The new 2023 Kia Sportage isn’t so much a car as it is a Universal Studios theme park attraction: an affordable taste of the latest automotive tech you can do with the whole family: giant screens, semi-autonomous driving, red leather, hybrid-electric energy.
My Matte Gray tester (yes, Matte Gray in a $38,000 non-luxury car) looks like it was drawn by a Hollywood designer.
The front end is all grille, chrome accents and LED light bars – the headlights pushed to the edges of the fascia. It’s a stark contrast to the previous generation Sportage and its anthropomorphic features. The ’22 Sportage was a cute one, its big eyes and happy mouth – er, its grille – apparently inspired by Pikachu from the Pokemon family. The new Sportage looks like something from the Tron movies.
“Is this from the future?” my neighbor John commented as I walked past his driveway on my way up north on a long road trip to enjoy the Kia’s star attractions.
While it must conform to the traditional layout of four-door SUVs, Sportage defies style conventions. Sister Hyundai has done the same with its angular Tucson ute, which is built on the same platform as Sportage. The rear of the Kia is almost as intriguing as the front with a wedding cake construction that splits the rear window, taillights, license plate panel and diffuser into four planes. The entire sculpture sits under a fashionable floating roof.
For all its design ambition, however, my Sportage tester was practical enough. It sat on high-profile 18-inch wheels with a useful 8.3-inch Wrangler-like ground clearance if I encountered a typical Northern Michigan dirt road.
The long drive on 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 don’t invent anything. Like Super Cruise (and unlike Autopilot), the system has no interest in keeping me around all the time.
Unlike those fancy systems, Kia doesn’t give its adaptive cruise feature a fancy name and it won’t automatically navigate to your destination (so it won’t automatically change lanes in the process). Otherwise, it allowed me to relax, adopt a chair-like sitting position (hands on knees) – only reaching for the steering column when another car got in the way.
The radar brick in the front grille read cars ahead of me, slowing from my set speed of 79 mph on approach. Assuming the controls, I turned on the turn signal, bypassed them, then settled back into hands-free driving. The cameras kept the car centered, even in long interstate curves. While Tesla’s Autopilot asks me every 30 seconds to apply torque to the steering wheel (making sure I’m paying attention), Kia’s system left me alone, rarely asking me to affirm my presence.
A brief thunderstorm did not disrupt the system. Above the Zilwaukee Bridge, Sportage was a rock, following the lane beautifully. A pair of full-size pickup trucks – rushing to get onto I-75 – roared behind me, crossing lanes and passing traffic. Suddenly next door they cut in front of me and into the left lane. The Kia braked quickly as the Ram crossed its bow – testing the emergency braking system – then continued on its way as the pickup trucks disappeared into the distance. Impressive.
While the Sportage drove itself, I had the chance to make phone calls, record my favorite radio stations, marvel at the interior. The modern cabin lives up to the Sportage’s sci-fi exterior and state-of-the-art adaptive cruise control.
A huge, hoodless, curved screen stretches across the dash like — well, a Mercedes. It houses two 12.5-inch digital displays – one for instrumentation, the other for infotainment – which are graphically impressive and configurable. Amidst all that electronic wizardry, Sportage is still oddly a generation behind its peers by not offering wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Luckily there was enough space on the console to plug in my phone to navigate my trip. Kia’s native system was no match for the smartphone’s voice and navigation capabilities.
The beautiful glossy black center console is full of clever ideas. To minimize buttons, the infotainment and climate controls alternately access the same center console screen to adjust, for example, volume or heat. Congratulations to the first member of your family who discovered this little Easter egg without consulting the glove box manual first.
Speaking of buttons, the starter, rotary shifter, and rotary mode controller are all perfectly aligned like the sun, moon, and earth in a solar eclipse.
The console cupholders are multifunctional. Taking inspiration from Honda – whose Civic and Pilot consoles are engineering gems – the Kia’s cupholder rims can be hidden away at the push of a button, turning the space into a bigger storage area for a box of fries or a small purse. I made good use of the space while enjoying a fast food meal on my trip.
It was all wrapped in red leather under a panoramic sunroof that I usually see in, well, a Mercedes (or Mazda CX-50, another mainstream vehicle with upscale ambitions like Kia).
Again, that in a $38,000 automobile.
Speaking of family, there’s plenty of room for second-row passengers. Sportage offers excellent rear legroom, thanks to a wheelbase stretched 3.4 inches over this last generation, and I could recline the seatback further to allow myself more headroom.
How does it roll, you ask?
Sportage is so high-tech that I almost forgot about the hybrid drivetrain, which coped with its duties professionally. The hybrid marries a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with a single electric motor for a healthy 226 horsepower. It made good acceleration from stoplights, but when it came to tackling corners on my favorite M-32 west of Gaylord, the Kia was not interested. It’s not a Mazda CX-5.
The hybrid drivetrain is new for Sportage (there’s also a plug-in model available with 32 miles of battery-only range) and claims a combined 38mpg with all-wheel drive – a big jump from the non-hybrid’s 28mpg . This is good news as I went through gas price signs of $4.51 (soon to top $5).
But in my week of driving, the Sportage Hybrid returned a much more modest 29 mpg. Never mind. It’s a rare miss in a vehicle that otherwise exceeds all expectations of the average family.
Henry Payne is an auto critic for The Detroit News. Find it on hpaynedetroitnews.com or Twitter HenryEPayne.
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