Automotive design is typically evolutionary, maintaining a linear progression that plays up contemporary fashions but remains recognizable for the make and model it is.
The Jeep Wrangler, Volkswagen Beetle, and Mini Cooper have been iconic automotive designs for decades, and they’re easy to identify no matter the generation. Then there’s Kia’s compact crossover, the Sportage, which looks almost unrecognizable from one generation to the next. And while this latest version is unquestionably the most distinctive to date, the 2023 Kia Sportage PHEV also manages to be the best one yet.
Having matured from its bargain-basement origins, the Sportage came into its looks by its third- and fourth generations, growing in size and sophistication along the way. The new Sportage has grown larger still – significantly larger in North America, where a longer wheelbase is the default format – and aside from having a tailgate, four doors, and the shape of a small crossover, it shares very little with the one that came before it.
The flanks flex over muscular fenders, but the soft, fluid lines of the Sportage are bisected sharply with a bold horizon line pressed into the sheet metal. The rear end hints at Kia’s flamboyantly fashionable EV6 electric car, and at the front end, well, there’s a whole lot going on. From textured black plastic forming an expansive grille to metallic-looking plastic trim and boomerang-shaped LEDs, an observer’s eye is directed in all different directions trying to take it all in.
Inside, the new Sportage wears contemporary fashion with a broad expanse of display screens dominating the dash, and a smudge-prone centre console of buttons finished in high-gloss black plastic. Photography can make the Sportage appear very upscale, but spending time in the cockpit reveals some cheap plastics that look fancy at first before revealing their cost-cutting origins to the touch.
User Friendliness: 7/10
The trend of housing controls within touchscreen interfaces usually requires needlessly fussy inputs, often necessitating multiple stabs at a display to engage otherwise rudimentary operations. Kia has walked the fine line between fashion and function by keeping physical buttons for often-used seat heater controls and dials for both volume and radio tuning. Unfortunately, as found in other new Kia models, the audio and climate controls share the same touch panel that requires a user to find and tap a specific part of the panel, then another dial to make a simple cabin temperature adjustment.
Beyond that, the wide touch panel infotainment screen is familiar across all current Kia premium models and offers sensible operation and menus. The all-digital gauge display can be configured in multiple formats to showcase all sorts of information. Steering wheel controls operate logically and clearly, except for the audio track toggle, which skips ahead by pushing down.
In typical Kia fashion, the Sportage is very well equipped for its cost. The plug-in hybrid (PHEV) powertrain is only available with the top two trims, including this EX Premium tester that comes standard with niceties like a panoramic sunroof, ambient LED interior lighting, built-in navigation, heated seats front and rear, a heated steering wheel, and ventilated seats up front. There’s also a power tailgate, plus smartphone interaction through Kia’s app that allows various remote functions, and stylish 19-inch wheels.
Upgrading to a top-trim SX adds a premium audio system, surround-view camera system, semi-autonomous highway driving assistance, and a so-called smart park feature whereby the driver can move it into or out of a tight parking spot from outside the vehicle by using the key fob. A wireless smartphone charge is also standard, but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity still require hard connections.
The Sportage PHEV also makes use of all the expected passive and active safety features found in Kia’s top trims including adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, forward and rear cross-traffic avoidance assist, collision mitigation braking, and front and rear parking sensors. While the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn’t published a rating for the 2023 Sportage at the time of this writing, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has granted it a Top Safety Pick.
Finished in perforated synthetic leather, the Sportage PHEV’s seats are supportive and comfortable, offering power adjustment for both the driver and front passenger seats, including lumbar support. The rear seat can accommodate a pair of adults with ease, and a third between them for shorter trips. Rear-seat headroom is a little less than the Sportage’s key competitors, but it offers more legroom than the other compact PHEV crossovers in the segment.
Wind and road noise are decently quelled for a non-luxury vehicle, and while the small four-cylinder gas engine can be a bit coarse sounding under load, when cruising in all-electric mode, the Sportage is obviously much quieter.
