Two and a half decades ago, the Sportage was bad, but interesting. Now it's good, but bland.
When it debuted in the early 1990s, the Kia Sportage was bad but interesting. Nearly 30 years on, it is boring but good. Let’s ask: What is progress?
First, let’s touch on what’s good about the new Sportage.
The main thing is that this looks, feels, and drives like a vehicle much more expensive than it is. A couple of non-car friends riding in it assumed the car cost somewhere around $60- or $70,000, when the MSRP was just about half that, with this Sportage X-Pro Prestige AWD specced up to $38,815. The seats are comfortable and nicely trimmed. The ride is good, even on the A/T tires this particular model showed up with. The dashboard is clean and modern. It is roomy on the inside, and handsome on the outside. I mean it; even though it looks a bit like a robot impersonating a deep-sea fish, there’s something appealing about the front-end design. It’s hard to describe but easy to take in.
As for what’s bad about it, you do have to get somewhat high-minded. What’s missing is something special. A RAV4 has Toyota’s ironclad reputation. A Mazda CX-5 has superior driving dynamics on the road, a Subaru off it. A Mitsubishi Outlander squeezes a third row into the same size of vehicle. The Sportage has its interior, but otherwise, it’s just… present. There’s no sense of occasion. There’s not really anything there there with the Sportage. Even though it has all-wheel drive with a center differential, it’s not permanently sending power to all four wheels like a Subaru, and the A/Ts on this tester felt more show than go. I certainly didn’t have any desire to run this Sportage on any off-road trails, as even the smallest excursion into wooded paths left what looked like trailing scratches all over its stylish piano-black exterior trim.
It’s a vehicle at odds with itself. If it is a stylish family commuter, why no third row? If it’s a sturdy off-roader, why the dainty trim? If it’s meant just for hauling kids around, why must every shiny plastic surface in the car be so dust-prone and annoying to clean?
Also, with only the base four-cylinder engine, it’s slow. Slow in a sludgy, foot-to-the-floor-because-it’s-the-only-way-to-merge kind of way, not the spritely foot-to-the-floor-because-why-the-hell-not kind of way you get in, I don’t know, a Kia Rio. This base Sportage gets 187 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque from a naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter four to push
3543 pounds around through an eight-speed automatic. The hybrid might be a different story, but I myself have not driven one.
And another thing! This car has the weirdest and worst volume controls I have ever encountered. It took a day to realize that there is a control for the volume that’s not on the steering wheel. There is an unlabeled button that switches a digital touchscreen from air conditioning to music controls. You are able to switch the “mode” and “volume” dials from side to side making it easier for your passenger to control the music, but while the controls switch, their labels do not. It’s hard to explain, and harder to wrap your head around why or how Kia settled on this system.
Even with these complaints, the base Sportage is a perfectly serviceable five-seat crossover, is what I’m trying to say.
The original Kia Sportage was a plain and dispensable five-seat crossover, too. It just debuted at a time when plain and dispensable five-seat crossovers were more fringe than they are today.
That first Sportage, sold here in the States through the entirety of “The HGTV Era” of 1995 through 2002, was an SUV-ified version of a Mazda minivan called the Bongo. You could get it as a minute two-door convertible, just as you could with an original Toyota RAV4 or any collection of Geos or Suzukis. This is a good spirit! Someone buying a low-cost car shouldn’t just be stuck with something dull. There should be options for a car that’s interesting, a car that’s objectively and pointedly fun! The original Sportage gave buyers that option.
It just cannot be said that it was a high-quality machine—when the New York Times first drove one in 1996, it found that the upholstery on its test car had been stapled together. A series of recalls about engines stalling and the steering shaft tearing into your brake lines were a worrying prelude to the car going off the market in 2002. Later recalls addressed seat belts coming undone in a crash, a reasonably terrifying combination.
The new Sportage does without the fit, finish, ride, and handling issues of the original. The quality of current Kias is also generations ahead of its 1990s troubles. I just wish that it hadn’t lost some of the whimsy of the original in its evolution.
It’s not fair to lay this all on the shoulders of the Sportage. After all, it was just following the trends of its segment in the 1990s, and it’s still following trends today. There’s no two-door RAV4 to compete against. Instead, the most stylish and strange model it might compare itself to is the Subaru Forester. Indeed, this particular Sportage came in an almost signature Subaru-style “Jungle Green,” looking every bit as serious and drab as a Wilderness Edition product from Subaru.
The Sportage has a nicer interior than the Forester, and it gets better gas mileage (about 30 MPG versus 25 in my personal experience with both vehicles). But it doesn’t have any of the spark of the Subaru. The Sportage’s interior might sway you, but I can’t think of any reason I would be compelled to buy one, even though I don’t think I’d be inconvenienced by it in any meaningful way.
The Sportage might be a fine car, it’s just not an interesting one.