Let’s start by acknowledging the elephant in the room: The all-new 2017 Kia Sportage is one strange-looking SUV. With its squint-eyed headlight cluster perched high atop the fenders, Kia hopes people will be reminded of the Porsche Cayenne, though in reality they are just as likely to think of the Nissan Juke or Jeep Cherokee.
The weird thing is that there’s no good reason for the Sportage to be so weird looking. From its introduction in 2011 the Sportage has been a hit with journalists (and I’ve given it high marks for space efficiency and the power from the optional 2.0-liter turbocharged engine), but what’s more important is that buyers liked it just as much. The Sportage has been a strong seller for its entire run — in fact, 2015 was its best year ever, something nearly unheard of for a five-year-old design — so why change it?
The good news is that aside from the styling, Kia really hasn’t changed it very much. Most of the Sportage’s endearing qualities remain intact, and some of the crossover’s elements have been made even better.
Let’s start with the interior. Like all Kias, the Sportage’s passenger compartment is superbly designed and finished. Audi is often mentioned in Kia reviews, as Kia’s vice president of design is Audi alumnus Peter Schreyer, and there’s clearly a common theme to his work (inside the cars, at least): Clean and contemporary styling, top-notch materials, easily located and enabled controls, and plenty of sound insulation.
I can’t recall ever complaining about space inside the Sportage, but Kia nevertheless has given us more of it: headroom and legroom are up in both front and back seats, and the cargo area has grown to 30.1 cubic feet (which can be nearly doubled to 60.1 by folding the back seats). The Sportage offers nearly as much passenger room as the Honda CR-V, though it falls short of the Honda on cargo space and ease of folding the seats.
As you might expect, Kia has piled on lots of new technology. Options on the Sportage include blind-spot warning, collision warning with automatic emergency braking, and a big touch-screen stereo that works with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Oddly enough, adaptive cruise control is not on the equipment list — this despite the fact that the Sportage is fitted with radar for the collision warning system and cameras for the lane-departure warning system.
Motive power comes from one of two four-cylinder engines: a 181-horsepower 2.4-liter or a 240-horsepower turbocharged 2.0, both of which are tuned to run on regular (87 octane) fuel. I drove the turbo model and was impressed with the way it zipped down the road, though the six-speed automatic transmission sometimes had trouble keeping up. I’d floor the pedal and the engine would be ready to go, but the transmission still would be fumbling for the right gear.
Driving dynamics — one of my biggest complaints about the old Sportage — are way, way better. After years of getting it wrong, the folks at Kia seem to be getting the hang of this whole chassis setup thing. The Sportage SX I drove rode comfortably, if a bit firmly, and acquitted itself well in the curves with sharp turn-in and good grip. Steering, which always has been a weak point with Kias, is greatly improved, with good feel, decent feedback, and nice on-center action. The chassis can certainly back up that zippy turbocharged engine.
Oddly enough, the 1.6-liter turbocharged engine offered in the Sportage’s close cousin, the Hyundai Tucson, is not available in the Sportage. Kia feels the need to differentiate its vehicles from those of Hyundai (understandable, as they share common chassis and engineering) and seems to think that engine choices are one way to do that. I disagree: I don’t think buyers care much about a common powerplant under the hood. It’s more important to differentiate the vehicles with styling and interior layout, which both companies already have done. If buyers prefer the look and feel of a Kia over the look and feel of a Hyundai, why deny them the most fuel-efficient engine the combine offers for this size of vehicle?
The absence of the 1.6T is all the more problematic, because if there’s one place where the Sportage really biffs, it’s fuel economy. The base-model Sportage with the 2.4-liter engine is rated at 23 city/30 highway mpg, with EX models dropping to 22/29 mpg. Add all-wheel drive, and the ratings fall further to 21/25 mpg. And the 2.0 turbo engine is even worse: 21/26 mpg with front-wheel drive and 20/23 mpg with all-wheel drive.
How bad are those numbers? The Honda CR-V, which also uses a 2.4-liter engine, is rated at 26/33 with front-wheel drive and 25/31 with all-wheel drive. The 2.5-liter Toyota RAV4 scores 23/30 with front-wheel drive and 22/29 with all-wheel drive — same as the front-drive Sportage! My all-wheel-drive Sportage SX tester averaged just over 20 mpg during my day-long drive. In this day and age, that’s almost shameful.
So let’s get back to my original point: Why did Kia make the Sportage look so strange? It had an excellent vehicle that was selling well and had received critical acclaim for many things — including styling. My point is that had Kia just tweaked the styling slightly, making it look more like the previous-gen Sportage, the new Sportage would be less likely to alienate buyers.
For the record, Kia says it wanted the Sportage to stand out from the crowd. Wearing a really ugly sweater will make you stand out from the crowd, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Neither is the Sportage’s new styling. And that’s too bad, because the rest of the 2017 Kia Sportage is pretty darn good, offering more interior space, better cargo capacity, and more electronic gee-gaws. Fuel economy is still a sore spot, but I still recommend the Sportage…if you can stand to look at it.
For more information, options, and pricing, please visit our 2017 Kia Sportage page on AutoWeb’s search and configure site.
Image credit ©2016 AutoWeb / Aaron Gold