Those paying even half attention to the auto world know that it's a whole new ballgame these days. The old guard has struggled lately but there s a smattering of brands that are thriving. Count Kia as one of them. There s bad news for RAV4, CR-V and the aging Ford Escape. The 2011 Sportage is trickling into Kia showrooms as you read this.

Sportage is not historically known as a front runner in this segment. The first gen was part of Kia s initial assault on US shores back in 1994. Some info for the next time you re playing Trivial Pursuit Car Edition, it's the only one of their vehicles to keep it's name from the brand s launch. Sportage beat RAV4, CR-V to market and came well before Escape. Only Suzuki Samurai beat it to the US (and where is it now, huh?).

Things didn t go all that smoothly at first.

Let s just say the original body-on-frame trucklette had some teething problems. The second version was a big improvement, switching to a car based unibody chassis. It was a wallflower though, designed it seems by the same team that brought us beige.

Exterior style is now first and foremost to Sportage. Drawn up by a team headed by former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, the 2011 model has a unique but overall Euro look to it right down to LED daytime running lights similar to, ahhh, hmmm, could it be.... Audi? This element and the planted stance brings a good amount of presence to Sportage when seen on the road.

Right on Kue.

Based on the Kue concept car first shown at the 2007 New York Auto Show, the distinct bold shape of this CUV should appeal to its new target market- guys (historically Sportage has skewed female). Kia has tooted their horn about their new design philosophy with the Forte and Sorento. They re nice but they ve hit their stride with Sportage and the upcoming Optima. Kia was keen on tossing around the phrase sports car with a backpack . A little forced but hey, I used it didn t I?

It s easy for the eye to glom onto the thick D pillar as a design feature but check out the upper windshield when you see this rig for the first time. The line juts forward a little forming a sort of tab, mirroring the shape of the grille somewhat. Something the designers debated? The turn indicator in back blinks on the lower bumper mounted lens, not the upper area where where other drivers will expect it.

Driving dynamics.

At launch the only engine is a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder that makes 176 horsepower. There's no V6 anymore but that's fine, this 4 makes more power. Base models have a 6-speed manual transmission, top o the line EX models Kia has on hand at the Seattle press launch come standard with a 6-speed automatic.

Longer, lower and wider, the new Sportage is now slightly lighter. 0-60 happens in around 9 seconds, OK for a compact sport ute. Speed junkies will want to wait for the more powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces around 270 horsepower available sometime in early 2011. At least the normally aspirated 2.4-liter power plant feels quicker than its performance numbers and is never harsh, even when pushed. Many shoppers will be fine with it.

At the press launch we are driving preproduction vehicles and the various examples Kia has us jumping into have slightly different ride qualities. It's clear they re going for a firm handling dynamic. The electric power steering has an almost magnetic need to return to center, much like the Hyundai Tucson that shares this architecture. The structure, loaded with high strength steel is quite solid. Sportage is on the quiet side for those who do the road trip thing. Fuel economy is EPA rated as high as 22 city, 31 highway for front-drive automatic models. AWD drops that to 21/28 which is fine considering its size.

UVO is on its way

Remember, this is a top-line EX with the $3,000 Premium Package meaning there's fancy stuff inside. Leather seats are heated (expected), the driver's chair is ventilated (not expected). A big piece of glass is installed in the roof and navigation gets thrown in as part of the package. The wheel is leather wrapped too. Despite the stout signature rear pillar, visibility is fairly good, audible parking aids help when backing up. The throttle pedal is hinged on the bottom, not unlike a certain German manufacturer. EXs get dual zone climate control.

The materials inside are decent but not up to the promise of the sheetmetal. They re what would be expected in this class, hard with a nice matte finish. Seats are nicely bolstered too, there were no cloth versions to look at, only leather. I mention that because with it the black interior gets a bit dark and monochromatic. With the cloth seating, optional blue or orange colored inserts on the door panels bring more depth to the cabin. Know that the wheel tilts on all models but to get a telescoping feature you have to go with higher trim levels.

Coming soon to Sportage is UVO, a Microsoft based system similar to Ford's Sync. It s designed to simply electronics like phones, MP3 players and music filled USB jump drives by making them voice activated. Want to hear Coldplay on your iPod? Push the steering wheel button and say iPod then play artist Coldplay . It s just that easy.

We were treated to a very controlled demo of UVO (pronounced YOU-voh) and it has a more streamlined voice command architecture than the version of Ford Sync I m familiar with (but they ve announced an upgrade so I ll have to update my experience). It can read incoming text messages from Bluetooth enabled phones and even send back pre-programmed texts, the best being, can t respond, I m driving .

Order Dynamax AWD (developed by Kia Motors and Magna International) and you get a system that continuously monitors conditions with a sort of ESP. It keeps over and understeer in check by reducing unwanted traction to the front and rear axles. Not only does it have a super hero name, Dynamax normally delivers all of the engine torque to the front wheels for maximum fuel economy. When a wheel slips, a percentage of the torque is automatically routed to the back treads. There s a lock mode for sloppy conditions that divvies up torque evenly between front and rear axles up to 25 mph.

Nice backside.

Loading children s car seats? The rear doors open very wide for easy entry and exit. Once in back two average adults will be perfectly fine. Three? If they are the trim trendy buyers Kia is after no problem. Foot and knee room is good, the shallow drive train tunnel doesn't intrude on the passenger stuck in the middle (it is the safest position in the car). My 5 9 frame has plenty of headroom in back, even with the panoramic roof. A folding armrest with drink holders is here along with bottle slots in the doors. No power port or fore and aft sliding seat though.

Even raiding the hotel bathrooms, press launches don t have enough bath tissue for me to do the famous TP test but the cargo area looks to be very useful. To get to it there s a hidden latch on the underside of the hatch door. It looks good but its location means it gets dirty so your hands will too. On the plus side there's divided storage under load floor and the wheel wells don't intrude much, keeping the space very useable. There's a good amount of room back here.

That brings us to price. If you pay retail, a base front drive Sportage with manual transmission will set you back $18,295 (including destination because who gets a car without it?). All-wheel drive EXs max out at $28,495. That s a decent deal for this kind of style and equipment level. No doubt crossover buyers have a lot to choose from these days. Sportage s compelling mix of style, function, and value should put it on many short lists.

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