NAME: 2011 Kia Sportage CUV


PRICE: $18,295 (base) - $23,295 (loaded)


STATS: (standard) 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine; 176hp; Dynamax All-Wheel-Drive; MPG city/highway: 22/31


FUN FACT: In 2009, the Hyundai Kia Automotive Group passed Ford as the world's fourth largest automaker.


THE BACK STORY: In recent years, we've seen Hyundai slowly shed its "low-budget" stigma with cars like the Genesis and the revamped Sonata. Now, sister brand Kia is attempting a similar move with its newest lineup, including the third generation of its longest-running brand, the Sportage. (Nope, not the hamster/"Choice Is Yours" Kia—that's the Soul.) The Sportage is getting a total makeover for 2011—both inside and outside—all at a price that remains lower than its competition (Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape, etc.). But what's the 2011 Sportage like to drive? Kia invited us out to San Francisco last month to get some hands-on time with its compact SUV...

kia_interior

DOPE:
It looks and feels more expensive than the sticker: Everything from the completely redesigned signature grill to the attractive interior (and panoramic sunroof) is befitting of a car in a different tax bracket. You can see the genetics of the new Sportage in Kia's Kue concept, which it debuted at the 2007 NAIAS.

Dynamax AWD: This proprietary system, developed by Kia with Magna International, increases torque and improves performance with an intuitive road-monitoring technology that adjusts based on driving conditions. We didn't quite wrap our heads around all of that in the presentation, but in short: smooth ride.

Lots of space: Kia added 10% more cargo room for the 2011 Sportage, and it feels roomier inside than it may appear from the outside. This would be a great car for a long road trip.

Seamless MP3 integration: Plug in your iPod (via USB or auxiliary cord), and boom—the interface pops up on the display and you can instantly sift through your music. Should be a given for all cars by now, but sadly, it isn't. The 2011 Sportage will also offer UVO, Microsoft's advanced hands-free in-car communication system, but we didn't get a chance to test it out.

Affordable price: Did we already mention this? It should be reiterated that, at less than $20K, this really is a winner.

kia_trunk

NOT SO DOPE:

No real visible clock: Something we've gotten use to seeing in other vehicles is a clock, either embedded in the dash or prominent in the navi display. In the Sportage, the only clock display is a tiny bar in the navi. Not good for people who are constantly running late...like, uh, us.

Low-tech-sounding navigation voice: Something else we've gotten used to: navigation voices sounding somewhat like real people. The Kia navigation system is totally adequate, but the female voice dictating directions sounded a bit analog to us. We suppose you could always opt for a non-navi model and get one of these, though.

The get-up-and-go is a little...understated: Props to Kia for adding more horsepower to the Sportage's base engine, but this is not the car you want to be dueling on the highway with. It runs just fine, but the acceleration is average at best.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

FINAL SAY: The 2011 Sportage is an impressive car for its price, and is certainly a worthy competitor in the crowded crossover market. Kia says that the Sportage is targeting the demographic transitioning into adulthood (roughly 25-years-old and up), and it succeeds in presenting a pretty sound option for "my first new car." It may be time to change your perception of the brand.