2023 Kia Sportage First Drive Review: Get the Hybrid One

The 2023 Kia Sportage offers two different drivetrains, and with that come two different worldviews.

byMay 4, 2022 1:32 PM
2023 Kia Sportage First Drive Review: Get the Hybrid One
Victoria Scott
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Kia has been hitting hard with its electric vehicles lately. Our own James Gilboy (and yours truly!) adored the 2022 Kia EV6, the second-generation Niro was the belle of the New York Auto Show, and the slated-for-production EV9 is one of the most intriguing concepts I’ve seen in recent years. So, one could be forgiven for forgetting Kia's more traditional offerings—but you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you overlooked the 2023 Kia Sportage.

Wearing Kia's sleek new design language, the new Sportage is almost unrecognizable from the outgoing generation. It's hitting the streets with internal combustion-only, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid variants, and it’s here to show that Kia hasn’t forgotten about its classics. Those shopping around for a five-seater SUV should know that in spite of the gas-only model feeling solidly below average, the hybrid does an excellent job showcasing Kia's futuristic energy for the roaring '20s.

2023 Kia Sportage Specs

  • Base price: $27,215
    • ICE X-Pro Prestige as tested: $38,015
    • Hybrid SX-Prestige as tested: $37,415
  • Powertrain and performance
    • 2.5-liter inline-four | 8-speed automatic | front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive | 187 hp @ 6,100 rpm | 178 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm
    • 1.6-liter turbo inline-four | 64-kW synchronous motor | 6-speed automatic | front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive | 227 hp | 258 lb-ft
    • 1.6-liter turbo inline-four plug-in | 88-kW synchronous motor | 6-speed automatic | all-wheel drive | 261 hp | 258 lb-ft
  • Seating capacity: 5
  • Cargo volume: 
    • ICE: 36.6 cubic feet
    • Hybrid: 34.5 cubic feet
    • PHEV: 34.5 cubic feet
  • Curb weight: Between 3,532 pounds and 4,211 pounds
  • Off-road angles: 18.9° approach | 25.5° departure | 19.3° breakover
  • Ground clearance: 8.3 inches
  • EPA fuel economy: 
    • ICE: 25 mpg city | 32 highway | 28 combined (FWD); 23 mpg city | 28 highway | 25 combined (AWD)
    • Hybrid: 38 mpg city | 38 highway | 38 combined
    • PHEV: TBD
  • Quick take: Kia built two Sportages: A floaty off-roader and a taut hybrid with mass appeal. The hybrid is the best bet for most buyers.
  • Score: 
    • ICE: 5.5/10
    • Hybrid: 8.5/10
    • PHEV: N/A

Getting to Know the Sportage

The Sportage, now in its all-new, fifth-generation guise for the 2023 model year, has been sold in the Americas since its inception. The new Sportage comes in three main flavors, all riding atop Kia’s N3 platform that is shared with the Sorento, as well as the Hyundai Santa Fe, Santa Cruz, Tucson, and Sonata. The three drivetrains on the menu are a pure-gasoline 2.5-liter inline-four (offered with either front- or all-wheel drive), a 1.6-liter turbo-four paired with a hybrid system, or the same turbo-four offered with a larger battery as a plug-in hybrid variant. The gasoline-powered version is already on sale and the hybrid will start hitting American streets later this quarter; the PHEV won’t be available until later this year, so my testing was limited to the ICE and hybrid variants. 

All new Sportages, no matter the powerplant, are the most superlative-laden in the history of the nameplate: They are seven inches longer overall than the outgoing model, three inches longer in wheelbase, have six more cubic feet of storage space, and offer nearly two extra inches of ground clearance. It's also a vastly better-looking SUV than the model it replaces, with the boomerang DRLs neatly encapsulating the front honeycomb grille instead of its strange, awkward grille of years past. An agreeable mixture of character lines running along the doors that break up the sides of the car and flowing neatly into the heckeblende-style rear taillights make it seem much more handsomely modernized. Despite its barely-a-compact crossover footprint growth since its last generation, it still doesn't look massive, and it helps that the whole package has been cleverly remodeled. Overall, I believe it's one of the most pleasant to look at of the two-row crossovers currently on the market.

