9.1 / 10

Compact crossovers are the grocery-getters of the automotive landscape. They’re not known for having much in the way of personality or for being especially capable or fun to drive. Enter the 2023 Kia Sportage.

With its new powertrains, larger dimensions, and trail-ready trims that help embrace your adventurous side, its aspirations are bigger than ever. A day spent driving the twisting mountain roads outside Palm Springs along with some time off-road showed just how much Kia has done to make the Sportage something more than just another compact crossover.

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2023 Kia Sportage exterior
2023 Kia Sportage exterior

Gas, Hybrid, Or Plug-In Hybrid

The gas engine in the Sportage is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 187 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque paired to an eight-speed automatic transmission. It gets an EPA-estimated 28 mpg combined with front-wheel drive or 25 mpg combined with all-wheel drive. We drove the SX Prestige trim with the gas engine and found it did the job of getting the Sportage up to speed, but not with any great sense of urgency. It was also loud under hard acceleration with harsher shifts than expected.This powertrain has a maximum tow rating of 2,500 pounds when properly equipped.

Next up on the powertrain menu is the first Sportage Hybrid. It features a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder paired with a single electric motor for 227 net system horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. It also gets a 6-speed automatic transmission. The maximum tow rating drops to 2,000 pounds when properly equipped, but there are some upsides.

2023 Kia Sportage engine

The first upside here is fuel economy. Front-wheel drive hybrids get an EPA-estimated 43 mpg combined while all-wheel drive drops that number to 38 mpg. The second upside is how much better the acceleration is with the hybrid than with the gas engine. If you drove a hybrid ten years ago, it likely felt underpowered and lackluster. Going with a hybrid then meant making a performance sacrifice. The powertrain in the Kia Sportage hybrid proves just how far that technology has progressed.

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It accelerates strongly making short work of highway merges and still has power enough to pass slower moving vehicles at speed. Transmission shifts are well-timed to deliver that power right when you need it without the occasional hunting for gears experienced with the gas engine. It was responsive and quiet and displayed the same controlled handing on those winding mountain roads.

Last on the list is the plug-in hybrid, which unfortunately wasn’t available for this drive, but will be available in dealerships by the end of June. What we can tell you is that it has the same powertrain setup with a jump to 261 horsepower and a Kia-targeted all-electric range of 32 miles.

2023 Kia Sportage interior
2023 Kia Sportage interior
2023 Kia Sportage interior

More Room for People With An Upscale Interior

The Sportage is bigger this year, so there’s more room for everything. It’s 7.1 inches longer and five-tenths of an inch taller and wider. That added length includes 3.4 inches in the wheelbase, which makes it much roomier for rear passengers, with 41.3 inches of rear legroom. Even your tallest friends will have plenty of space to spread out. There’s seating for three in those rear seats, but it’s best suited to two adults unless the trip is short. If it’s kids in tow, then they’ll have plenty of room to stay out of each other’s way, so parents won’t have to endure quite so much squabbling on road trips.

In addition to having a roomy interior for people, there’s lots of room for all your stuff, too. There’s up to 74.1 cubic feet behind the front seats with 38.6 cubic feet behind the rear seats. That’s plenty of space for a family’s luggage whether they’re heading to the airport or heading out for a camping getaway. There’s also a dual-level cargo floor for added versatility.

2023 Kia Sportage interior
2023 Kia Sportage interior

It's an attractive interior that gets high marks for looking expensive despite its reasonable price. Kia has a knack for building cars that are affordable without making them look cheap. A balance of materials and design accomplishes this feat. Trims include cloth or synthetic leather seating surfaces with eye-catching patterns, metal and wood accents, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel on select trims (but no option for leather seats). It looks good and it feels good making it a nice place to while away the time on longer drives.

It's an attractive interior that gets high marks for looking expensive despite its reasonable price.

When it comes to infotainment, there are a few different setups. The base LX trim gets an 8.0-inch touchscreen with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto next to a 12.2-inch LCD instrument cluster. Move up one trim to the EX and that infotainment screen grows to 12.3-inches and becomes part of a curved panoramic housing shared with the instrument cluster.

Step up one more trim level to the SX, and the instrument cluster grows slightly to a matching 12.3 inches with a TFT display. This is the standard setup for most of the lineup and it creates a high-tech, premium feel. Although technically two independent screens, the way they curve into each other gives the appearance of one continuous screen for a clean, streamlined look.

