First Drive: Chasing a 350 Foot Serpent in the 2017 Kia Sportage

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Kia Sportage

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The twisty mountain roads of the Colorado Desert seem like the absolute worst to place on earth to test a benign little family crossover, but here we are behind the wheel of a 2017 Kia Sportage. These high desert roads deep in San Diego County seem built for the Porsche 911, the Shelby GT350, or the BMW M3, not the Kia. And yet, it’s surprisingly lively, almost… fun. Surely the hairpins and drops will show all the shortcomings in its chassis, cross-up its six-speed automatic transmission, make its tires beg for mercy – but no, it handles it, all of it. From the brand “least likely” to a few years ago comes a smart, stylish, well-built crossover that actually knows how to have a good time.

It’s difficult not to begin a piece on Kia or its sister brand Hyundai and not mention their astonishing growth over the past decade and a half. But even Kia gets in on the game, framing the new Sportage as its next logical step on its journey from bargain-basement also-ran to equal of Honda and Toyota. “Rock and roll history is filled with countless stories of innovation and reinvention,” a rep says at the Sportage launch, returning to the music theme the brand has used in its advertising since the Soul was introduced in 2009. Kia wants the Sportage to “stand out in a sea of beigeness,” to connect with the ‘urban pioneer,’” to have its “Euro-centric” design resonate with a generation that seems more interested in good infotainment systems and having enough room for a big Costco run than an emotional connection with their car. So will it work? We happen to think it will.

Kia Sportage

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

For starters, the Sportage is a popular nameplate for an increasingly popular brand. Kia sold over 625,000 cars in the U.S. 2015, and over 50,000 of those were Sportages – a 25% increase over 2014 sales. And despite being a lame-duck model, sales are up for ‘16 models too. By the time you read this, the ’17s will be on their way to dealerships around the country, and the number of improvements to the model won’t just overshadow the current crossover, they could bump the Sportage to the top of the compact crossover heap – no small feat considering it’s competing for market share against the likes of the Mazda CX-5, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4.

Kia Sportage

Source: Kia

The 2017 Sportage is improved inside and out in a ways that should be catnip for crossover buyers. The new UV03 infotainment system is compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, but also takes its cues from the phones by utilizing a “pinch to zoom” feature and allowing users to swipe between screens, which should make it one of the most user-friendly infotainment systems on the market.

Inside, it has more soft-touch materials in the cabin than most of its competitors, giving its interior quality that punches well above its weight. It’s the widest crossover in its class (73 inches), and it’s grown 1.6 inches overall, which helps account for the 18% increase in cargo room to 31 cubic feet. And to access the rear hatch, you don’t need to pull any handles or wiggle your foot under the bumper; there’s a proximity sensor that will detect the key fob and open it for you, making the grocery store run easier than ever.

Kia Sportage

Source: Kia

Under the skin, Kia has used a structural adhesive that bonds panels to the frame and greatly reduces squeak and rattle. Its monocoque chassis is made of 51% advanced high-strength steel, making the new model 39% more rigid and 55 pounds lighter than the outgoing Sportage, which makes it feel sturdier and more confident in the corners.

Deeper still, a new front and rear subframe design makes the ride smoother and quieter, bigger brakes shorten stopping distance by 12%, and the drive-by-wire steering system has been revised for better road feel and quicker inputs, thanks to a faster processor. Engines are carried over from the current model, with the 2.4 liter four coming standard, and producing 181 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. The 2.0 liter turbo, which produces 240 horsepower/260 pound-feet is available on EX and SX models. Mated to a revised six-speed automatic, they both return 1-2 miles per gallon better fuel economy (depending on front- or all-wheel-drive) than the outgoing model.

The Sportage also benefits from an all-new Dynamax all-wheel drive system developed by Magna, as in Magna-Steyr, builders of the Mercedes G-Wagen and other models. Using predictive software and ECUs mounted fore and aft, the system transfers power between the front and rear wheels in real time, adapting and outperforming most current all-wheel drive competitors. With AWD sales taking off in Northern states, Dynamax-equipped Sportages –  with their revised front fascia and steeper departure angle – could become a common sight fairly soon.

Kia Sportage

Source: Kia

Which brings us to the drive. We had the opportunity to put a front- and all-wheel drive 2.0 liter TDI SX (the top of the line, starting at $32,500, base LX models start at $23,885) through their paces, and both proved well up to the task. Fit and finish is very good, and in Burnished Copper (the color of our FWD tester) it really looks striking. It has plenty of good and bad angles, but it’s all of a piece, and certainly one of the bolder crossovers in the segment. Designed between Munich and Seoul under styling chief Peter Schreyer, it’s the anti-CR-V or RAV4 in the sense that you probably won’t lose yours in the Target parking lot anytime soon. For that alone, we’d probably take one over either Japanese stalwart. 

Inside, the leather seats wouldn’t be out of place in a Toyota or Lexus. Nothing feels cheap, and the UV03 is clean, quick, and as simple to use as advertised. The optional panoramic sunroof is perfect for taking in the sweeping desert vistas, and thinner A-pillars help to make it that rare crossover that doesn’t feel like you’re driving a rolling gun bunker.

Kia Sportage

Source: Kia

Switching back and forth between pavement, gravel, sand, and the occasional farm field, both front- and all-wheel models performed nobly, with nary a misstep. If you don’t plan on doing any soft-roading or dealing with snow, we’d recommend the front-wheel model. The Dynamax system is seamless and impressive (Kia recommended we do a hard launch with the front wheels on pavement and the rear on dirt or gravel to show how quickly it worked), but after driving the front-wheel version first, the AWD model is a bit slower on the throttle.

And that 2.0 liter TDI is a gem. It makes excellent use of its power at the low end, is peppy and responsive, and sounds far better than we expected it would. The six-speed auto does its job quietly and without getting in the way, and while the different drive modes were nice to have, the handling was crisp and engaging enough that sport mode seemed to make little difference. But then, if the Sportage can handle mountain twisties with ease, it’ll probably inject a little fun into your daily commute too.

At the end of Kia’s designated circuit in the tiny town of Borrego Springs, the gathered auto press had lunch then turned around to head back to San Diego. But Borrego Springs is home to Galleta Meadows Sculptures, where artist Ricardo Breceda has built over 130 massive steel sculptures on the desert floor, wild horses, to dinosaurs, to a massive 350 foot long giant serpent that looks like it’s slithering beneath the barren highway. We barreled South looking for it, past the steel cowboys, eagles, and camels, but couldn’t see a 350-foot anything – and from our vantage point we could see for miles.

Turning around and heading north, it slowly began to loom above the horizon, rippling in 90-plus degree heat. Well outside of town, and well away from everything else, there it was, furious and inanimate, silently oxidizing in the desert air, a massive scaled beast that looked like it slithered out of a Japanese woodblock print. It all seemed like an apt metaphor for Kia (outside a place that lent its name to one, no less): After a long, punishing journey, it caught up to the towering figure it was chasing all along. The 2017 Sportage is as good as anything to come from its older, more established competitors. Get used to mentioning Kia, Honda, and Toyota in the same breath – we expect a number of new crossover buyers will. 

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