2023 Kia Sportage First Drive

Kia is looking to put every crossover on the market on notice.

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Photo: Lawrence Hodge

The 2023 Kia Sportage has gotten serious. I mean look at that face. With a design like that Kia would have to make people take them seriously. It’s not bad, at least I don’t think it is. It actually looks better in person. It just might be a little much for shoppers in this segment who are usually…boring.

Driving the 2023 Sportage was the first time I had driven a Sportage in a very long time outside of a rental car lot. I wouldn’t have thought twice about those previous Sportages. This new Sportage has me saying something I thought I would never say about any crossover: I’d actually consider buying one.

(Full Disclosure: Kia invited me out to Palm Springs to experience the all new Sportage and let me drive over 100 miles in it. They 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.)

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What Is It?

Can you believe that the Sportage is Kia’s longest-running nameplate? The Sportage was one of Kia’s original models when it came to the U.S. and has been around continuously since 1993. While the Sportage used to be the smallest crossover in the lineup, Kia admitted something during the press briefing. The introduction of the Seltos in 2021 had it and the last gen Sportage playing in the same space. Both vehicles were just inches off of each other. So Kia decided to make the Sportage bigger.

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Screenshot: Kia

With an all new platform called N3 the Sportage has now grown and taken its proper place in the lineup slotting between the Seltos below it and the Sorrento above. It’s now one of if not the biggest crossover in the segment. The biggest gains are in rear-seat legroom and cargo capacity. Rear seat legroom is huge. Like BMW 7 Series rivaling huge. I’m not just saying that either. A BMW 7 Series has 41.4 inches of rear legroom; The Sportage has 41.3 inches. Cargo capacity is at nearly 40 cubic feet and grows to over 74 cubic feet with the second row folded.

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I got behind the wheel of both the top-of-the-line X-Pro Prestige and the Sportage Turbo Hybrid. The X-Pro Prestige starts at $36,790. Its loaded. In addition to all the other standard features like the over 24 inches of screen on the dash, you get a pano roof, LED interior lighting, and a smart power liftgate that you can open by doing the little dance with your foot. The standard engine on the Sportage is a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter I4 with 187 horsepower that’s paired with an eight speed auto. It’s kind of peppy? But it could use more power. It needs at least 200 horses. But 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.

Sportage Turbo Hybrid
Sportage Turbo Hybrid
Photo: Lawrence Hodge
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Called The Turbo Hybrid, it gets a 1.6-liter turbocharged I4 paired with a 1.5 kWh battery and a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Thank god they didn’t pair it with a CVT. Total combined output is 227 horsepower. Its efficient as hell. On one brief 17-mile route back to the hotel, I got nearly 47 mpg in the Hybrid. More powerful models are coming later in the year in the form of a plug-in hybrid with 261 horsepower and 32 miles of electric range.

The Elephant In The Room: The Design

Image for article titled 2023 Kia Sportage First Drive
Photo: Lawrence Hodge
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Ok let’s get into it. Some of you may want to know just what the hell Kia was thinking with the design. It is polarizing. But as I mentioned earlier, it looks better in person. Kia designers call it “Opposites United”. They see it as a blending of rugged and futuristic design elements coming together to create a design they call “distinctive”. I can’t argue with that. But the design is sort of all over the place in certain areas. The boomerang DRLs look good and work with Kia’s tiger bar grille. But then you get to a place like the C-pillar that has what Kia described as a “de-pixelating effect” on it. I don’t get the point of it, but it’s there.

Image for article titled 2023 Kia Sportage First Drive
Photo: Lawrence Hodge
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Around back, there’s another interesting design choice that I wish designers would stop doing: the lower bumper gets the same faux exhaust shape that everyone is doing and it needs to stop. It’s dumb. If there arent any exhaust outlets, don’t make the rear look like there are.

