The 2023 Kia Sportage has gotten serious. Look at that face. With a design this unconventional, Kia clearly had to work to make the new Sportage appealing to buyers. I actually think it looks pretty good, better in person. But the typical crossover shopper is, let’s say, boring. So Kia had to nail the fundamentals.
The media event for this all-new 2023 model was the first time I’d driven a Sportage in a very long time. The old model barely ever crossed my mind.This new Sportage has me saying something I never thought I’d say: I would actually consider buying one.
(Full Disclosure: Kia invited me out to Palm Springs to experience the all-new Sportage. The company put me up in a beautiful hotel, continuously fed me with a spread cooked up by a chef, and gave me access to wine and their executives.)
What Is It?
Can you believe the Sportage is Kia’s longest-running nameplate? It was one of Kia’s original models when the company arrived in the U.S., and it’s been around continuously since 1993. While the last generation Sportage used to be the smallest crossover in Kia’s lineup, the Seltos, introduced in 2021, barged into the same space—both vehicles were just a few inches apart in overall dimensions. So Kia decided to make the Sportage bigger.
Built on Kia’s all-new N3 platform, the Sportage has grown to fit the space between the Seltos below it and the Sorrento above. It’s now one of the roomiest midsize crossover SUVs around, packing a third-row seat in a segment where that’s a rarity. The biggest gains are in second-row legroom: A BMW 7-series has 41.4 inches of rear legroom; the new Sportage has 41.3. Cargo capacity starts at nearly 40 cubic feet and grows to over 74 cubic feet with the second row folded.
I got to drive both the top-of-the-line Sportage X-Pro Prestige and the lesser Sportage Turbo Hybrid. The X-Pro Prestige starts at $36,790, and it’s loaded. In addition to all the other standard features like more than two feet of screen on the dash, you get a panoramic roof, LED interior lighting, and a smart power liftgate that you can open by doing a little dance with your foot. The standard engine on the Sportage is a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 187 horsepower, paired with an eight-speed auto. It’s kind of peppy, but could use more power. Don’t expect to win any stoplight races in this thing. If you want power, efficiency is the only way you’re going to get it.
Because the big-power option in the Seltos lineup is the Turbo Hybrid, with a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and a 1.5-kWh battery, paired with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Thank god they didn’t give it a CVT. Total combined output is 227 horsepower. It’s efficient as hell: On a brief 17-mile jaunt back to the hotel, I got nearly 47 mpg in the Hybrid. An even more powerful Sportage model is coming later in the year in the form of a plug-in hybrid with 261 horsepower and 32 miles of electric-only range.
The Elephant in the Room: The Design
Okay, let’s get into it. It is polarizing. Kia designers call it “opposites united,” rugged and futuristic design elements coming together to create a distinctive design. I can’t argue with that. But the result is a little all over the place. The boomerang DRLs look good, and they work with Kia’s signature “tiger nose” grille. But then you get to the C-pillar, with what Kia describes as a “de-pixelating effect.” I don’t get the point of it, but it’s there.
Around back, there’s a feature I wish designers would stop doing: The lower bumper has two faux exhaust-pipe shapes. It’s dumb, but everyone is doing it now.
The interior is very well designed and extremely well put-together. Nearly every surface I touched was soft-touch plastic. And it’s screen city in here. Dual 12.3-inch displays form one huge panel, nearly 25 inches wide and reaching two thirds of the way across the dash. (Lower trims get a 12.2-inch infotainment display and a 4.2-inch instrument screen.) Another tiny screen sits between the HVAC control knobs. It has two pages: one for climate controls, the other displaying the “buttons” that control audio source, scan / page, channel display, etc. Overall, it’s a comfortable place to be with great features, including easy-to-reach USB ports in the seats, a feature more automakers should adopt.
How Does It Drive?
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Everything in this segment is pretty bland as far as driving dynamics go. The Sportage’s road manners are just fine for what it is. What threw me for a loop though was the X-Pro version. You know the saying, expect the unexpected? That sums up the X-Pro.
The world of crossovers and light-duty SUVs is full of outdoorsy-looking models with moderately okay off-pavement performance. Kia wants in on that trend, and the X-Pro gets them there. I showed up thinking this would be just another faux-poser machine, off-road looks with nothing to back it up. But the X-Pro means business.
It’s all down to one simple addition: BFGoodrich Trail-Terrain tires. Proper all-terrain rubber, way more aggressive than what you’ll find on most family crossovers. And Kia didn’t stop there.
The X-Pro gets a locking rear differential, off-road cameras, hill descent control, and front skid plates. While it’s not a hardcore trail-smashing off-roader, it offers way more capability than most buyers will ever need.
Kia set up an entire off-road course for us to test the X-Pro’s chops. Granted, this course was designed by Kia, and they’d be fools to build a route their car couldn’t conquer. The Sportage had plenty of suspension articulation to traverse deep ruts, and while we didn’t test this, a Kia representative told us the X-Pro has enough ground clearance to straddle a cinder block.
Unfortunately, low speed off-roading is the only place where the base engine’s 187 horses feel adequate. Out on the road, the Sportage needs the Turbo Hybrid’s extra power. I know what you’re wondering, and I asked: There are no plans to put the hybrid drivetrain in the X-Pro. I asked one of Kia’s product managers if the company would ever throw the turbo four-cylinder from the K5 GT into the Sportage. While he admitted that would be fun, it’s a no.
But the Turbo Hybrid drivetrain is not without faults. The fuel economy was impressive, but the power delivery was so mellow, it somehow felt slower than the X-Pro with the base engine. The hybrid model also comes on low-rolling-resistance tires that were like magnets for grooves in highway pavement, causing the vehicle to wander. In the hybrid, the whole driving experience was numb. It left no impression on me.
Kia says that the new Sportage is already the brand’s number-one seller, after just two months on the market. It’s easy to see why: The Sportage offers a huge lineup of trim levels ranging from an entry point around $27,000 (with destination and handling) all the way up to a $35,000-ish top model.
Senior Product Planning Manager Derrick Ty said the lineup reflects major input from consumers. Pricing starts at just $25,990 for the base LX trim; the mid-level EX starts at $27,990; a loaded X-Pro Prestige starts at $36,790. Turbo Hybrids start at $27,290; the EX trim I drove starts at $30,990 with Hybrids topping out at $36,990 for the Turbo Hybrid SX-Prestige.
I have no doubt that the ‘23 Sportage will sell in droves. It’s just that good. But I do have to wonder who the X-Pro trim is meant to attract. It’s a bit of a conundrum—buyers in this segment don’t generally use these vehicles off-road, but then again, everyone seems to love a tough-looking utility vehicle.
Despite a few head-scratching decisions, overall the Sportage is a mighty impressive machine. 2023 models are on sale now.