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2017 Kia Sportage first drive

Loaded with tech and room to sprawl, Kia's Sportage is compact in name only

Now that compact SUVs have become the largest selling class of car in the United States, it’s absolutely critical for automaker to offer a strong contender. That’s good news for consumers, because it means everyone’s going to bring their A-game, and competition on both price and features will be fierce.

The 2017 Kia Sportage has a natural advantage at this point because Kia has built their reputation on solid, affordable vehicles that are fun to drive. Kia has been selling the Sportage since 1993, and the new model represents the fourth generation of development. The list of updates for 2017 includes important updates to the interior, exterior, and mechanical systems, and a wide variety of available technology packages.

Peter Schreyer design

Kia is very proud to have nabbed ace designer Peter Schreyer away from VW/Audi. Over the past several years, Schreyer’s team has given the whole Kia line a new look, and that now extends to the Sportage. The new design is just a little bit bold, which means it’s up to date, but not a comic book caricature that an adult would be embarrassed to drive.

The main thing to note is that the bumpers have been smoothed into the front end so smoothly that it looks like there’s no bumper there at all. That’s a win, because bumpers have been ugly since the middle 1970s when the government decreed that bumpers should actually protect the car and its occupants. You still get a rear bumper, but it’s vestigial and doesn’t spoil the car’s looks.

Related: Designed largely in Europe, the new Kia Sportage gets a head-turning look

You also get some nifty LED driving lights on all trim levels and headlights that wrap around halfway to the windshield. The rest of the body is smooth curves that work together to make the little Kia look ready for action. Throw in the big 19-inch wheels and the new Sportage is a handsome beast.

Larger, better interior

The 2017 Sportage offers a little more interior space than the outgoing model. Not a tremendous amount, but enough that you’ll notice. You get about one-third of an inch more headroom in front, but in the rear, you get a lower floor and seat level, plus something over a half-inch more headroom. The important thing to know is that taller people will have no trouble getting comfortable in the Sportage. The appearance of space is also enhanced by the new panoramic glass sunroof, which is over four inches longer than the old model. Slide the shade out of the way and you’ll feel like there’s nothing but sky above you.

There’s a hybrid-shaped hole in Kia’s Sportage line, which they should fill sooner rather than later.

The other thing you’ll notice as you slide into that bigger interior is that Kia has also brought its design chops to the Sportage. The center stack is slightly angled towards the driver in a way that makes clear that the navigation (if so equipped) and audio system is for the boss. It’s not so extreme that the passenger can’t use it, but for the bulk of the time when the primary driver is alone in the car, it’s a nice touch.

The Sportage also features quality materials throughout. You won’t feel like you bought an economy model with this vehicle. The Kia brings at least as much real quality to the interior as European crossovers, especially if you spring for the plussed-up EX or SX trim levels with leather upholstery. Yeah, you won’t get wood trim, but is that really worth the extra cash? The majority of the cabin is just as nice as anything from across the pond.

Drivetrain simplicity

The 2017 Sportage is available with two engines. The base engine, mandatory on the starter LX and mid-level EX trims, is a normally aspirated 2.4-liter 4-cylinder rated at 180 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. This engine returns 23 MPG in the city and 30 MPG on the highway in base trim with front wheel drive. Upgrade to AWD and fuel economy drops to 21 city and 25 highway. That’s disappointing, but if you want fuel economy, you should buy one of the hybrid compact crossovers on the market. Speaking of which, there’s a hybrid-shaped hole in Kia’s Sportage line, which they will shortly fill with the upcoming 2017 Niro subcompact crossover.

2017 Kia Sportage
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

If you buy the top-level SX trim, the new Sportage comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine good for 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. But yikes, this model gets only 20 MPG city and 23 on the highway, because the Sportage SX with AWD weighs in at a chunky 3,997 pounds, or 3,898 pounds with FWD. The turbo engine is nice when you’re moving, but the small displacement unit really could use some hybrid assistance. It’s not quick off the line and takes time to build some boost before the power comes on.

There’s only one transmission in the Sportage, and it’s a 6-speed automatic. That’s a very good thing, as too many automakers have chosen the continuously variable design. A CVT sucks the life out of any vehicle, and the fuel economy benefit isn’t that great. In contrast, the Kia transmission is crisp and prompt with its shifting, and if you get the SX turbo version it comes with paddle shifters.

If you opt for AWD on any trim level, you get a locking center differential that will send 50 percent of torque to each end of the car. If you don’t punch the diff lock button, you get a mostly front-wheel-drive experience that engages the rear wheels as needed.

Sportage on the road

Another area where Kia has improved the Sportage is in ride comfort, but they did it without sacrificing the firm and confident ride that the last generation enjoyed. The new Sportage is also noticeably quieter than the outgoing model.

Kia is delivering a good product with the Sportage, and its reputation should speak for itself.

Compact SUVs have a tendency to feel a little light and insubstantial – but with the Sportage tipping the scales between 3,300 and 4,000 pounds (depending on the trim and drivetrain) you get a good solid ride that feels like a much larger vehicle.  Yet the Sportage steers and corners with confidence, within the bounds of physics. Pushed to the limit, the Sportage will understeer.

It’s worth noting that the top-level SX trim comes with slightly larger brakes and a sportier suspension, so take that into account when you make your buying plans.

Available technology packages

Kia has done a good job with the trim levels on the Sportage. Each level offers optional packages that take you almost to the next level, so there are plenty of options offered in a smooth price ladder.

The base Sportage LX comes with a 5-inch touchscreen and a rearview camera, plus a basic 3.5-inch LCD display stereo with Bluetooth. The optional LX Cool and Connected Package costs $900 and adds an all-new 7-inch touchscreen stereo interface featuring Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

If you upgraded to the EX trim, you get all the Cool and Connected tech, and you can buy the optional $2,700 Technology Package and move up to an 8-inch touchscreen with navigation, powered by a 320-watt Harman Kardon stereo system. When you choose the SX trim, you add a color LCD instrument panel on top of all the cool stuff from the EX Technology Package.

All Sportage models come with basic safety tech features like stability control, traction control, hill start assist, downhill brake control, anti-lock brakes, and so on. To get the shiny new safety features, you have to start with the EX trim and add the $1,900 Premium Package to get Blind Spot Detection with Lane Change Assist and Rear Cross Traffic Alert.

If you buy your EX with the Technology Package, you also get front & rear parking assist, lane departure warning, automatic high beams, forward collision warning, and autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection. If you buy the top SX trim level, the Sportage comes with all the tech goodies included.

Priced to compete

Kia has traditionally undercut its competition on price, but while the Sportage is priced competitively against similar Asian and American models, Kia no longer has to attract buyers on price alone. They’re delivering a good product and the company’s reputation now speaks for itself.

The 2017 Kia Sportage starts at $23,795 (fees included) for the base model LX with FWD. Moving up to the leather-upholstered EX version pushes the price to $26,395. Continuing on up to the SX trim with the turbo engine takes a big jump to $33,395. Choosing AWD will cost you $1,500 more on any trim level.

At the top end, you get everything – turbo engine, AWD, HID lights, bigger wheels, and the full technology suite, for right around $35,000. That seems like a lot for a compact SUV from a company known for economy cars, but it’s the best deal on the 2017 Sportage. If you want a fully-equipped compact crossover SUV from any automaker, you’ll be shopping in the same price range.

With all things being equal, the 2017 Kia Sportage is worth your consideration.

Highs

  • Confident driving feel
  • Real automatic transmission
  • Nice interior for the price
  • Good technology story

Lows

  • Middling fuel economy
  • Steep price walk to a well-equipped model
  • Could use more engine torque