2021 Kia Sportage Review: In Search of Mojo

Many moons ago, Kia’s commercials featured the Sportage, swamp tours, and plenty of enthusiast ayeeees.

For many, it was the introduction to the brand, a promise to “get your mojo going.” The little Sportage bounded through the bayou with enthusiasm, thanks to a more robust, truck-like 4WD system than its contemporaries. It looked like fun, at least to the younger version of yours truly.

In the two decades since, both the Sportage and I have grown. It’s gotten bigger (ditto), and softer too (yep). Kia’s longest-running SUV now fights in the incredibly competitive compact crossover segment. Despite plenty of newer competitors, the Sportage still acquits itself well, offering up plenty of content and space at a budget-friendly price. It’s just missing any truly stand-out features to push it ahead of the pack.

Long list of standard features

One area the Sportage remains true to Kia traditions is in its lengthy equipment list. This tester is the penultimate model in the lineup, or the highest you can go before optioning the more powerful turbocharged engine. Full LED exterior lighting, sharp-looking 18-inch wheels, a panoramic sunroof, a powered liftgate, and dual-zone climate control are all present and accounted for. Artificial leather seats are convincing and comfortable, with plenty of support for longer drives. The steering wheel gets the real stuff, plus it’s heated—a boon during the coldest month in Toronto.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Kia Sorento Review: First Drive

The second row ain’t too shabby, either. Some other competitors feature a pretty upright rear bench for maximum cargo space, but the Sportage lets passengers relax. Legroom is adult-friendly, and there’s a useful fold-down middle armrest if you’re not going three-wide. The panoramic sunroof stretches back to right above heads too, which brings some much-needed natural light; the high window line can be a little claustrophobic. The seats fold nearly flat, allowing for up to 60.1 cubic feet (1,703 liters) of storage; less than the cavernous new Nissan Rogue, but still ample.

Back up front, you’ll find large expanses of black plastic everywhere in the Sportage. It’s a far cry from the inviting interiors of the new Seltos and Sorento, and feels too cheap for something with a sticker in the mid-to-high $30,000 range. At least there are physical buttons and dials, all clearly labeled and easy to reach. The 8.0-inch infotainment screen is similarly simple to operate.

We’ve had a few years to all get used to the Sportage’s expressive exterior design. What once seemed startling (and startled) has mellowed. The highly technical headlights are a strong point to my eyes, as well as the full-width rear taillight treatment. I’m not sold on the chrome moustache up front, though.

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Thirsty little guy

This Sportage—and all but the top SX Turbo—runs a 2.4-liter, naturally-aspirated inline-four. Kia quotes 181 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque, putting it slightly down from, but still wholly competitive with, the pack. A six-speed automatic sends power to either the front, or in this case, both axles.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Review: The Dependable One

Fuel efficiency is not the four-pot’s strong suit. The EPA rates this combo at just 21 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, for an average of 23 mpg. (Canadian figures are 10.7, 9.0, and 10.0 L/100 km, respectively.) Everything else in the class posts substantially higher numbers: the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V hit 29 mpg combined; the Rogue, 28 mpg. The Sportage will run its owners a couple hundred dollars more in annual fuel costs, denting its long-term value proposition.

Acceleration is adequate, though the engine is noisy under even light throttle. The six-speed auto does its job without a fuss, smoothly cycling through the gears to minimize revs on the highway. Throttle response is predictable and linear, with no sign of the slight hesitation we found in our recent Kia K5 comparison test.

The Sportage rides with a pleasant firmness, but always remains comfortable for driver and passengers alike. You’ll feel larger bumps more than you’ll hear them in it; weirdly, it’s the engine noise that permeates the cabin most. Steering is typical modern crossover: light and accurate.

Of note: Kia rates the Sportage at up to 2,000 lb (907 kg) towing capacity, handily more than the RAV4 and Rogue.

Dollars and sense

For 2021, the Sportage lineup kicks off at $25,265 ($27,645), destination included. That nets a front-drive LX, packing in the 8.0-inch infotainment, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, automated emergency braking, lane-keep assist, and driver attention warning. An LX Popular Package ($1,700) bundles a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, stain-resistant YES Essentials seat trim, dual-zone climate control, power-folding and heated mirrors, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, solar control glass, and a windshield wiper de-icer.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Kia K5 GT-Line AWD Review: A Covetable Mainstream Sedan?

From there the line consists of the S ($27,765 US), EX ($28,565 US / $34,545 CAD), and SX Turbo ($34,925 US / $41,845 CAD). AWD is a $1,500 surcharge in the US, or $1,700 on the S, as it also includes heated front seats. In Canada, every trim after the base LX includes AWD as standard. The LX forgoes all of the active driver assists in Canada, however.

Our Canadian-spec tester has no direct US equivalent. Dubbed the EX Premium S ($37,445 CAD) in the Great White North, it includes a heated steering wheel, wireless charger, and rear parking sensors. Those features are available in the American EX Technology Package ($4,560), which also includes built-in navigation, a Harman Kardon sound system, ventilated front seats, parking assists at both ends, true leather seating, a power-adjustable passenger seat, panoramic sunroof, and Kia’s Smart Cruise Control with Stop and Go.

Across the board, the Sportage undercuts the Japanese competition while offering the same (or more) features. Balancing that out is an interior a step below the quality of the pack, and a thirsty engine that will negate the savings after a few years.

Verdict: 2021 Kia Sportage EX Review

Looking at it rationally, there’s tough competition for the Sportage not just outside dealerships, but within. The Seltos is fractionally smaller, but offers more creature comforts and a smoother ride—though no towing. Meanwhile the 2021 Sorento (starting at $30,565 / $35,845 CAD) is more fuel efficient, can tow more, and offers an additional row of seats if you need ’em.

If your requirements fall in the narrow space between those two however, then the 2021 Kia Sportage remains a solid option for value-oriented crossover buyers. It’s the polar opposite of the original: less about fun, but far more rational and reliable. Considering what its siblings bring to the table, we hope a little more mojo returns to the mix with the next generation.

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