Oct 02, 2023
2023 Kia Sportage Review: Good Looks, OK Drive, but Stick to the Pavement
The trendy 2023 Kia Sportage is best with battery assistance and a paved road
The trendy 2023 Kia Sportage is best with battery assistance and a paved road ahead. Off-road? Not so much.
Sometimes I need to escape like I need my next breath. Whether that's a holdover from lockdown or my nature isn't for me to say. Just leave me alone, will ya? Luckily, I have many options for my solitude shuttle. There's a glut of off-road, "adventure" vehicles available now to get me lost, like now. Pretty much every automaker offers an escape variant of something, ranging from weekend-spec soft-roaders to full-bore zombie runners. The 2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro Prestige steers closer to the former but promises the same escape.
Colorado is one of the few places in the world people find themselves looking to get lost. Quaking pale and yellow aspens, stoic brown and verdant evergreens, breathtaking mountains, and that's just the first 15 minutes up Interstate 70 toward the stellar Rockies. Don't believe what you’ve heard or read about Colorado's beauty, though—it's all lies. Don't come here to find yourself, especially if I'm looking to get lost myself for a while.
I need out for a minute, and I need an adventure vehicle to complete my getaway. The 2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro Prestige looks the part, but may not get me to far-flung places that other, more capable vehicles can. I guess the question becomes then: Will it take me far enough? Let's find out.
The new Sportage was released last year. It received a much-needed makeover, with Kia hewing the compact SUV from its bulbous shape last time to a lither look for the new model. It's noteworthy on the road and exceptionally on-trend, even though it doesn't feel like it’ll age well.
To my eyes—and many others—the Sportage is a welcome change for small SUV design that's quickly evolving from blocky to blobby to something bold-ish. Few, if any, right angles can be found on the Sportage's exterior. Those have been passed over for angles, geometric shapes, and patterns that read better in the metal than in pictures—even if they remind me of Hammer pants. The Sportage's signature is a headlight display that angles into a sharp, mesh pattern grille. Flared rear fenders and a rising beltline hunker down the rear of the car and wrap around the back with more punch than what's found under the hood.
Kia scratches out an X-Pro trim from a Sportage—which is how the test car came—with a handful of off-road-adjacent upgrades varying from mild to medium. Those include all-terrain tires, a roof rack, and badges. Like the rest of the all-wheel drive Sportages, the X-Pro trims ride one inch higher, with 8.3 inches of ground clearance, and offer a center locking differential with hill descent control. The chunky BFGoodrich 235/R17s ATs that wrap black 17-inch wheels are the most noticeable and useful. Without contributing any additional discernible tire roar into the cabin, the X-Pro at least has the boots to scramble up a dusty trail—even if its powertrain needs to catch its breath back at the last lookout.
Inside, the Sportage is noteworthy for what you can see but exceptional for what you can't see. A wall of screens greets driver and passengers, with a 12.3-inch center touchscreen for infotainment and a twin-size display screen for driver information. The giant touchscreen isn't exceptionally well integrated into the dash—it's just most of it. Kia replaced a sea of hard buttons with two knobs and a toggling display with radio functions or climate controls, but not both simultaneously. It takes some getting used to—the volume dial doubles as a temperature control—especially if you want to turn up your music and instead engage the Sportage's sauna. The layout will be impressive to new-car shoppers who are upgrading from much older vehicles but compared to other similarly sized offerings from other automakers, Kia's system is all hat and not much cattle—it lags and, at least in the test vehicle, was pretty glitchy. Overall, the cabin is more restrained, swimming in a sea of glossy piano black surfaces, and primarily unobtrusive and inoffensive—but the thin vinyl seats and thinly piled carpet hardly feel like they’re trail-ready. Despite the X-Pro's intent as a sometimes off-roader, it feels less up to the task than I do. Get out and enjoy the world around you, just wipe your feet before getting back in the car, please?
As we’ve discussed in earlier coverage, the new Sportage is offered in a trio of powertrain configurations, with the one I drove being the least desirable. Simply put, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder is overmatched with the Sportage's big body and considerable bulk. Its eight-speed transmission is in a hurry to get out of gears one to three in Normal and Smart modes, presumably for fuel economy's sake. Drop your right foot hard to the floor, and the Sportage reacts like an overtired toddler—huffing, puffing, pitching a fit before finally complying. Its fuel economy rating of 23 mpg presumes all the lights are green where you live, and 28 mpg on the highway presumes no extra-legal speeds, ever. On paper, the hybrid options offer more grunt, better off-the-line power, and much better fuel economy.
Typical of most of the competitors in its class, the Sportage's steering is light and commuter friendly—not especially trail-ready. It's hard to place the front wheels at low speeds or stop-and-go maneuvering, or trail riding. What's more, the breathless engine delivers only whispers of power at low rpm, requiring much throttle-and-brake dancing on the trail. (Side note: Maybe this is my chance to break into TikTok dancing.) Make a wrong move, and that signature grille will likely wrap around the nearest boulder. Kia's all-wheel-drive system is sure-footed and, when teamed with all-terrains, can overcome some of the laziness in the Sportage's driveline. I’d hardly challenge a nearby OHV park in the Sportage or even an unfamiliar two-track; I’ll stick to the campgrounds and dirt roads I know, friends.
