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2023 Kia Sportage First Drive – Looking for Attention

I’ll admit it – I sometimes forget Kia’s Sportage exists.

That’s not because the current-generation Sportage is a bad vehicle. No, it’s because it competes in a crowded class and certain stalwarts and newcomers have commanded the market’s attention in recent years.

Enter the 2023 Kia Sportage. Thanks to a major redesign, this five-seat crossover is ready to ram its way back into the spotlight, for better or for worse.

There’s a plethora of choice when it comes to this new Sportage – gas, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid powertrains are available, and the Sportage can be had in one of at least seven available trim levels.

Kia invited me to the desert east of Los Angeles so that I could sample two specific Sportages – the “off-roader” X-Pro trim and the plug-less version of the hybrid.

At least, that was the plan, anyway. Somehow the swap got screwed up and my day was X-Pro heavy. Still, I had a chance to at least get a small sampling of the hybrid.

(Full disclosure: Kia PR flew me to Palm Springs, California, and fed and housed me for two nights in a lovely hotel. They offered a branded throw pillow I left behind, and a notebook and pen which I kept.)

A portion of the press briefing was given over to an introductory video that showcased the Sportage, and having not yet gotten a good look at the cars parked on-site, I found myself a bit alarmed by the design direction. I saw a little too much current Chevy Blazer. Kia folks did acknowledge that the design choices, at least in terms of exterior styling, were a bit contradictory, saying something about blending muscular, angular lines and sleeker curves.

All I knew is that, in pics at least, the new Sportage looked a bit odd to my eye.

Color me surprised, then, that I found the styling worked better in person. That’s true of both the X-Pro, which is meant to look more “rugged”, and the citified hybrid. We’re not talking head-turning handsome, here, but at the very least I’d not kick either one of these Sportages out of my garage. So to speak.

The X-Pro I spent most of my day in is powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 187 horsepower and 178 lb-ft of torque. It’s matched to an eight-speed automatic transmission. While some gas Sportages come standard with front-wheel drive and offer all-wheel drive as an option, the X-Line and X-Pro trims come standard with AWD.

The X-Line is more show than go, offering different front and rear bumpers, a gloss black look for the roof rack, sideview mirrors, and window surrounds; raised roof-rack rails that are meant to better carry off-road gear; and 19-inch wheels.

The X-Pro gets a bit more serious, with BF Goodrich all-terrain rubber, 17-inch wheels, LED fog lamps, available LED projector headlights (standard on X-Pro Prestige models), heated windshield, off-road-tuned drive modes, two-tone roof, cooled front seats (Prestige), and 8-way power front passenger seat (Prestige).

Not exactly, as one of our off-road-track instructors said, “a Rubicon rolling on 35s.” Still, the X-Pro is capable of some light-duty off-road work. Kia set up an off-road course that showed off the off-road features such as hill-descent control, a forward-facing camera, and the locking AWD system, and the Sportage did just fine. You won’t be rock crawling, but if you need to traverse a dry creek bed to get to your favorite camping spot, you could do a lot worse than this rig.

We’ll pause here to note that the Sportage’s ground clearance has increased from 6.4 inches (6.8 with AWD) to 7.1 inches (8.3 with AWD). Meanwhile, the Sportage has grown in size – the overall length is 7.1 inches longer, with the wheelbase increasing by 3.4 inches. Height and width increase by half an inch. Perhaps most notable is the increase in cargo-area capacity to 39.6 cubic feet, a nearly 9 cubic-foot increase. The cargo floor is dual level.

On-road, the X-Pro isn’t too hampered by its all-terrain tires or any specific “off-road” tuning. It is, however, hampered by the fact it’s a crossover. No one expects these things to be fun, and the Sportage X-Pro isn’t particularly exciting, though it is competent.

The ride quality on smooth California roads was stiff but pleasant – though, as always, I’d like to see how this thing behaves on pock-marked pavement.