Image for article titled 2023 Kia Sportage First Drive
Photo: Lawrence Hodge
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The interior though is very well designed. And extremely well put together. Nearly every surface I touched was soft-touch plastic save for a small space on the doors. And it’s screen city. Dual 12.3-inch screens form one long 24.6-inch screen that reaches halfway across the dash (lower trims get slightly smaller screens in the form of 12.2-inch infotainment clusters and a 4.2-inch speedo cluster.) on higher trims. An even smaller screen sits below it, right between the temp control knobs. It has two pages: one page has the climate controls while the other has the usual media, radio, etc “buttons.” Overall its a comfortable place to be with great features, like the USB ports in the seats. More automakers need to do this. The only downside is all that tech/features are going to leave a lot of blank spots inside on lower trims.

This is either entirely blank on LX trims or partially blank on depending on how the EX is optioned.
This is either entirely blank on LX trims or partially blank on depending on how the EX is optioned.
Image: Kia
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If you get a Sportage without heated and cooled seats and no heated steering wheel, for instance, you’re going to have an entire separate pod on the dash with five blank spots where those features would be.

How Does It Drive?

Lets get one thing out of the way. Everything in the segment sucks as far as driving dynamics go. You cant go into a crossover being an enthusiast and expect them to be canyon carvers. The Sportage’s driving dynamics are just fine for what it is. What threw me for a loop though was the X-Pro trim. You know the saying expect the unexpected? That sums up the X-Pro.

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Outdoorsy, off the beaten path looks and performance, is what’s big right now in the world of crossovers and SUVs. Kia wants in on that with its X-Pro trim. I went in thinking it was just another faux poser trim that makes you look like you can venture off road but you cant. While you can get that in the X-Line trim, the X-Pro means business.

Image for article titled 2023 Kia Sportage First Drive
Image: Kia
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Kia convinced me they wanted the X-Pro to be more than just a trim with one simple feature: B.F. Goodrich all-terrain tires. Kia could’ve went cheap and put some all-season tires and claim that they’re good for offroading, but they went all in and didn’t stop there.

You also get a locking rear diff for the all-wheel drive system, off road cameras for the front and sides (there’s even a camera setting that will show you a virtual Sportage on screen), hill descent control, and front skid plates. While it’s not some Rubicon trial smashing off-roader, it’s way more capable than any of its buyers will ever need.

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See all that land out there? Yea we got to play in all of that.
See all that land out there? Yea we got to play in all of that.
Photo: Lawrence Hodge

Kia set up an entire off-road course for us to try it out and it handled everything. Granted it was Kia designed but still. From its wheel articulation which was more than enough to traverse deep ruts, to ground clearance that a Kia rep told us could clear a cinder block, it works. Unfortunately, low speed off-roading is the only place where the 187 horses feels adequate. Out on the road, this needs the power that the Turbo Hybrid has. I know what you might be thinking and I asked: there are no plans to make a X-Pro hybrid model nor are there any plans for a performance version. I asked one of Kia’s product guys would they take the turbo four from the K5 GT and drop it in the Sportage and while he admitted that’d be fun, it was a no.

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Image for article titled 2023 Kia Sportage First Drive
Photo: Lawrence Hodge

The Turbo Hybrid is an entirely different beast. . Thats not to say that a red Turbo badge should be on the rear hatch. I just didn’t care for the Hybrid. While the fuel economy was impressive, the power delivery was mediocre. It felt slower than the X-Pro with the standard engine which I didn’t quite understand. And it wandered on the highway, which has more to do with the grooves in the freeway and the terrible tires Kia fitted to the hybrid. The whole driving experience just came across as numb. It left no impression on me. But hey it can jump itself if you find the battery is dead! That’s something.

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Verdict

Kia says that the new Sportage is already the brand’s number one seller and it’s only been on the market for about two months or so. It’s easy to see why with how expansive the lineup is.

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Screenshot: Kia

Senior Product Planning Manager Derrick Ty said that the lineup was made with heavy consumer input. Pricing starts at just $25,990 for the base LX trim; mid-level EX starts at $27,990; a loaded X-Pro Prestige you see here 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.

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I have no doubts 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 supposed to be for. While one can easily think of who Turbo Hybrid buyers would be, the X-Pro is a bit of a conundrum as not many buyers in this segment will even use have of those off road features. With the X-Pro’s decent starting price, maybe more people will go for a crossover that actually has some sort of offroad capability and not just some body-side cladding and badging. The 2023 Sportage is on sale now.