The 2017 Kia Sportage

Kia Motors America COO and executive vice president says this crossover is “crafted for the urban pioneer.” And it is designed and engineered for competing in one of the hottest segments in the overall auto market.

“A brand exists only in a person’s mind,” says Michael Sprague, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Kia Motors America. “You have to constantly reinvent yourself to stay relevant to consumers, especially in this rapidly changing marketplace.”

If Kia as a brand exists in the minds of U.S. consumers as something manifest in the form of a vehicle, then arguably that vehicle is the Sportage compact crossover utility vehicle (CUV). This is because Kia has been in the U.S. market since 1994, and the Sportage has been in the showroom from the very start.

According to Sprague, there have been some 716,000 Sportages sold in the U.S. And because there needs to be change, the company has developed the fourth-generation Sportage, which Sprague says “showcases the reinvention of the brand.”

(A slight pause to mark another change in Kia in America. The company has an assembly plant in West Point, Georgia, Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia, where it produces the Optima and the big brother of the Sportage, the Sorento. [The Sportage is built at a plant in Gwangiu, Korea.] The West Point plant opened in 2010. It has now built over two-million vehicles. According to Sprague, about 40 percent of the vehicles that Kia sells in the U.S. are sourced from that factory.)

Outside of consumer electronics, motor vehicles are undoubtedly the most global of products. There is, however, a certain design approach that is characteristic of the market where a given company is based that tends to hold sway over the execution. Funny thing about the Sportage in this regard. It doesn’t look “Korean.” It doesn’t look “Asian.”

In fact, it looks “European,” largely because Kia’s president and chief design officer, Peter Schreyer, is German, and much of the design work was done in the Kia studio in Frankfurt.

This comes out most clearly on the front of the vehicle, where the now-signature Kia “tiger-nose” grille has a more vertical orientation. The headlamps are positioned higher and pull back into the front fenders. 

There are what Orth Hedrick, vice president of Product Planning, describes as “ice-cube LED fog lights” that are positioned in the lower fascia. There is a lower, wider front clip. The all-wheel-drive (AWD) models have a different front fascia than the front-drive models (offering a slightly better approach angle for the vehicle).

The A- and C-pillars are slimmer than in the outgoing model and the shoulder line is higher. The backlight is bigger and there is a standard rear spoiler. The coefficient of drag is improved, from 0.35 to 0.33.

The inside of the car is, in Hedrick’s words, “crisp and clean.” The center console stack is angled by 7.2 degrees toward the driver for better ergonomics. The touch surfaces are all padded (e.g., the instrument panel is slush molded).

Not surprisingly, the 2017 Sportage is bigger than its predecessor. While the width remains the same at 73 inches, the overall length is increased 1.6 inches to 176.4 inches and the wheelbase is stretched 1.2 inches to 105.1 inches. The height, at 64.4 inches for the front-drive model, is the same as the 2016.

They’ve taken the larger size and applied it to the interior. Headroom, at 39.3 inches in the front and 39.1 inches in the rear, is increased by 0.2 inches and 0.6 inches, respectively. Front legroom is up 0.1 inch, to 41.5 inches, and rear legroom is increased 0.3 inches, to 38.2 inches.  Cargo capacity gets a big gain, going from 26.1-ft3 to 30.7-ft3.

Structurally, the 2017 model is greatly improved. Hedrick says the vehicle has a “really strong, rigid foundation,” then substantiates that by noting that 51 percent of the body-in-white is made with advanced high-strength steel—which is up from 18 percent used for the previous generation. This improves the torsional rigidity of the vehicle by 39 percent. What’s more, it reduces the mass of the body-in-white by 55 pounds. Helping rigidity is the use of 113 yards of structural adhesive, which is, according to Hedrick, about five times more than had been used in the third-generation Sportage.

The aforementioned thinner A- and C-pillars are predicated on the use of hot-stamped steel, which is also used to reinforce the B-pillars, side sills and roof structure.

Hedrick says that the use of the advanced steels not only make the vehicle stronger, which contributes to improved safety, but they also help reduce NVH, which he says has “dropped dramatically.”

Of course, nowadays safety isn’t solely predicated on the use of materials. Technology plays an increasingly large role, and so Kia has deployed an array for the Sportage. Available on the Sportage are Forward Collision Warning System (FCWS) and Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) with Pedestrian Detection, which can detect a potential collision with another vehicle or pedestrian and help bring the Sportage to a halt; a Lane Departure Warning System (LDWS), which emits an audible alert when it detects the driver straying from the current lane without using a turn signal; Blind Spot Detection (BSD) with Lane Change Assist (LCA), which can monitor cars up to 230 feet behind the vehicle and provide the driver with a visual warning in the door mirror when another car enters the blind spot; Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA), which can warn the driver if other cars pass behind the Sportage while in reverse; and Front and Rear Parking Assist, which uses sonar sensors integrated in the bumpers to warn the driver when nearing other vehicles or objects.

While crossover utilities are generally on-road capable, rather than something that will crawl over rocks or through ditches, and while there tends to be a large number of CUVs that are front-drive only, predicated, in part, on the fact that they are generally based on car platforms (Sprague points out that the Sportage is based on the Optima midsize rather than the Forte compact, which is not the approach followed by competitors in the category, who opt for their compact cars rather than something more substantial, which goes to show you that Kia often goes at things in a different manner), there usually is an available all-wheel-drive version.

And this is the case with the Sportage. But as was the case back in 2010, with the last generation of the CUV, the AWD system is sourced from Magna International (magna.com). It’s the company’s latest generation Dynamax system, an electronically controlled coupling that provides electrohydraulic torque control with a multi-plate clutch. The system is integrated with the control electronics of the vehicle such that based on factors including steering angle, throttle position, vehicle speed and other parameters, the vehicle is able to “anticipatory” in engagement, so the AWD works as soon as it is needed. (Another advantage of the system is that because it is more precise as regards when and how it manages torque, the company has calculated a fuel savings as high as 0.2 liters/100 kilometers, which isn’t exactly a whole lot, but when manufacturers are chasing grams of mass in order to improve fuel savings, every milliliter of fuel matters.) While having a supplier provide a system like AWD is not in the least bit uncommon, what is different is that Kia is actually proud of the association. Ordinarily, vehicle manufacturers cite the supplier of their audio system (in the case of the Sportage, there is an available 320-watt, eight-speaker Harmon Kardon premium system available) and that’s it. But that’s not the case with Kia and the Sportage. The Dynamax AWD coupling is produced by the WIA-Magna Powertrain joint venture in Asan, Chungcheongnam-do, South Korea.

Michael Sprague points out that since the last-generation Sportage appeared on the scene in model year 2011, “there has been a lot of change in the market.” Which is something of an understatement vis-à-vis the compact crossover segment. There have been significant improvements in the competitive set—which includes the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V, the Nissan Rogue, the Subaru Forester and the Hyundai Tucson—as well as an addition in the form of the Mazda CX-5. Overall car sales have decreased as demand for crossovers of all sizes have been on the upswing.

So if you want to compete, you have to bring more. Which seems to be what Kia has done with the 2017 Sportage.