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2011 Kia Sportage SX AWD: Raising the bar for affordable crossovers

New styling and turbocharged motor elevates Sportage to new level
by: NORTHWEST AUTOMOTIVE PRESS ASSOCIATION The Sportage SX AWD was picked as the Best Affordable SUV at the 2011 Mudfest competition.

With the redesigned 2011 Sportage, Kia appears to be imitating the RDX, Acura's compact crossover.

That's not meant to be an insult. Upstart automakers have long copied design concepts from other manufacturers. The first Honda hatchbacks sold in America borrowed heavily from the original British Minis. The first-generation Datsun 510 is still known as the poor man's BMW 2002. The original Ford Mustang inspired competing Pony Cars. The early Toyota Celicas were considered Japanese Mustangs. The Rabbit GTI spawned numerous hot hatches and pocket rockets from other companies. Toyota released its mid-engine, two-seater MR2 months before Pontiac's much-ballyhooed Fiero.

Now the reinvented Sportage seems modeled on the RDX. Both are about the same size and angularly styled, with clean, contemporary interiors. Both come standard with front-wheel-drive but can be ordered with all-wheel-drive. The Sportage can be equipped with leather seats, which come standard on the RDX. And the top-of-the-line Sportage SX AWD comes with a turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine, the only engine offered in the RDX.

Naturally, the Sportage lacks the refinement and overall quality of the RDX. Acura is Honda's premium line, after all, while Kia and its corporate sibling Hyundai are still fighting for recognition. The interior materials in the base RDX are much higher quality than those in the most expensive Sportage. The turbocharged Acura engine is smoother, quieter and more responsive than the one in the Kia. And Acura's patented Super-Handling All Wheel Drive system is much more sophisticated than that offered by Kia.

Then again, even the most expensive Sportage costs less than the base RDX. When comparing turbocharged, all-wheel-drive versions, the Acura costs around $9,000 more than the Kia.

Surprisingly, the Sportage beats the RDX in a couple other areas, too. Its turbocharged engine is stronger, offering more horsepower and torque than the one in the RDX, although the RDX is actually much faster on the road. That's the case, even the Sportage comes with a six-speed automatic transmission compared to a five-speed one in the RDX. The Sportage gets better mileage, though. And Kia also offers a longer warranty.

During a week of mixed driving, our test Sportage SX AWD proved to be both fun and practical, with good power and handling, and enough rear seat room to carry two adults in comfort for reasonable distances. The optional leather seats in were supportive and comfortable enough for long trips. Although it has a relatively short wheelbase, the ride was not choppy, even over broken pavement. As expected, storage behind the back seat was limited but not unreasonable for a compact CUV.

The Northwest Automotive Press Association tested a 2011 Sportage SX AWD earlier this year at the annual comparison of Sport Utility Vehicles known as Mudfest. Although it could only handle limited off-road driving, the combination of other attractive features led the participants to name it 2011 Best Affordable SUV at the end of the event.

If money were no object, we'd recommend the RDX over the Sportage. In fact, with the SH-AWD version starting at less than $35,000, the RDX is a still good buy, considering its quality and performance. But with the Sportage SX AWD starting at around $26,000, we think it should be considered, too.

For those on more limited budgets, the two-wheel-drive Sportage starts at around $19,000 while the least expensive AWD version begins at under $21,000. Both come with the less powerful, normally-aspirated 2.4-liter inline four cylinder engine. The suspension is also less firm than in the SX AWD version, which some buyers might prefer.

Of course, in the real, world, the Sportage doesn't compete against the RDX for sales. It competes against other affordable compact CUVs, including the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. But they do not currently offer the same appealing mix of pricing, styling and available power as the redesigned Sportage, making it much easier to take Kia's bold ambitions seriously.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model: 2012 Sportage SX AWD.

• Manufacturer: Kia.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front or all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door liftback CUV.

• Engines: 2.4-liter DOHC inline 4 (176 hp, 168 ft-lbs); 2.0-liter DOHC inline 4 (260 hp, 264 ft-lbs).

• Transmission: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic with manual shift mode (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 21/25 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at around $18,295 base model ($32,490 as tested).