Like the Sportage’s compact competitors, this PHEV version remains a decently practical choice, offering a spacious cargo hold that expands to 1,855 L with the rear seats folded. It provides good flexibility thanks to the 40/60 split rear seat that folds nearly flat. Meanwhile, a decent set of winter tires, plus the Sportage’s 210 mm (8.3 in) of ground clearance and standard all-wheel drive should make short work of Canadian winter driving, or the trek down cottage roads. The Sportage PHEV is rated to tow up to 907 kg (2,000 lb).
Fuel Economy: 9/10
Of course all the comfort, safety features, and creature comforts apply to every Sportage finished in EX Premium or SX trims, but what sets this one apart is the PHEV powertrain that can make it exceptionally fuel efficient, especially in urban settings. The government rates the Sportage PHEV at 2.8 Le/100 km combined, and 6.7 L/100 km combined with its gas engine in play. While still an excellent result, these figures are higher than the Toyota RAV4 Prime, Ford Escape PHEV, and even the Sportage’s twin, the Hyundai Tucson PHEV.
The Sportage’s all-electric range of 55 km is also less than that of the RAV4 and Escape, both of which have batteries larger than the Kia’s 13.8-kWh pack. On the upside, Kia claims a full charge on a Level 2 charger in only two hours. Buyers wanting to stick with a standard 120-volt household plug will need 11 hours to go from 15 per cent to a full charge, but that means an overnight juice-up should do just fine for most commutes.
During a cold weather test week split between city and highway driving, and with the Sportage wearing inefficient winter tires, we never saw more than 45 km or so of EV range, but the overall consumption of 5.7 L/100 km on regular-grade gas was enough to impress.
Like Toyota’s RAV4 Prime and Hyundai’s Tucson PHEV, the Sportage PHEV represents the pinnacle of efficiency and power. Here, the turbocharged 1.6L four-cylinder engine’s 177 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque are augmented by the electric motor that combine to provide 261 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. This gives the Sportage PHEV spritely acceleration, enabling decent thrust around town and when merging or passing at highway speeds. Even still, buyers looking for a speedier plug-in will find the RAV4 Prime and its 302 hp quicker. If efficiency really isn’t that important, a similarly-priced Mazda CX-5 or Subaru Outback, both with turbocharged engines, would win in a drag race, too.
Driving Feel: 7.5/10
A Mazda CX-5 will also feel livelier when driven spiritedly around curves, with the Sportage PHEV being capable if not overly rewarding to hustle. Steering feel is virtually non-existent, and while grip is decent, the suspension is fairly soft (and the PHEV drivetrain quite heavy), giving the Kia a bit of a roly-poly nature.
One-pedal driving is possible when desired with stronger battery regeneration from the motor taking over duties for the four-wheel disc brakes under normal driving, though when called upon for serious stopping, the mechanical brakes do work well. The six-speed automatic transmission is smooth, as is the transition between electric and hybrid operation.
At $45,595 – plus a non-negotiable freight charge of $1,950 – the Sportage PHEV EX Premium has been priced aggressively, especially when the impressive feature list is considered. A Ford Escape PHEV is only available with front-wheel drive and rings in at $45,499 before tax and freight, while the RAV4 Prime starts at $49,950, and soars to nearly $55,000 for one as well-equipped as the Sportage PHEV SX that’s $48,995. Only the Sportage’s Tucson cousin offers comparable value for a compact PHEV crossover.
The Sportage PHEV is currently eligible for the full $5,000 federal zero-emissions vehicle incentive, helping to improve its value quotient further, while certain provinces and territories offer further rebates.
For buyers seeking an efficient compact SUV, the 2023 Kia Sportage PHEV is among the best choices available. It represents a great value, especially as long as the government rebates are offered, making it even more affordable than the Sportage Hybrid that can’t be plugged in while offering greater efficiency and performance. However, those interested in the new Sportage PHEV should get their order in soon, with long wait times expected.
|Engine Cylinders||Turbo I4 hybrid|
|Peak Horsepower||261 hp|
|Peak Torque||258 lb-ft|
|Fuel Economy||6.6 / 6.7 / 6.7 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb hybrid, 2.8 Le/100 km / 24.9 kWh/100 km electric; 55 km est. electric-only range|
|Cargo Space||977 / 1,855 L seats up / down|
|Model Tested||2023 Kia Sportage PHEV EX Premium|
|Price as Tested||$47,895|
$250 – Premium paint colour, $250