power for a few beats, then, suddenly, all of it.
Another advantage to a V6 over a four-cylinder tends to be its smoothness. While this didn’t prove to be a problem with the Sportage SX, an excess of highway-speed road noise hurts its overall refinement. Sportages with smaller tires and no “sport” suspension are a bit quieter.
All Sportages handle nimbly by SUV standards, with or without the sport suspension. The related Hyundai Tucson’s steering feels more natural and responsive, though both are on the upper end of the class for providing driving enjoyment in a practical package.
Read back-to-back comparison of the Sportage EX and Tucson Limited
Read full review of the Tucson GLS
However, the tradeoff is that they also have stiff rides – the Sportage SX being the worst offender. Bumps slam through, and the ride is busy at high speeds even on smooth surfaces.
There’s still hope
The Toyota RAV4 is nothing to look at, but with its 269-horsepower V6 and responsive handling, it remains the performance champion of the small SUV class. The Sportage SX’s powertrain just comes up short.
This may change. Kia isn’t known for sitting still. Complaints about the ride quality in its larger Sorento SUV prompted changes to its suspension within the first model year. The Forte compact car saw changes to its powertrains and interior after one year. And as the turbo’s application in the Hyundai Sonata has shown, the engine has great potential. Perhaps it’s just a matter of retuning the Sportage SX’s transmission before drivers really do get all the combined benefits of a V6 and a four-cylinder for a terrifically zippy little SUV.
In the meantime, however, the Sportage’s 2.0-liter turbocharged engine barely justifies the mile per gallon of fuel consumption it gives up over the 2.4-liter, much less the extra $2,500 cost.
Vehicle tested: 2011 Kia Sportage
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $18,295
Version tested: SX FWD
Version base price (MSRP): $25,795
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $30,990
Estimated transaction price as tested*: $29,897
Test vehicle provided by: Kia Motors America
Length: 175.2 inches
Width: 73.0 inches
Height: 64.4 inches
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches
Weight: 3,466 pounds
Cargo volume behind rear seat: 26.1 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind front seats: 54.6 cubic feet
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Engine: 2.0-liter I4 with 260 horsepower
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 22 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 27 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 24 miles per gallon
Assembly location: South Korea
For more information: Kia website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on estimates from Truecar.com and quotes from individual dealers.