Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Totally Redesigned 2011 Kia Sportage

A SmackDown of sorts has been raging in the hotly contested compact crossover (CUV) arena for several years, but the redesigned 2011 Kia Sportage should send handicappers scrambling to recalculate winners and losers. Listed among its key adversaries are Honda's CR-V, Toyota's RAV4, Chevrolet's Equinox and Subaru's Forester. Mediocrity is not an option.

Arriving on dealer lots in limited numbers the first couple of weeks of August, the 2011 Kia Sportage is larger, more powerful, more comfortable and better looking than the two generations of Sportage that have rolled into showrooms since its original launch as a 1996 model in 1995. Sportage is, in fact, Kia's longest running nameplate.

At a glance, here are a few of the myriad changes and enhancements of the 2011 Sportage over the 2010 edition: It is longer (3.5 inches), wider (2.1 inches) and lower (2.3 inches). It has 10 percent more cargo space behind the second-row seat. It's base four-cylinder engine has more power than last year's V6, yet fuel economy is notably better. A 270-horsepower 2-liter turbo four-cylinder replaces last year's 173-horsepower V6 as Sportage's high-end powerplant. Trim levels have expanded from two to four. Handling is improved thanks to a newly engineered multi-link rear suspension setup.

Sportage's initial late-summer roll out will be restricted to four-cylinder versions (Base, LX and EX). The turbo-charged SX will follow in early fall.

First seen at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Kia's Kue concept provided the styling inspiration for the 2011 Sportage. You won't need to compare the 2010 and 2011 versions side by side to notice the changes; the transformation is abrupt. It is something akin to snatching a bum off the street, cleaning him up, giving him a shave and a haircut, and dressing him in a tux. His mother probably wouldn't recognize him. So it is with the new Sportage.

Powering the new Sportage is a 176-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with Continuously Variable Valve Timing (CVVT). Remarkably smooth and quiet, this powerplant generates three more horsepower than last year's V6. In the $18,990 Base version, engine output is funneled to the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. In the $20,990 LX and the $23,990 EX, a six-speed automatic transmission with Sportmatic clutchless shifting (Kia-speak for driver-shiftable) gets power to the wheels.

In fully automatic mode, the transmission shifts smoothly and doesn't seem to have a problem finding the appropriate gear when accelerating to pass or slugging up hill. Goosing the accelerator pedal won't pin you against the seat, but Sportage is quick enough to get you out ahead of traffic when the light goes green.

Adding $1,500 to the bottom line, AWD is available on the LX and EX. Kia says its Dynamax system doesn't just react to changing road conditions; but actually anticipates changes, making corrections before problems occur. Under normal conditions, 100 percent of engine power is transferred to the front wheels. When the system detects wheel slippage, up to 50 percent of power can be sent to the rear wheels. A locking differential can be engaged at speeds less than 25 miles per hour to keep power evenly split between the front and rear wheels.

Utilizing unibody construction and a fully independent suspension, Sportage's ride is wonderfully pliant, yet it handles well for a CUV. The front suspension consists of MacPherson struts and side-loaded coil springs. The multi-link rear suspension is an all-new. Stabilizer bars at each end add strength and control. Base and LX versions come with 16-inch alloy wheels and tires, while the EX rides on 18-inch ones.

At each wheel disc brakes monitored by an antilock system help bring Sportage to controlled stops. All trim levels also feature electronic stability control, traction control and brake assist. Other standard equipment includes Hill Start Assist that prevents the vehicle from rolling backwards when starting out on an uphill grade, and Downhill Brake Control that automatically slows the vehicle to constant speed when negotiating steep downhill grades.

Inside, Sportage is roomy and inviting. Seating five it provides plenty of head and legroom both fore and aft. Offering more than adequate side support, the front bucket seats are firm comfortable. The 60/40 split rear seat folds flat, increasing cargo-carrying space from 26.1 cubic feet to 54.6 cubic feet.

Also completely redesigned the dashboard is anything but boring. It's a cacophony of of swirling lines, round edges, dips and bulges. Large and easy to see, the center gauge pod houses key information like vehicle and engine speeds. All controls and switches are logically placed and intuitive in their operation. Redundant controls for the six-speaker audio system with its CD player, USB port and auxiliary input jack are on the three-spoke steering wheel. Air conditioning, full power accessories, LCD trip computer, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, and tilt steering wheel are all included in the Base price.

Moving up to the LX increases content to include keyless entry and multi-adjustable front seats. Building on the Base and LX, the EX has a leather-wrapped tilt-telescoping steering wheel, automatic dual-zone climate control and illuminated vanity mirrors. Also standard on EX is Kia's new UVO voice-activated communications system for hands-free operation of cell phones and music features.

Keeping the pressure on the competition, the 2011 Sportage is a revealing snapshot of where Kia is heading.

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