2023 Kia Sportage exterior

Yes, You Can Go Off-Road

Let’s get this right out of the way. You will not be tackling the Rubicon Trail in your Sportage. You can, however, take it on more aggressive off-road terrain than you might expect. Kia added three “trail-ready” trims to the Sportage lineup: X-Line, X-Pro, and X-Pro Prestige. All have standard active all-wheel drive with a center locking differential, 8.3 inches of ground clearance and Multi-Terrain drive modes of Normal, Sport, Smart, and Snow. The X-Line is more about looking tough than being tough with unique front and rear bumpers, 19-inch wheels, and gloss black exterior trims.

If you want to venture into the dirt, then stick with one of the X-Pro trims. These have 17-inch BF Goodrich all-terrain tires and the same drive modes but tuned for the more aggressive rubber. Kia says this reduces wheel slip, improves traction, and provides better downhill braking control. The company sent me off to Wrecked Fence Off-Road Park in Anza, California to prove that point.

2023 Kia Sportage interior

I’m going to say this one more time. The Sportage is not a hardcore off-road vehicle. If that's what you want, then go buy a Jeep Cherokee or maybe a Toyota RAV4 TRD Pro, with its skid plate and TRD suspension. If, however, you spend most of your time on-road, but are the outdoorsy type who likes to go on weekend adventures to cabins tucked away in more secluded spots, then the Kia Sportage is a surprisingly good choice.

The park offered easy dirt two-tracks that most every crossover could handle, but also a few challenges. Steeply banked sections were followed by even steeper hills that had you looking at nothing but blue sky at the top with equally challenging descents on the other side.

If you're the outdoorsy type who likes to go on weekend adventures to cabins tucked away in more secluded spots, then the Kia Sportage is a surprisingly good choice.

The soil was packed in some places, but on a few inclines it was loose enough to easily shift beneath your tires. The Sportage handled it all with ease. Stopping in the middle of an incline, it was no problem to get moving again and coming down the other side it did a fine job of maintaining traction. An assortment of camera views lets you easily see exactly where your tires are going so you’re less likely to come home with scrapes and dings. Most people will never do as much as we did on our drive, but the capability is there for those who might find themselves more off-road than they expected when they rented that cute little cabin.

2023 Kia Sportage exterior
2023 Kia Sportage exterior
2023 Kia Sportage exterior
2023 Kia Sportage exterior

Trim Levels Galore

There are a dizzying number of Kia Sportage trims. Equipped with the gas engine, the base LX starts at $27,245 (all prices include a $1,255 destination charge) with front-wheel drive with the EX priced at $29,245. The SX takes pricing up to $32,745 while the SX Prestige boasts the most well-appointed interior and a price of $34,745. Add all-wheel drive to any of these trims for an additional $1,800. The remaining three trims are all-wheel drive only. The X-Line is priced at $32,045 with the X-Pro at $36,245. The X-Pro Prestige sits at the top of the lineup with a price of $38,045.

Moving on to the hybrid, there’s a choice of three trim levels. The gas-electric LX starts at $28,345 with front-wheel drive and carries the same premium of $1,800 for all-wheel drive. The remaining two trims are all-wheel drive only with the EX priced at $32,245 and the SX-Prestige at $37,445. The plug-in hybrid further narrows your choices with just two trims. It’s available in X-Line and an exclusive X-Line Prestige trim. Pricing has not yet been announced for the plug-in hybrid. Kia says that will come closer to the on-sale date, which is slated for the end of June.

2023 Kia Sportage exterior

That’s a lot of trims, so how do you choose? Unless you simply must have one of the “trail-ready” trims that are gas only, we’d go with a hybrid for its improved performance, specifically the EX. It has the larger infotainment screen, great fuel efficiency, and standard all-wheel drive to get you where you need to go even when the weather is a challenge. It also has a more affordable price that, while higher than the gas trims, is still manageable for modest family budgets.

Sportage Competitor Reviews:

Gallery: 2023 Kia Sportage: First Drive

2023 Kia Sportage SX Prestige Hybrid

Engine Turbocharged 1.6-liter I4 w/ISG
Motor Single Permanent Magnet Synchronous
Output 227 Horsepower / 258 Pound-Feet (Total System)
Transmission Six-Speed Automatic
Drive Type All-Wheel Drive
Battery 1.5-Kilowatt-Hour Lithium-Ion
Efficiency 38 City / 38 Highway / 38 Combined
Weight 3,896 Pounds
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 38.6 / 74.1 Cubic Feet
Towing 2,000 Pounds
Base Price $27,290 + $1,255 Destination
Trim Base Price $37,445
As-Tested Price $37,445
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