The new 2023 Kia Sportage isn’t so much a car as it is a Universal Studios theme park attraction: an affordable look at the latest auto technology that you can do with the whole family: huge screens, semi-autonomous driving, red leather, hybrid-electric power.
My Matte Gray (yes, Matte Gray in a $38,000, non-luxe car) tester looks like it was sketched by a Hollywood designer.
The front is all grille, chrome accents and LED light bars — the headlights pushed to the very edges of the fascia. It’s a stark contrast with the previous-generation Sportage and its anthropomorphic features. The ‘22 Sportage was a cutie, its big eyes and happy mouth — er, grille — seemingly inspired by Pikachu from the Pokemon family. The new Sportage looks like something from the Tron movies.
“Is that from the future?” my neighbor John commented as I rolled past his driveway on my way up north for a long road trip to enjoy the Kia’s featured attractions.
While it must conform to the traditional layout of four-door SUV, Sportage challenges styling convention. Sister Hyundai has done the same with its angular Tucson ute, which is built on the same platform as Sportage. The Kia’s rear is nearly as intriguing as the front with a wedding cake construction that separates rear window, taillights, license plate panel and diffuser into four planes. The whole sculpture sits under a fashionable floating-roof design.
For all its design ambition, however, my Sportage tester was quite practical. It sat on high-profile, 18-inch wheels with a useful, Wrangler-like 8.3 inches of ground clearance should I encounter a typical northern Michigan dirt road.
The long drive up I-75, however, was anything but typical.
The Sportage has the best semi-autonomous system this side of Caddy’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot. I’m not making this up. Like Super Cruise (and unlike Autopilot) the system has no interest in nannying me all the time.
Unlike those sophisticated systems, Kia doesn’t give its adaptive cruise feature a fancy name and it won’t self-navigate to your destination (so it won’t automatically switch lanes in the process). Otherwise, it allowed me to relax, assume a chair-like seating position (hands on my knees) — only reaching for the steering column when another car got in the way.
The radar brick in the front grille read cars in front of me, slowing down from my set speed of 79 mph as I approached. Assuming the controls, I turned on the blinker, drove around them, then settled back into hands-free driving. The cameras kept the car centered, even in long interstate curves. While Tesla’s Autopilot nannies me every 30 seconds to apply torque to the wheel (making sure I’m paying attention), the Kia system left me alone, rarely asking me to affirm my presence.
A brief rainstorm didn’t faze the system. Over the Zilwaukee Bridge, Sportage was a rock, following the lane beautifully. A pair of full-size pickups — in a hurry to get up I-75 — roared into view behind me, swerving across lanes and passing traffic. Suddenly alongside, they cut in front of me and into the left lane. The Kia braked quickly as the Ram cut across its bow — testing the emergency braking system — then continued on its way as the pickups disappeared into the distance. Impressive.
As the Sportage drove itself, I had the chance to make phone calls, save my favorite radio stations, marvel at the interior. The modern cabin is on par with the Sportage’s sci-fi exterior and cutting-edge adaptive cruise control.
A huge, hoodless curved screen stretches across the dash like — well, a Mercedes. It houses two digital 12.5-inch screens — one for instrumentation, the other for infotainment — that are graphically impressive and configurable. Amid all this electronic wizardry, Sportage is still curiously a generation behind its peers in not offering wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Happily, there was ample console space to plug in my phone for navigating my journey. The Kia native system was no match for the smartphone’s voice and navigation abilities.
The handsome gloss-black center console is full of clever ideas. To minimize buttons, the infotainment and climate controls alternately access the same middle console screen for adjusting, say, volume or heat. Kudos to the first member of your family who figures out this little Easter egg without first consulting the glovebox manual.
Speaking of buttons, the starter, rotary shifter and rotary mode controller are all neatly aligned like the sun, moon and earth in a solar eclipse.
Console cupholders are multi-functional. Taking a page from Honda — whose Civic and Pilot consoles are engineering gems — the Kia’s cupholder rims can be hidden at the touch of a button, turning the space into bigger storage for a box of fries or a small purse. I made good use of the space while downing a fast-food meal on my trip.
All of this was wrapped in red leather under a panoramic sunroof that I usually see in, well, a Mercedes (or Mazda CX-50, another mainstream vehicles with upscale ambitions like Kia).
Again, this in a $38,000 automobile.
Speaking of family, there is lots of room for second-row passengers. Sportage boasts excellent rear legroom, courtesy of a wheelbase stretched by 3.4 inches over that last-gen, and I could tilt the seatback farther to allow myself more headroom.
How does it drive, you ask?
So high-tech is Sportage that I almost forgot the hybrid drivetrain, which went about its duties in workman-like way. The hybrid marries a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-banger with a single electric motor for a healthy 226 horses. It made good acceleration out of stoplights, but when it came to tackling the twisties on my favorite M-32 west of Gaylord, the Kia wasn’t interested. It’s no Mazda CX-5.
The hybrid drivetrain is new to Sportage (there is also a plug-in model available with 32 miles of battery-only range) and claims a combined 38 mpg with all-wheel drive — a big jump over the non-hybrid’s 28 mpg. That’s welcome news as I passed by gas price signs of $4.51 (soon to rise above $5).
But in my week of driving, the Sportage hybrid returned a much more modest figure of 29 mpg. Oh well. That’s a rare miss in a vehicle that otherwise exceeds all expectations for the average family ute.
2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid
Vehicle type: Front engine, front- or all-wheel-drive, four-door five-passenger compact SUV
Price: $28,585, including $1,215 destination fee ($38,000 Hybrid SX-Prestige AWD as tested)
Powerplant: 1.6-liter turbocharged inline four mated to twin electric motors and 1.5 kWh lithium-ion battery pack
Power: 227 horsepower, 258 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, (8.0 sec., Car and Driver est.); towing, 2,000 pounds.
Weight: 3,896 pounds (as tested)
Fuel economy: 38 city/38 highway/38 combined; range, 521 miles
Highs: High-tech features; comfortable interior
Lows: Polarizing looks; fuel economy came up well short of 38 mpg
Overall: 4 stars
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