Expert Reviews

2023 Kia Sportage First Drive Review

On a twisting road in the middle of nowhere, one, then another Subaru Forester loaded with paddleboards politely pulls to the right side of the road to let us pass.

That’s Vancouver Island traffic for you: adventurous folks who aren’t really in too much of a hurry. The pace of life is slower here, the coast closer, nature just a short drive from your door. It’s the kind of environment automakers are always pairing with their latest family crossovers. Look what adventures you could have, they say, if only you had a – checks notes – 2023 Kia Sportage!

The thing is, in the case of this particular crossover, the effort doesn’t feel forced. Almost all the changes made to this latest generation of the Sportage would be genuinely useful for taking your family on some kind of exploratory holiday. And Kia’s made its midsize model better for day-to-day use as well.

Three Powertrains (Two Can’t Get Here Fast Enough)

The Sportage launches (has launched; you can walk down to a dealership and buy one right now) with a conventional 2.5L four-cylinder engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission. It produces 187 hp at 6,100 rpm, and 178 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Feel free to immediately forget these figures.

What’s more important is that Kia claims the Sportage will consume a little less than 10.0 L/100 km in mixed driving, and its driveline does everything in its power to make that happen. Throttle tip-in is very relaxed, the transmission needs to be prodded to get a downshift out of it, and acceleration is acceptable but hardly invigorating. There’s not much sport in Sportage – but that’s absolutely a positive with gas prices being what they are.

Both the hybrid and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) versions should be of great interest to Canadian families groaning every time they fill up. The hybrid drops fuel consumption to roughly 6.0 L/100 km, and bumps torque to 195 lb-ft. Kia says the PHEV version will arrive by summer, and while Kia Canada hasn’t released the electric range, American models are rated at slightly better than 50 km. That’s useful enough for a gasoline-free school drop-off or grocery run. In the meantime, the conventional engine is a perfectly fine effort.

The Family Big Wheel

As a means of differentiating itself from its sister company Hyundai, Kia is often a little more aggressive in its design decisions. Such is the case with the Sportage, which doesn’t even remotely resemble the larger Sorento or proper three-row Telluride within Kia’s own lineup – the former of which can also be had with the choice of conventional hybrid or PHEV powertrains. If anything, the front end of this crossover is giving the Mitsubishi Outlander a run for its money in terms of futurism.

Styling is subjective, ride quality is not. One of the other ways Kia has often added flash to its vehicles is by adding large diameter wheels, and not always with great results. At the top end of the range, this Sportage X-Line comes with 19-inch alloys, which should be totally unsuitable on what’s basically a lightly paved forestry service road.

But over dips, bumps, frost-heaves, and the occasional pothole, the Sportage was spookily composed. The wheelbase has been extended this year, to 2,755 mm (108.5 in), which adds a level of stability to the platform. But it’s the suspension tuning that’s really impressive, combined with the stiffness of the chassis (the Sportage rides on the same platform as the bigger Sorento, and the Hyundai Santa Fe and Tucson, both of which – you guessed it – have hybrid and PHEV choices). It’s quiet on the move, and impressively competent through the corners. The steering is direct. Again, the dynamics aren’t exactly brushing up on sporty, but they provide the levels of confidence and comfort that you actually want in a family vehicle.

So Much Room for Activities

The Sportage’s trunk is massive, fully 60 L bigger with the rear seats up than you get in a Toyota RAV4 – the quintessential crossover this size. Cargo space doesn’t come at the expense of rear legroom, either, as that has also improved over the previous Sportage: it’s up 80 mm (3.1 in) to an impressive 1,050 mm (41.3 in) total. If you’re hauling teenage basketball players, you’re still going to want to look at the Sorento, but otherwise the Sportage will now easily fit the needs of most families. Roof rails are standard, too.

From a quality standpoint, it’s not hard to find hard plastics when you go poking around the Sportage’s cabin. However, Kia has done a good job of making most of the parts you regularly touch feel slightly higher grade than before, not least of them the chunky interior door handles. There are some genuinely genius touches for backseat passengers, too, with seatback hooks for bags and USB chargers on the sides of the front seats. The Sportage also comes with headrests that function as hooks for coats, but any parent will immediately clock that these also make great handles when two kids are clambering out onto the curb.

Also surprisingly useful are the retractable cupholders just aft of the gearshift. There’s a space ahead of the shifter with wireless charging that’s big enough for even larger phones, but the L-shaped space behind the shifter is perfect for all sorts of other stuff you might want to carry.

Widescreen Mode

Central to the Sportage driving experience is the huge curved glass screen that stretches across the dashboard. It looks like Kia’s engineers broke into a Mercedes-Benz factory and stole some of the parts out of an E-Class. Except that Kia’s version is much easier to live with.

So, you get the wow factor of a huge screen, but also an infotainment interface that’s fast and easy to use. It’s actually two 12.3-inch screens, both of them bright, easy-to-read, and high up in your sightline so as to require less taking your eyes off the road.

The one misstep is that wireless CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t available with this big screen – only models with the smaller 4.2-inch digital instrument cluster. It’s not such a big deal right now, but wireless connectivity and charging is going to become more of a customer expectation in the near future.

Shared heating/cooling and stereo controls are located just below the central touchscreen; you switch between which system you want to control with a button. In theory, this sounds like a terrible idea, but in practice, it frees up a bit of dash space, and is easy to get used to. The volume knob is a bit of a reach for a passenger – which might be an unintended boon if you’re a driver who hates people fiddling with their stereo.

Final Thoughts

With the entry-level Seltos added to its fleet, Kia is now a four crossover manufacturer. While the Seltos is expected to be the brand’s volume seller, the Sportage is probably the most important. It’s the longest-running Kia nameplate in Canada, and has been part of the company’s success from the beginning.

With this new Sportage now positioned as a larger, more tech-forward offering, Kia should take a bigger bite out of a market dominated by the RAV4 and the Honda CR-V. It’s a polished effort, and the hybrid models should prove especially popular. With pricing starting around $30,000 before tax, and mid-trim volume models selling in the mid-$30,000 range, the Sportage again moves Kia away from being a brand built around bargains. Instead, the Sportage is as convincing as its bestseller rivals. It should make the shortlist when you’re shopping for your next family adventuremobile.