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2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid first drive: Softer sporting intentions

It’s trivia time. What’s the longest-running nameplate from the Kia brand? Is it Spectra? Sephia? Amanti? Nope. It’s actually the Sportage. In production since 1993, which was before Hyundai Motor Group absorbed Kia, this compact crossover is now in its fourth decade of existence. Since then, the Sportage has undergone multiple transformations from a small utility vehicle to a mainstream sporty alternative to entry-level luxury compact and subcompact SUVs. The fifth-generation vehicle has transformed once again with rugged aspirations and for the first time, electrified powertrain options. We went to sunny Palm Springs, California to see how the 2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid, the first electrified variant compares to the competition. Will it impress us the way its big brother, the Sorento did?

Bigger, more practical, still foolproof

2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid EX side 01
Photo credit: Stefan Ogbac / EV Pulse

The 2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid is a big transition from the previous model. Its wheelbase is 3.4 inches longer than the outgoing model at 108.5 inches. Overall length is up by 7.1 inches at 183.5 inches, making it among the largest vehicles in the class. North America, Korea, and China are among the handful of markets where the crossover has a longer wheelbase. The version Europe gets has a shorter wheelbase and is similar in size to the outgoing model. As a result, our version is much roomier. You see it immediately once you enter the cabin. There are gobs of head- and legroom regardless of whether you’re in front or the back. The cargo area is downright cavernous at nearly 39.5 cubic feet even on the hybrid. Drop the second row and it swells to 73.7 cubic feet. To put it into perspective, that’s 3.1 and 1.6 cubic feet more than a Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid with the seats up and down respectively!

As for the exterior styling, it’s bound to divide opinions because of that new face. The boomerang-shaped LED daytime running lights, the grille, and main headlight clusters create a distinct look that you’re not mistaking for anything else. Once again, the Sportage has a distinct look from the rest of the Kia lineup, only this time it doubles down on futurism. Most of the car appears conventional but you’ll notice unique cues like the hockey stick-shaped trim under the windows and the curvaceous side profile and rear end contrasting some of the angular elements.

In typical Kia fashion, the Sportage Hybrid is packed with tech features, especially on the EX and SX Prestige trims, which echoes a lot of the cues from the EV6. There’s an available 12.3-inch main touch screen that’s quick, responsive, and simple. You can also upgrade it to a dual display layout with a curved glass panel, giving you 24.6 inches’ worth of screen real estate. The best part is that this doesn’t hurt the usability because the menu structure remains the same and there aren’t many submenus within the other display. There’s also an available eight-speaker Harman Kardon audio system that sounds pretty good during our brief time with the vehicle. The only part of the infotainment experience that will take some time to get used to is that center row of haptic feedback controls and knobs because you need to press a button to toggle between climate and multimedia functions.

Every Sportage Hybrid gets a long list of standard driver assistance and collision avoidance features. During most of the drive, it stayed mainly in the background and didn’t seem overly intrusive, which is a nice thing. On the SX Prestige trim, adaptive cruise control uses the navigation system to detect oncoming turns and will slow you down to help you complete the turn safely. The lane centering function beeped a couple of times but its corrections were daily gentle and didn’t feel like the system was trying to take over driving duties.

More grown up

2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid EX front seats 01
Photo credit: Stefan Ogbac / EV Pulse

From behind the wheel, the first thing you’ll notice is just how grown up the Sportage has become. It has a more refined experience than before, which goes well with the cabin’s quietness and fantastic build quality. The outgoing model had a sportier vibe; this one has a softness and the same rugged character as its big brother, the Sorento. It’s amplified by the higher ground clearance of 8.3 inches for AWD-equipped models, which is now in the same ballpark as the Subaru Forester and the Adventure and TRD Off-Road models of the Toyota RAV4. Wheel sizes for the Sportage Hybrid top out at 18 inches, giving you more sidewall and cushioning. The result is a cushier, plusher ride that does a great job ironing out road imperfections and gravel roads.

That doesn’t mean the Sportage is now sloppy — far from it. While not as sharp as before, the newest iteration is still pretty good to drive. It takes turns confidently and body motions are well controlled. The steering remains accurate and communicative, giving you a sense of what the front wheels are doing. AWD-equipped Sportage Hybrids also use the electric motor and brakes to enable some torque vectoring, adding to its stable feel on the road. This latest version no longer skews to the sporty side; it’s confident yet comfortable, something that will help it attract a broader range of consumers to the Kia brand.

If you’re looking for the most potent Sportage, the electrified versions are it. The standard hybrid utilizes a 1.6-liter turbo-four coupled to an electric motor, a 1.49-kWh lithium-ion battery, and a six-speed automatic transmission. Combined, the system makes 227 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. You also get incredible efficiency at 42/44/43 mpg city/highway/combined for the base FWD LX model or 38 mpg across the board if you go for AWD. Power delivery is smooth and seamless thanks to the electric motor’s instant response and the engine’s broad torque band. The transmission is responsive, quick, and does a great job making the most out of the available output. It doesn’t hesitate either, meaning you immediately get to the sweet spot once you put your foot down on the accelerator.

AWD is standard in the EX and SX Prestige variants, the former of which was the one we spent the most time in. Since it’s a mechanical setup, power distribution happens quickly, maximizing grip once you ask for more power. Most of it goes to the front wheels regardless of the drive mode you’re in but it will shuffle power to the rear quickly if it detects that more grip is needed. With a drive shaft connecting both axles, the front wheels don’t get squirrelly when you mash the accelerator pedal.

As with other electrified Kia vehicles, the brake pedal operation is mostly linear and natural. You won’t get jerked around if you have to suddenly stop or if you accidentally press on the brakes too much. It will require some getting used to, though, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of stopping power upon initial tip-in and it doesn’t help that the pedal is soft. That’s due to the crossover making use of regenerative braking extensively and will only switch to friction braking when additional braking force is needed. One major upside is that it makes driving the Sportage Hybrid efficiently a breeze because you can simply ease off the accelerator to allow for energy recuperation to slow you down and charge the battery in the process.

Less sport, more desirable

2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid EX rear three quarters 02
Photo credit: Stefan Ogbac / EV Pulse

The 2023 Sportage may have lost a little of its athleticism but what it gained in refinement more than makes up for it. Like recent Kia models, it punches above its weight and gives you more than what you bargained for. The EX AWD example we drove for the day barely cost $33,000 and it was nearly loaded to the gills. Top-end SX-Prestige models get you way more niceties but even with the extra-cost exterior colors, it manages to stay around $38,000. Kia says it’s no longer the value player, but based on our time spent with the Sportage Hybrid, we think they still are. The only difference now is that the level of substance you get in the vehicle is much higher while retaining the generous feature content the brand has been known for.

Things are just getting started, too. The 2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid is the latest step in the brand’s shift to electrification and there’s still more to come. Our first impressions of the Sportage Hybrid confirm that Kia makes exceptionally big strides from one generation to the next. This compact crossover has gone straight to the top because it offers so much to consumers. It has the tech, efficiency, space, and power. That’s just the standard hybrid. Later this year, the 261-hp Sportage PHEV joins the lineup with more versatility and flexibility, and we can’t wait to drive it after experiencing the standard hybrid.

Written by Stefan Ogbac
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