Step inside, and the interior looks modern and clean without obfuscating most functionality. In top trims, a pair of 12.3-inch screens mounted side-by-side seamlessly form the instrument panel and infotainment system, which offers standard wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality. Higher trims with Kia's driver-assistance package take advantage of the digital cluster by showing a blind-spot camera feed in the tachometer's place when signaling for a lane change, which is an existing Kia feature but is also one of the best uses of a screen cluster I've ever seen. The seamless glass panel, bookended by boomerang-shaped climate vents, looks deliciously futuristic overall.

Physical buttons are included for seat climate controls, and knobs for radio and volume control are well-integrated, but Kia's dual-mode radio/climate control capacitive touch panel had me unknowingly cranking the A/C when I was trying to turn up Left at London on my stereo more than once. With some acclimation, the dual-use panel began to make more sense, but I still would have preferred devoted buttons for each set of features.

Victoria Scott

Overall, though, the higher-trim vegan faux-leather seats are comfortable and the seating position is pleasant, and I found myself with more than enough room in every direction I could imagine. The only difference between the ICE and hybrid interiors was a gear selector stick versus a dial, and I mildly preferred the rotating dial in the hybrid, but either version is a good place to spend a day. Both cars as top-trim models shared Kia’s exceptional Drive Wise assist package, which offers an array of driver aids, including unobtrusive but helpful lane-keep-assist, rear-view blind spot cameras, collision avoidance in nearly any direction a car could theoretically bum-rush you from, and GPS-assisted cruise control that slows down for upcoming sharp corners. Every time I have driven a fully loaded Drive Wise-equipped Kia I have loved it, and the Sportage was no exception. 

Staring Into the Past

Victoria Scott

But there are a lot of other differences between the gas and hybrid Sportages, and to find them all I needed to start driving. First, I hopped into a traditional gasoline version; thus far in the 20-year lineage of the Sportage, pure internal combustion has been the only option, so starting with the fully loaded 2.5-liter four-banger made sense.

The ICE version on hand for my testing was the off-roading-oriented, fully loaded, all-wheel-drive X-Pro Prestige trim. Mechanically, it offers the same drivetrain as all the other gas-powered Sportage trims: the 2.5-liter four spits out 187 horsepower and 178 pounds-feet of torque to all four wheels in up to a 50/50 front/rear split, although lower trims are also offered with front-wheel-drive. The fully loaded model gets all of the tech and comfort goodies of the non-off-road, higher-trim Sportages, adds a few appearance pieces, and most crucially gets a set of custom-designed BFGoodrich all-terrain tires engineered to take the fullest advantage of the Kia crossover's newfound ground clearance without compromising on-road comfort.

While the Sportage X-Pro handles fine off-road, it's by no means exceptional. With nearly every crossover manufacturer offering some sort of dirt-trail-tackling two-row as part of their lineups, the Sportage fits in with the bunch but does so without offering any standout features. The approach and departure angles still pale in comparison to off-road CUV thoroughbreds such as the Jeep Compass Trailhawk or the Subaru Forester Wilderness, and the 50/50 front/rear power split led to understeering and relatively unenjoyable at-speed handling on dirt, as opposed to the more aggressive (and vastly more fun) i-VTM4 all-wheel-drive system offered on some of Honda's offroaders, such as its Passport. The Sportage is by no means bad off-road (it does offer a lock button for AWD to keep power flowing as a full-time 50/50 split, and the breakover angle is quite solid); it's just unexceptional given how packed the market is in 2022 for would-be outdoor aficionados.

And while this mid-pack, dirt-trail performance would be forgivable if the X-Pro felt excellent on pavement, it does not. The overall chassis tuning of Kia's baby off-roader feels like an engineer with nostalgia for body-on-frame body roll and float chose the suspension rates. Pavement gaps become multi-second affairs as the overly soft rebound struggled to keep pace with the springs, and the overall looseness meant that steering feel suffered similarly, with actual, measured-in-inches dead zone slop on center and a lack of confidence when not heading straight. I had to actively remind myself that the Sportage is indeed constructed with a unibody as I drove it.

Lean into the gas, and it doesn't get any better; the 2.5-liter gas motor is one of the only modern units I've actually felt was too anemic to recommend. You will never see me kneeling at the altar of the almighty stat sheet, especially for a two-row crossover that starts at around $25,000, but I also need to merge and the Sportage made that more challenging than any car produced in the model year of our Lord two-thousand twenty-three should. The eight-speed shifts smoothly and comfortably, but with the cruise control engaged at 78 mph into a strong headwind through the valleys of Palm Springs, California, it began hunting for gears as the 178 lb-ft of torque wasn't enough to keep consistently pushing the Sportage forward. Given that I had to be so heavy on the gas just to get the Sportage moving, the EPA's 25-mpg rating seems a bit overly optimistic for realistic driving.

