2023 Kia Sportage First Drive: Off-Road X-Pro or On-Road Hybrid? We Try Both.

Kia’s Sportage is no stranger to off-roading. In its early days, the first-generation body-on-frame nugget of an SUV was the first to complete both the Baja 1000 and Paris-Dakar Rally. As Americans’ tastes have shifted, body on frame SUVs have so shifted to crossovers that have naturally become a bit softer and more on-road focused. And yet, everything old is new again and we’re seeing rugged variants of new crossovers, to take drivers farther into the woods than, allegedly, their highway-focused siblings. Not one to be left out, the all-new 2023 Kia Sportage offers one such trim.

Kia brought me and a host of other automotive journalists to Palm Springs, California to sample the 2023 Sportage, both off-road and on-. While I appreciate the off-road intent of Kia’s Sportage X-Pro trim level, it’s the other Sportage I drove that will appeal to more buyers.

2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro

What Is It?

This is the all-new 2023 Kia Sportage. Now in its fifth generation, the 2023 Sportage grows in size to better fit the Kia lineup and remain competitive in one of the hottest segments on the market. Seven inches longer overall with three inches more wheelbase than before, the new Sportage slots squarely between the smaller Seltos and three-row Sorento, competing against Toyota’s RAV4, Honda’s CR-V, and Hyundai’s Tucson. Interestingly, the 2023 Sportage rides on Kia’s N3 platform, shared with the Sorento, though it’s not nearly so large. Inside, Kia is claiming best-in-class cargo space – nearly 40 cubic feet – that pairs to a spacious second row. 

Kia’s offering two drivetrains to start – choose from a naturally-aspirated 2.5 liter four cylinder or a a 1.6 liter turbocharged hybrid. The 2.5 will likely be the volume seller, and it’s a “meets expectations” kind of engine, producing 187 horsepower and 178 lb-ft of torque, fed through an eight-speed torque-converter automatic.

2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro

The hybrid is far more interesting, technically, combining a turbocharged 1.6 liter four cylinder and an electric motor that together produce 227 horsepower and 258 lb-ft. Given the electric motor’s ability to produce its full torque from zero rpm, it can get the party started as the turbo spools up, and the two make the same peak torque around 1,600 rpm, providing a strong, uninterrupted wave of power delivery away from a stop. Kia’s hybrid system pushes power through a six-speed automatic, not a CVT, which may be technically less advantageous but feels more “proper” to those who can’t quite love a CVT’s operation.

Front-wheel drive is standard on both gas and hybrid 2023 Kia Sportage models, with all-wheel drive either optional or standard depending on trim level. The Sportage Hybrid handily beats the gas model on fuel economy, with roughly 65% more economy in the city (38 miles per gallon versus 23) and about 35% more on the highway (38 miles per gallon versus 28). And, it only costs about $2,000 more than an equivalent gas model.

2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro

Off-Roading the 2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro

Our drive took us to Wrecked Fence Off-Road Park, where Kia had set up a mildly-challenging off-road course that would demonstrate the capabilities of the Sportage X-Pro, their off-road-oriented trim level. What does X-Pro get you that a Sportage EX or SX doesn’t? Tires and software.

The Sportage X-Pro gets a set of 17-inch BFGoodrich Trail Terrain all-terrain tires on unique black wheels, with all-wheel drive software “optimized” for the tires, according to Kia. Some other creature comforts and tech are packaged as part of the Sportage X-Pro, but there are no other hardware changes to the Sportage like a limited-slip differential or skid plates.

Ground clearance of the Sportage X-Pro is 8.3 inches, the same as all other all-wheel drive Sportage models.

2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro off-road
This was planned and part of the course!

The course was fun to drive, showing off approach and departure angles and traction management of the Sportage when one or two wheels got off the ground. Standard front and side cameras were helpful when the course got purposely tight or as I crested a hill with no view of where the trail went. I did wish for skid plates, though, not because we needed them on this course, but because 8.3 inches of clearance is just enough to give a driver some confidence, but not enough to easily clear more rocky terrain. Having protection for vital bits underneath – even as a dealer accessory – would be a nice touch.

The X-Pro was enjoyable to sample, and I’ll see if it wins me over a bit more back at home on the one rocky trail I can access. 

2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro off road

Gasoline-Only or Hybrid?

Despite loving the look (and performance) of a street-focused crossover on all-terrain tires, the Sportage X-Pro is only available with the naturally-aspirated 2.5 liter. It’s a fine engine that will do its job, but it was working hard at altitude as we climbed canyon roads outside of Palm Springs. I strongly preferred my time in the 2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid, with its honey of a drivetrain that feels far more suited to the vehicle.

Torque away from a stop feels effortless, and if you’re gentle enough on the throttle, you can run the Sportage Hybrid up to 50 miles per hour (or more) on the battery alone as the six-speed clicks off shifts. It felt far happier up in the mountains, and even as we lost altitude, was just a bit more “on” and responsive all the time.

2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid

Kia doesn’t sell the Sportage Hybrid in every possible trim level – you’re limited to just LX, EX, and SX Prestige – but those three ought to cover most buyers’ needs. Assuming you can swing the extra up-front cost of a hybrid, it’ll pay for itself in gas savings in just a few years, compared to the 2.5 liter.

Should you really want to go farther off-road in your Sportage Hybrid than the highway tires allow, your local tire shop would happily install a set of all-terrains, giving you the most important part of the gasoline X-Pro model with all the advantages of the Hybrid.  

If you’re deeper into electrification than a “normal” hybrid, Kia will also sell a Sportage PHEV plug-in hybrid with a targeted 32 miles of all-electric range. Both the Sportage Hybrid and Sportage PHEV are set to go on sale at the end of Q2 (end of June, roughly) this year.

2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid interior blue white

Final Thoughts

In general, I like where Kia has taken the 2023 Kia Sportage. It’s right-sized (and relatively huge inside) for four adults, has plenty of cargo space, and can be had in a delightful variety of paint colors and interior colorways, from green to brick red to our Hybrid tester’s two-tone cream and navy blue. Kia’s technology continues to be some of the best, with an easy-to-use infotainment system and great driver assistance suite. Seats are comfortable, the optional Harman/Kardon sound system is pretty good, and the ride is well-tuned – comfortable but not pillowy.

Is the 2023 Sportage particularly fun to drive? Eh, no. The steering was my biggest personal letdown through canyon corners – it’s light and devoid of much feel for those wanting to drive a family crossover like a complete moron in the twisties.

But the steering isn’t the point. Crossovers in this segment are people haulers above all else, and Kia has nailed the bits that matter most.

Leave a Comment