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First Drive: Redesigned 2023 Kia Sportage Jumps the SUV Rankings

The 2023 Kia Sportage SUV now ranks as a must-consider vehicle for shoppers looking for an excellent daily commuter with a comfortable interior for a family and decent cargo space.

Kia completely redesigned the Sportage from the previous generation. It is bigger, more powerful, more efficient and, for the first time, has one version with off-road capability.

The improvements were evident during a drive of the new generation crossover on the highways and mountains near Palm Springs, Calif.

Which 2023 Kia Sportage To Buy?

But this is a tale of two vehicles.

The hybrid all-wheel-drive Sportage in the LX and EX trims represents the best value in the lineup. They start at about $30,000 and $33,000, respectively.

The more expensive X-Pro trim has off-road capability but also critical flaws that make other vehicles a better choice for those looking to use the new Sportage as a daily driver and adventure vehicle. (More on that later.)

Kia designers made the new Sportage 7.1 inches longer than the previous generations – providing plenty of room for four adults on long trims and decent cargo space. It also works fine for five passengers around town. The cabin is quiet and comfortable.

Although the base model has an 8-inch touchscreen, it’s large enough for every need. The upper trims have two 12.3-inch screens connected by a long curved glass, giving the cockpit a cohesive, horizontal feel. Combined, they provide all the information a driver would seek and are easy to read and navigate. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard features of all trims.

Interior of the 2023 Kia Sportage. (Photo: Kia)

There’s plenty of standard and helpful automated safety technology. The advanced driver assistance systems include forward collision alert with automatic emergency braking and cyclist detection capability. Other standard features include lane-keeping assist, which automatically adjusts steering to keep the Sportage centered, automatic high beams, and reverse parking distance warning to navigate tight spots.

Other important features such as blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert and adaptive cruise control are options.

2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid Shines

The hybrid version has an exceptionally smooth powertrain rated at 227 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

The powertrain is a step up from the standard 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder gasoline direct injection engine rated at 187 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque. That is mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission that isn’t appreciably better than the 6-speed in the hybrid. Still, people wanting to save a bit of money won’t go wrong with that Sportage configuration.

2023 Kia Sportage has dynamic styling. (Photo: Jerry Hirsch/Trucks.com)

Kia’s hybrid Sportage has an EPA rating of 43 mpg in combined city and highway driving for the LX and 38 mpg for the heavier EX and EX Prestige versions. That compares to 28 mpg and 25 mpg for combined driving for the 2.5-engine models.

The entire line of all-wheel-drive Sportage models has a ground clearance of 8.3 inches. That’s enough to navigate snowy weather and modest dirt roads and should work for most drivers. The front-wheel-drive Sportage models ride about an inch lower.

But like just about every other automaker fighting in the small SUV space, Kia has gone into full adventure mode. It added the X-Pro trim to the Sportage range, marketing the models to shoppers looking to travel off the beaten path to remote hiking and biking trails, campsites, fishing holes and other outdoor destinations.

While the X-Pro Sportage test drive on an off-road course demonstrated the new vehicle has decent manners in the dirt, there are better offerings from other automakers. The Subaru Outback and Subaru Forester offer a superior combination of pavement driving and off-road capability. Those looking for a small SUV that can handle the dirt also might consider the Bronco Sport.

No Spare Tire?

Kia designers left a full-size spare tire out of the new vehicle to reduce weight, improve fuel economy, and preserve cargo space. All but the lowest trim Sportage get a portable, or “donut” spare.  The LX model just has an inflation kit.

Off-roaders know hitting the trail without a full spare tire is a mistake. Flat-tires are part of off-roading. It makes no sense for automakers to pitch cars as dirt drivers but not include such essential equipment. The Outback and Forester have full spares, and one is available for the Bronco Sport. Good luck getting out of a ditch with a portable spare.

But getting rid of full-size spare tires is a trend, even in some vehicles marketed for their off-road ability. Subaru did it in its new Solterra electric SUV. Mazda’s new CX-50 crossover has decent off-road capability that also is undone by a portable spare. Even GMC in the new $110,000 electric Hummer pickup truck left out the spare. The only saving grace is room in its truck bed for a mount and an extra wheel. But that will be another $1,000 or so. These other vehicles have no way to carry a full-size spare wheel except by shoving it in the cargo deck. That’s self-defeating.

The new Kia Sportage could use a spare tire for off-roading. (Photo: Jerry Hirsch/Trucks.com)

Kia’s Thinking

Asked about the portable spare tire strategy a Kia spokesman offered the following:

“The introduction of Sportage X-Pro is Kia dipping its toe into offering an off-road ready SUV from the factory. Kia developed the Sportage X-Pro with input from its target audience, and we’re going to also incorporate learnings from our first owners,” he said. “The overall package balances off-road capability with interior versatility and cargo space.”

He said the portable spare can act as a “lifeline” on the trail. But many of the people driving a Sportage into the wilderness are unlikely to have much off-road experience. It would be risky to rely on a small spare.

There are other problems. The X-Pro Sportage has a different suspension setting. Designers gave optimized to use with all-terrain tires. It has unique dampers and steering calibration.

It works well in the dirt, but there’s a noticeable degradation in ride quality on the pavement, reducing the SUVs’ attraction as a daily driver. Body roll becomes apparent during the twisty turns of a paved mountain road. There’s more bounce and give – great for dirt – but not so nice on the highway. The suspension does settle at highway speed.

Many Choices

Potential buyers will have more than enough choices. Kia will offer seven different versions of the Sportage that climb the price and options range. It starts at $25,990 for the front-wheel-drive LX model and rises to $36,790 for the all-wheel-drive X-Pro Prestige model, the most off-road capable configuration with the fanciest interior. The delivery fee adds another $1,255.

The Toyota RAV-4, Honda CRV and Nissan Rogue dominate this space, accounting for more than 1 million new vehicle sales last year. Much of that results from customers reflexively returning to the same brand without shopping the broader field.

That’s a mistake for those looking for a fuel-efficient, family SUV. Kia has elevated the Sportage into the upper echelon of the class, and it compares favorably to the previous segment favorites.

Jerry Hirsch March 14, 2022
The 2022 Ford Bronco is a worthy entry in the growing roster of available off-road vehicles, providing a decent ride to any adventure but excelling once it leaves the pavement.

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