Looking to the Future

And then I got into the hybrid, and it may have well been a leap 20 years into the future from the purely gasoline model.

The hybrid only has slight aesthetic modifications, but those are an improvement: It loses the gaping maws of hexagonal lower vent trim in the front and rear and instead adds much more elegant and fitting matte chrome styling elements to the lower fascias. Start driving, and it continues to get astoundingly better. The steering slop that plagued the Pro-X? Gone. The Sportage hybrid handled at best-in-class levels; the suspension is tuned for comfort and yet still had all of the dreadful floatiness completely excised, despite the fact it weighs nearly 200 pounds more than the just-gas version.

Victoria Scott

The powertrain brought it back into the realm of acceptable, quick performance, with the 1.6-liter turbo-four and the hybrid electric motor's combined 258 lb-ft torque making merging a breeze and headwinds a non-factor (as they should be in any modern car). Acceleration was several seconds quicker to sixty, putting the hybrid Sportage back on par with the rest of the compact crossover segment, rather than lagging behind it. The six-speed transmission, while theoretically not as strong as the gas version's eight-speed for fuel economy, performs excellently with smooth shifts and efficient behavior based on throttle inputs.

Braking was phenomenal as well, with the power-regenerating portion of the pedal's travel seamlessly merged into where the pad bit the rotors, with none of the typical hybrid woes of overly harsh initial brake response as I had previously found in the Ford Maverick hybrid. My real-world mileage was much closer to the EPA's 38-mpg rating, which puts it on par with longer-established hybrid crossover competitors such as the Honda CR-V and even the Toyota plug-in RAV4 Prime.

Give Me the Future, Please

And all of the hybrid's strengths were seamlessly integrated with the Sportage's already-solid form factor and its pleasant interior. While I would struggle to find the right person to recommend the gas version to—the perfect buyer would need to be nostalgic for arguably one of the worst eras of SUVs—the hybrid is much easier to suggest. Kia's work on the interior, driving tech, and styling, combined with the strength of the hybrid's driving experience, makes the whole package shine far better than the solely gasoline-powered version.

Even the price—the base-model, front-wheel-drive Sportage hybrid starts at $28,545 after the destination fee—is more attractive than nearly any hybrid crossover on the market, including the Kia Niro. The version I drove, the fully loaded SX-Prestige hybrid, comes in at $37,415, which still is comparable with top-level trims of hybrid benchmark SUVs such as the Honda CR-V Hybrid and the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Limited trim and remains a very attractive buy for its feature list (including the full suite of Kia Drive Wise assists).

Step back into the realm of solely gasoline, and the base-model LX starts at a reasonable $27,215 for front-wheel-drive; all lower-tier gas trims offer all-wheel-drive as a $1,800 upcharge. The gasoline-only trim I tested—the off-road-oriented, all-wheel-drive-only X-Pro Prestige—felt a bit pricey for what it offered at $38,015 when Toyota's RAV4 TRD Off-Road is comparably priced with significantly better fuel economy. For pavement-dwellers, Mazda's turbocharged CX-5 also comes with nearly 70 more hp for almost the exact same price. The only way to get Kia's full suite of driving assists is on either the X-Pro Prestige or the pavement-oriented SX-Prestige, which comes in at $36,515, and with that as Kia's one killer feature on an otherwise mediocre ICE experience, it's hard to recommend at that price. The full ADAS package isn't available on the hybrid until the top SX-Prestige trim as well, but given current hybrid CUV pricing, the HEV is vastly more competitive in its market.

And therefore, I believe the newest iteration of the Kia Sportage is really two separate vehicles. One is a backward-looking nostalgic trip into an era where large SUVs had to handle poorly, with all the heft and power over the road that implies; the other recognizes that the world is better now and suffering for comfort is antiquated. Crossovers can drive well, they can offer excellent fuel economy, and they definitely can be attractive. The Sportage hybrid realizes all of this in spades with a lower price and comparable stats to most of its hybrid-CUV brethren. If you're looking to off-road on gasoline alone, look elsewhere, but for the rest of us that live 90 percent of our lives on pavement, the Sportage hybrid is an extremely strong contender.

Got a tip or question for the author? Contact her directly: victoria.scott@thedrive.com.