To drive the 2011 Sportage EX all-wheel drive is to think a roving band of German engineers broke into Kia headquarters during the vehicle's development and replaced the original blueprints with a set of their own.
In many ways, this is no accident.
If you haven't noticed, Kia's entire lineup is starting to look a lot better. Realizing stylish vehicles aren't immaculately conceived, Kia made a shrewd move in 2006 and hired notable Audi designer Peter Schreyer.
Schreyer was one of the minds behind Volkswagen's New Beetle and the Audi TT (with Freeman Thomas and others) so it's safe to say the guy knows his way around a design studio.
This new Sportage very much reflects Schreyer's touch, though more so outside than inside.
The exterior styling on this sporty compact crossover is taut and athletic, with sweeping curves on the chrome grille, headlights and taillights, which mix with sharp angles and creases in the greenhouse area of the vehicle. (That includes the windshield, windows and panels between the vehicle's roof and body.)
The top-of-the-line EX model even comes with LED daytime running lights, a flair quickly becoming en vogue in luxury brands.
It's a sharp-looking presentation that is modernly masculine without emitting so much testosterone that a soccer mom should feel uncomfortable driving it.
The interior is of a similarly high quality. Sportage buyers should just go ahead and tape to the dashboard: "Yes, this is a Kia," because you're going to get tired of saying it.
The Sportage starts under $20,000, yet nothing about the cabin feels "value-oriented," save for maybe the two-tiered layout of the center console. The buttons, gauges and plastics are all high-quality and have a solid air of competence that car manufacturers can't fake when they're cutting costs.
Options including the navigation system and iPod interface are some of the easiest to use in the industry and work like they were designed by people who actually plan on using them.
The seats serve their role and won't attract attention for good reasons or bad. Legroom and headroom are great no matter where you're sitting. Rear cargo space is decent, but nearly all others in this segment — which includes the Toyota RAV-4, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and even the Sportage's nearly identical cousin, the Hyundai Tucson — feature more space.
Blame that shortfall on the sloping roofline, ample rear seats and the fact that the Sportage runs about a half a foot shorter than its competitors. Also unfortunate is the large blind spot the crossover's thick C-pillar creates behind the rear passengers' shoulders.
Congruent with the Sportage's German influence is how engaging it is to drive.
Power comes from an inline four-cylinder (no six-cylinder is offered), good for 176 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque, both average for this class.
The bare-bones, front-wheel-drive base model starts with a six-speed manual transmission, which I wasn't able to sample. The LX and EX models feature a standard six-speed automatic transmission with manual mode. The transmission worked well with the engine, save for some undue reluctance to downshift to the proper gear during some admittedly aggressive highway passing.
Fuel economy is rated at a segment-average 21 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. During a week of driving, I averaged 21.4 mpg over 700 miles.
The suspension is on the stiff side, which lends itself well to cornering, yet you pay the price over rough roads. The all-wheel-drive system (a $1,500 option on the LX and EX) clings to the road, the steering has a nice, weighted feel to it and the Sportage holds its line through turns better than you'd expect.
And just in case your otherwise infallible driving skills experience a momentary lapse and you find yourself heading toward an immovable object, Kia's Sportage has a host of standard safety features to keep you in one piece. These include front and side airbags, side curtain airbags with rollover sensor, stability control, traction control, electronic brake-force distribution, downhill brake control and hill assist control.
The cost of all this content is a double-edged sword for Kia's Sportage.
At the top of the lineup is the EX with all-wheel drive. Get into one of these and start adding options, and things can quickly get out of hand. The Signal-Red model I tested rang in at $29,990. This does include significant options such as navigation with Sirius Traffic, rear backup camera, a premium audio system, leather seats and a panorama sunroof.
Still, that's a lot of potatoes for what is the smallest vehicle in its segment. Kia's own (larger) Sorrento can be had for nearly the same amount of money, with the same build quality and even the same four-cylinder.
Yet at the lower end of the model spectrum, the base model with the manual transmission, the automatic-equipped LX and the LX with all-wheel drive all represent significant value at $19,000, $21,000 and $22,500, respectively.
Buy 'em with impunity; who needs to know how much you really spent? And these more basic models feature the build quality, the looks and the safety of the pricier versions. Also standard on all Sportages (and indeed all Kias), is a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, a five-year, 60,000-mile basic warranty and 24-hour roadside assistance.
On second thought, maybe make it a T-shirt that reads, "Yep, it's a Kia." You really will be saying it a lot. Even to yourself.