On the road, the Kia Sportage quickly settles into a long-legged lope thanks to an eager transmission looking for any opportunity to upshift. Despite knobbier, chunkier tires, there's little tire roar from the inside, and it's only really on relaxed highway drives that the Sportage feels in the same neighborhood as its EPA mileage estimates. Climbing grades in the Sportage, say 6% or steeper, isn't exactly confidence-inspiring. Toggling from Smart and Normal modes into Sport helps, but it doesn't’ din the drone coming from the overworked four-cylinder under the hood. Under braking, the Sportage nose dives a bit, likely exacerbated by a one-inch taller ride height, softer damping, and more weight up front than battery-equipped versions.
Good news: Kia's driver-assistance features are excellent and never pinballed in its lane on highways and interstates. On pencil-straight stretches of Interstate 25, between Fort Collins and Denver, the Sportage tracked straighter than a tax accountant. If the hills are calling, pick up the phone and ask if there's pavement first.
Better news: The rear seat is a joy. Even for a tall 6-foot-3 frame like mine. Four adults could easily fit within the Sportage's confines—no shuffling or horse-trading for legroom necessary. Five adults could work if they’re small or willing to engage in serious person-touching. Behind the second row is nearly 40 cubic feet of cargo space with a wide opening and a relatively low loading floor. The Sportage excels at carrying people, and it's a shame because I’m trying to get away from them. Curiously, the load limit, according to the floor mat, is 150 pounds. Load up a couple of full coolers and camping gear or a couple of big dogs, and you’re hard-pressed to fit much more with that much room in the back. Dang.
Among rivals at similar price points, however, Kia's twin big screens inside catch eyes and attention but are nowhere near as polished as smaller screens from Toyota and Ford, which sport a smaller footprint but have more responsive infotainment systems. Wireless Apple CarPlay is not found in the Sportage, which is a shame because wireless charging is standard on the X-Pro Prestige trim. Several times after plugging in my phone, the touchscreen flickered or shut off. Ranging from mild annoyance to downright dumb while navigating through town, it was unclear if it was a charge port issue, display issue, both, or something else. Flipping into Kia's native infotainment system wasn't much help either. The bigger screen only meant I needed to reach further to hit the buttons I needed, and Kia's native map app is Commodore 64 in a world full of XBoxes. Too bad.
The Kia's outclassed by rival SUVs like the Honda CR-V ($32,345) and Mazda CX-50 ($28,825) when it isn't strapped with hybrid batteries and electric motors—its base engine lacks pep and verve to be anything other than a point-and-shuffle commuter. As a direct competitor to the Toyota RAV4 ($28,910), which is also offered as an ICE-engine engine only, hybrid ($31,560), and plug-in hybrid variant ($42,925), the Kia Sportage holds its own in looks and initial price, but not perceived quality. Similarly, when it's anywhere $40,000 or more, the Sportage is outgunned by near-luxury automakers such as Genesis or and Volvo that may not be as trendy but stick the landing on tech at least.
Rugged is the Sportage's play, in X-Pro Prestige guise at least, and it holds its own in hardware alone compared to off-road-adjacent small SUVs such as the Subaru Forester and Jeep Compass. I’d be equally comfortable on trails with all three, but warmed over with Wilderness gear (Subaru) or Trailhawk (Jeep) accouterments, the Kia just doesn't have the same underbody protection or hardware programming such as crawl modes.
Other SUVs do better than the Kia Sportage when it comes to fuel efficiency, including the Kia Sportage Hybrid. The X-Pro Prestige suffers from the same malady that all ICE engine-only Sportages have: There's not enough oomph to give the accelerator a break and the transmission programming isn't helping. Whether it's too eager to upshift, too hesitant to downshift, or flat-out breathless, the Sportage X-Pro Prestige needs more power—and not power for power's sake. Driving around town with a heavy right foot in stoplight grands prix is draining in the Sportage; the 23 mpg just isn't realistic, I saw closer to 20 mpg in my around-town drives. Thin air isn't the culprit, I suspect; I get the feeling that the Sportage would still run out of steam at sea level.
At long hauls when it's less pressed, the Sportage's busy base four-cylinder does better—but of course it should. At more than a mile high in Colorado, some parasitic altitude power sap is always expected, but it's more pronounced in the Sportage, which doesn't use forced induction in its base engine configuration.
The Sportage feels most appropriately priced at around $30,000, far less than the tester's $38,000 price tag. The X-Pro Prestige line's intent is there, but if I need to get away, others are available that’ll take me further and faster.
The Sportage X-Pro Prestige has all the ooohs and ahhs to initially please, including a handsome body and a backseat sized for a middle-schooler royal rumble. Some of the "oohs" carry over to the Sportage's interior, including the wall of screens—provided that they work. The others quickly turn into "awwws" when it takes to the road though, as the base engine in the Sportage just isn't very fun to drive. The X-Pro Prestige piles too much on its plate with off-roadiness that's overshadowed by the little Kia's disposable feeling. Durability is part of the "off-road adventure" equation; a lot of people can take me to the trailhead, and some of them can tackle it, too. I prefer to be confident that I can make it home, though. But not just yet; I like being lost.
Got a tip? Email [email protected]Base price (X-Pro Prestige price as tested): Powertrain: Horsepower: Torque: Curb weight: Seating capacity: 0-60 mph: Cargo volume: EPA fuel economy: Quick take: Score: