Long overlooked as a basic little crossover, Kia gives the new generation a big upgrade.
Kia’s Sportage started its life in the late 1990s as a pint-sized SUV, fitting modest budgets while offering some sort of cute-ute looks. Back then, it was a cheap little car that your high school daughter would beat up for a few years before maturing to a better car to take care of. Over the years, Kia has moved the Sportage up in segments at a slow pace, but for 2023 it is all new and grown up. Same goes for the brand itself, with a new design language and a trendy–almost confusingly futuristic–new badge.
Proportions have certainly increased, with the Sportage now in the same range as a Kia Sorento. Lots of tech and comfort improvements have also been added, making the Sportage a contender against the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Mazda CX-50 (which I recently reviewed). With those competitors enjoying sales success for quite some time, is Kia’s upgraded crossover worthy of stealing some market share? Time to find out.
The Key Specs and Updates
It’s easy to do a double-take with the 2023 Kia Sportage, thanks to its all-new exterior which employs that Kia calls its “Opposites United” design language, part of Kia’s global brand transformation and tagline “Movement that Inspires.” Agency-heavy copywriting aside, the new look is cool, sporting sharper and more muscular lines, edginess that isn’t overdone, and headlight housings that employ boomerang-shaped daytime running lights. Built on Kia’s third-generation N3 platform, the Sportage Hybrid’s chassis is stronger and lighter than before, aimed at better driving dynamics and safety.
Now seven inches longer overall, the 2023 Kia Sportage boasts a wheelbase growth of three inches, while only increasing its height and width by half an inch. In stretching the wheelbase, there’s more interior volume for people and their stuff, enabling the Sportage to now offer a class-leading 41 inches of rear legroom while also providing 39 cubic feet of rear cargo space. Loads of insulation have been added to the new Sportage, to reduce wind and road noise, and to give its occupants a more luxurious ride.
Powertrain upgrades are welcomed, with the somewhat tame 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder benefitting from a 44kW permanent magnet electric motor that produces a combined 227 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. In standard form, the Sportage hybrid is fitted with front-wheel-drive, which boasts 43 MPGs (same EPA ratings for city, highway, and combined) and over 500 miles of cruise range, and the tester I was supplied was upgraded to all-wheel-drive, which slips to 38 MPGs.
In its modest LX trim, with front-wheel-drive, the 2023 Kia Sportage starts at a base price of $27,490, the middle EX model starts at $31,190, and the range-topping $36,190 Prestige AWD I tested added Shadow Matte Gray paint, a cargo mat, cargo net, cargo cover in the batch, and carpeted floor mats (somehow still an option on a car over $30k) to hit a total MSRP of $38,530 after $1,295 for destination. Compared to a similarly-equipped Honda CR-V hybrid, the Sportage has a considerable power advantage combined with the expected price break Kia usually has over its rivals.
Family Hauling Goodness
Ignore the badge when you slip into the Kia Sportage, and you’ll think you’re in a more premium class of car both when you look at the cabin and when you hit the road. On the handling front, the all-new Kia Sportage is certainly more pleasant than I expected from a mid-sized crossover, but nothing in this segment can outdo the slightly more expensive new Mazda CX-50 that’s fantastic to drive. That said, Kia did a great job with the dynamics, making the Sportage much more appealing to drive than many crossovers in this segment. Ride smoothness is great too, when middle-child crossovers typically get suspension calibrations that are jittery at best.
All-wheel-drive probably helps the Kia’s agility, in a world where boring FWD crossovers reign. The steering feel is a bit over-boosted in the hands of this enthusiast driver, but the ordinary motorist will appreciate the ease of steering inputs over any city streets and while parking at the supermarket. Unless you live in a climate with extreme winters and a long gravel driveway, where you’ll appreciate the Prestige trim’s heated windshield, skip the all-wheel-drive option to not only save a few bucks, but to extend your fuel economy.
The Sportage certainly feels like a bigger crossover, which depending on your family’s needs might be a bit too much. If you’ve only got two small kids, maybe the Honda HR-V I recently tested is a better fit. Should your family include teenagers who have active extracurricular lives, you’ll appreciate having a ton of space for their long legs and gear to stuff in the back. Especially when your hands are full, and you kick your foot under the bumper to engage the Sportage’s hands-free power tailgate.
Kia has certainly stepped up its cabin quality, and the seats for all five occupants are big and plush. The 2023 Sportage benefits from cooler features including a massive single screen that actually holds two 12-inch displays for the instrument cluster and infotainment screen, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto installed. While my iPhone 14 Pro was plugged into the USB-C port, it was quick to overheat and stop charging, which wasn’t ideal when the wireless charging point required precise placement to activate (something that was difficult to manage, when the surface was prone to allow my phone to slide about).
I like the 360º camera system that neatly integrates into the infotainment screen, paired with the remote parking assist, making sure that any curb rash or dings of neighboring cars are definitely your fault and not the car’s. The Kia Access App allows access to features like remote climate control and door lock/unlock when synced with your Apple and Android-based smartphone or smartwatch.
The upgraded insulation is a noticeable improvement in the 2023 Kia Sportage, and the wind and road noise are at levels I’ve experienced in nicer models from Mercedes and BMW. Climate controls are easy to reach, with buttons for the controls that matter, and there’s a stylish puck for the transmission selector. Upgraded Harman Kardon audio is a nice feature in the Prestige trim too.
The Highs and Lows
While a big shift in the design department, I appreciate Kia’s attempt to catch the attention of buyers who want a cooler look from their crossover. There are certainly lots of angles, but unlike the design language on lower level family of Hyundai offerings (which I loathed in the new Elantra sedan I reviewed), the Kia styling is cool without pushing too hard. The floating grille and angular lighting assemblies stitch together nicely, and the theme carries well from front to back of the Sportage’s body.
Angles aren’t too wild inside the Sportage’s cabin either, and I like the shapes used for the climate vents that are flanked by a cool metallic trim. Kia gave the Sportage lots of smart interior features like blind spot camera displays that neatly incorporate into the instrument cluster when using your indicator, coat hangers that are sculpted into the front seats’ headrests, and USB-C charging ports placed high into the side and edge of the front seat so that rear passengers don’t waste cable length for charging and using their iPad or Nintendo Switch on a road trip.
There are a couple small complaints I have with the 2023 Kia Sportage, but they aren’t big hangups. While trying to look a bit cooler than the other moms’ crossovers, I am not a fan of using matte paint on the Sportage. Save that finish for properly performance-focused cars and bodies. I spotted a fellow Sportage driver on the road during my test week, and a normal metallic shade looked good on this Kia.
Integrating digital displays for the instrumentation and infotainment was done with a lesser screen, and the lower-resolution gauge cluster isn’t great to look at. Same goes for the climate control panel, which uses digital controls that look like buttons, and washes out in bright daylight. Particularly while wearing polarized sunglasses. Adding a bunch of pixels would help these features move up in class considerably.
While leading its segment in rear cargo volume, the new Sportage’s boot could have a bit more storage solutions to offer than a simple small concealed bin under the floor. For growing families, and all their things, crossovers need to offer versatility and better solutions for packing away your belongings in a stable manner. Triple-digit highs during a Texas summer don’t help the ventilated seats nor climate control system’s attempt to keep you cool, with the Sportage’s seats barely feeling like the fans were on and the A/C struggling to cool the cabin when at its coldest setup.
A Massive Improvement, Doesn’t Lead The Pack
Kia did a good job with this all-new Sportage, giving it a reasonably powerful drivetrain, loads of space inside, and a big stack of the tech features crossover buyers demand. The added efficiency of the hybrid powertrain boosts driving range and MPGs, giving the Sportage an advantage over its competition while still offering an engine that doesn’t suffer to deliver those EPA figures (looking at you, Honda CR-V). Even with my tiny complaints, I think the Sportage is a good crossover to consider. Over a RAV4 or CR-V, the Sportage is certainly a solid option.
I applaud Kia for moving the Sportage up in class, giving it a styling theme that is more appealing than most other boring crossovers, and for providing a cabin experience that feels more expensive. The challenge is that, at the price point of a loaded Sportage, I’d rather spend the money on a nicely-equipped Mazda CX-50 I reviewed that has even nicer appointments in its upper trim, looks great inside and especially outside, and provides a considerably more enjoyable driving experience.