I wasn’t pushing super hard, because crossover, but on the one or two occasions I came into a corner a little too hot I experienced easily controlled understeer. I’ll give kudos to the steering – it was nicely weighted, though still artificial in feel. Flicking the drive-mode selector into Sport mode improved the proceedings – the previously sluggish throttle response livened up. Overall, this Sportage’s acceleration was fine for around-town driving and acceptable for the mountains, but it should be noted that the hybrid offers more guts, as we’ll see later.

The cabin will look familiar to those who’ve spent time in Kia and Hyundai products recently – there’s the sweeping dash that integrates the infotainment system nicely, and there are familiar-looking digital gauges and even a couple of actual knobs.

A ha, but there’s some trickery afoot. The knobs appear to be for climate control temperature adjustments, but wait! Press a button and now they control radio volume and tuning. And the HVAC display disappears, bringing up the home menu for the infotainment.

It’s an elegant solution but it takes some getting used to – forget to switch the system over, and you can find yourself cranking the heat when you meant to crank “The Heat is On”.

 

You might need to crank the Glenn Frey at higher speeds – while the cabin is mostly quiet, some wind noise from around the A-pillar flares up during highway driving.

While the plug-in hybrid isn’t yet available, the “regular” hybrid is, and I did manage to get my grubby mitts on one for a few minutes of drive time. The hybrid system seemed smooth and quiet in operation, at least around town, and the hybrid rode a bit better than the X-Pro, thanks to the change to more street-friendly rubber. Although, again, California roads are a bit like a cheat code.

I can’t speak much about the hybrid’s handling, since my drive route was mostly on the urban grid, but the one curve I encountered – and took fairly aggressively – caused the tires to sing at around 20-25 mph. For reference, the hybrid rides on 17s.

I risked an encounter with local law enforcement to give the hybrid a heavy dose of my right foot, and I found that the powertrain has some guts, though there’s a slight delay before the power comes on. The hybrid system here uses a 1.6-liter turbo-four mated to a 44-kilowatt electric motor, and the total system output is 277 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a six-speed automatic.

Differences behind the powertrain include a circular shift knob instead of a T-handle, different layouts for the digital gauges, a different grille, different daytime running lights, and minor styling differences.

Hybrids are offered in three trims (LX, EX, and SX-Prestige), with base pricing starting at $27,290 before the $1,255 destination fee. A loaded SX-Prestige hybrid with AWD will cost you $36,190 before destination.

Standard or available features on models with either powertrain include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, 360-degree camera, premium audio, Bluetooth with multi-device capability, wireless device charging, Wi-Fi hotspot, navigation, satellite radio, heated front seats, heated steering wheel, cooled front seats, and cupholders that can be adjusted to accommodate larger devices, such as tablets.

Available driver-aid tech includes: Driver-attention warning, lane-keep assist, lane-following assist, high-beam assist, forward-collision avoidance with cyclist detection, rear-occupant alert, blind-spot monitoring, blind-spot collision-avoidance assist, rear cross-traffic avoidance assist, speed-limit warning assist, and smart cruise control.

Base Sportages start at $25,990 and a top-trim vehicle will cost you $36,790, again before destination. An X-Pro Prestige AWD I tested cost $38,555 with options and destination.

Fuel economy is listed by the EPA at 25/32/28 for FWD gas models, 23/28/25 for AWD gas models, 38/38/38 for AWD hybrids, and 42/44/43 for FWD hybrids.

Overall, the package here is solid and priced fairly in line with the competition. The exterior styling is more attractive in person than in pictures, the interior is well-done, and the driving experience, while unremarkable, won’t let you down.

That’s the good news – and the bad news. The 2023 Kia Sportage does a lot of things well, and it’s a perfectly competent vehicle. But with the exception of its looks, it doesn’t really stand out over the competition.

Sportage buyers will likely be happy. And I won’t forget this one exists, so at least there’s that.

[Images © 2022 Tim Healey/TTAC, Kia]

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