2011 Kia Sportage

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The 2011 Kia Sportage is one of the cutest new cars on the road. My test car arrived dressed in a shiny patent-leather-like red paint, the same exact shade I'm dying to find a new pair of shoes in. The Sportage's modern, sporty styling will attract young families on a budget who still want a bit of "wow" factor in the crossover they drive.

Not only is the new Sportage great-looking, but it also packs an incredibly powerful punch with the features included for less than $30,000. My test car, the Sportage EX with all-wheel drive, topped out at $29,980 and was worth every penny when you consider the cost of so many extras that were included at that price point. Other cars in the same category and price point don't come close to competing with the Sportage. With a starting MSRP of $18,295, you can get in a base Sportage for not a lot of money.

I had the opportunity to drive the Sportage in Denver as well as Los Angeles. The Sportage handled well both in Colorado and in the twisty hillsides of California. It had plenty of pick up and go (otherwise referred to as acceleration) and hugged the road comfortably. Its braking felt solid, too.

I did, however, notice one overridingly negative theme in both Sportages I drove. There was an abundance of annoying squeaks and rattles inside the car. In Denver, the squeaking came from the center console and was silenced by putting pressure on it with my arm or elbow. As soon as I lifted up my arm, the squeaking started all over again. In my test car in California, I couldn't locate the source of the squeak, but it was annoying. An inability to quiet the squeaks would unfortunately be enough to keep me from buying this car, which is a sad statement since it has so many other fantastic qualities.

EXTERIOR

The Sportage has been completely redesigned for 2011 and is a fresh look representing the the new face of Kia. The first thing I noticed about the Sportage was its trendy eyelash-shaped LED headlights. This is a design feature becoming synonymous with more upscale brands such as Audi, and I happen to love them. They're fun and flirty and the perfect complement to a small crossover like the Sportage with its energetic, fluid exterior lines.

I had a couple of people ask me what kind of car I was driving and even comment on what a great-looking car it was. When someone goes out of their way to chat with me about how fabulous a car looks, I consider that a huge success.

The Sportage is a great size, as well. It's just large enough for a small family, and it has plenty of cargo space for all the stuff families need to haul. The cargo floor lifts up to reveal an extensive under-floor storage area with compartments that would make even the most organized neat freaks amongst us (me!) giddy. Despite its large, functional cargo area, the Sportage itself is compact enough to fit into tight parking garages. It can even navigate through crowded urban jungles.

The test car I drove had all-wheel drive; front-wheel drive is standard on lower trim models. It also has a 176-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder and requires regular unleaded fuel. My test car came equipped with both a backup camera (a $1,500 option) and rear parking sensors in the $3,000 Premium Package, which are a great addition at this price point. With backovers becoming an alarmingly frequent occurrence, especially in families with young kids, backup cameras should be at the top of everyone's must-have list.

With all-wheel drive, my test car got 21/28 mpg city/highway. The front-wheel-drive Sportage with an automatic transmission gets 22/31 mpg.

SENSE AND STYLE

Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Good Times

INTERIOR

The inside is where the Sportage really takes the cake in its class. The front seats are a great fit for smaller drivers. The seats are bolstered just enough to provide a little extra grip and comfort. I appreciated this when pushing the limits of the Sportage's handling on some of California's switchback roads.

Speaking of seat comfort, not only do both front seats have a heated option, but the driver's seat is also cooled. An air-conditioned seat in a car for less than $30K? Oh yeah, I love a good bargain! The Sportage also has standard Bluetooth connectivity, which was quite easy to pair with my cell phone, and steering-wheel-mounted phone and radio controls.

The front and rear doors in the Sportage both have slim bottleholders that fit the type of water bottles my daughters give me grief about using. Apparently, I'm ruining Mother Earth. I'll switch to a reusable water bottle tomorrow. Really, I will.

The Sportage's backseat is a bench with three seating positions. The center seat in the Sportage should only be considered for the peanut of the family. I put my two younger girls in booster seats in the outboard positions, which then required my 10-year-old to wedge her tiny tush into the nano-seat between the two boosters. She wasn't thrilled, but it's kind of just what you get with a small crossover. There was, however, enough rear legroom for them and their backpacks.

The impressive dual moonroofs, which are optional, kept the kids from feeling too claustrophobic while packed into the backseat and provided a huge source of entertainment one frosty morning as they spent the entire ride to school trying to capture an artistic photo of the frozen snowflakes with my iPhone.

The rear seats are split 60/40 and fold flat-ish to create a larger cargo space when needed. It should be noted that the cargo area is pretty huge even when the backseat is up.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

SAFETY

The 2011 Sportage has been named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. To receive this safety award, a car must earn the top score of Good in frontal-offset, side-impact, rear and roof-strength crash tests. It also must have an optional electronic stability system, which is standard in the Kia.

The Sportage is chockfull of all the standard safety features you'd expect in a modern crossover such as frontal- and side-impact airbags for the driver and front passenger as well side curtain airbags for both rows. Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, front-wheel drive, traction control and anti-roll control are also standard. All-wheel drive, rear parking sensors and a backup camera are optional.

The Sportage has some visibility issues because it doesn't have a window behind the C-pillar in the cargo area. The lack of windows is a casualty of the Sportage's sleek, modern design lines. An extra glance or two should be required while changing lanes on the highway to make sure there isn't a car in your blind spot.

The center seat belt in the rear seat extends down from the ceiling, which also affects visibility. Not only does it obstruct the driver's rear visibility, but it also didn't fit a child sitting in that seat. It cut too high across my 10-year-old daughter's neck, rather than resting just above her shoulder.

The seat belts in the Sportage were easy for my little ones in booster seats to buckle independently. For parents installing rear-facing child-safety seats using the Latch system, they might struggle a bit. The Latch anchors are concealed between the seat bottom and back cushions. Rigid Latch systems will install easily, but manually operated hooks on the nylon belt will be more challenging.

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