I first drove the 2023 Kia Sportage at Kia’s media event in the spring of 2022. Kia had brought two variants of the all-new Sportage for media to sample – the Sportage X-Pro and Sportage Hybrid. Every Sportage X-Pro uses Kia’s “base” engine, a naturally-aspirated 2.5 liter four cylinder. The Hybrid is, unsurprisingly, a hybrid. I left that day of test driving feeling strong preferences toward the Sportage Hybrid, feelings that were only confirmed after spending an entire week with one recently.
And really, the 2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid begs the question… why are we still doing this naturally-aspirated thing at all?
My friend Rick and I often refer to “regular cars” simply as “traffic.” Look, Kia, love you guys but nobody’s heart is racing much over a Sportage. Same for the Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V or any other utilitarian appliance sort of vehicle. Build a Sportage GT and then we’ll talk. In any case, there’s often not much exciting about “traffic” from a performance standpoint. Highlights generally include passenger space, ride quality, fuel economy, and technology.
The 2023 Sportage has all of those things in spades. My parents were visiting when I had the Sportage Hybrid, and my dad in particular took an immediate interest in the car’s styling and matte gray paint. They’re in the early stages of new car shopping, and both of them were curious about the hybrid bit of the Sportage as we drove around Washington, D.C.
Kia’s hybrid system isn’t like all those other hybrid moms, she’s a cool mom. There’s no CVT to be found here; Kia instead puts an electric motor in between a 1.6 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a six-speed automatic transmission. Think of it as a replacement for the torque converter. Total output is 227 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, routed to all four wheels through an all-wheel drive system with “locking” center differential.
Driving the 2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid
Thanks to the electric motor’s location, you can feel the transmission shifting if you are accelerating slowly on electricity alone. It’s an eerie sensation at first, but Kia’s integration of two power sources is remarkably smooth (an overused word that truly applies here) and subtle. Only a tiny “EV” icon half-hidden by the steering wheel indicates total electric propulsion.
The system is a delight bopping around a city environment, where it’s most helpful, and tries its hardest at highway speeds, too. I’ve had the gas engine shut down at highway speeds, but only on perfectly flat ground and only for very brief periods. Otherwise, the electric motor serves to help with passing maneuvers alongside the turbocharger. In general, the 2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid is a punchy, quick car, even with three or four adults on board.
Ride quality is similarly good, helped here by my SX Prestige’s 18-inch wheels. It’s refreshing to see a nicely-styled “small” wheel wrapped in a tire that has some sidewall. Sporty, this car is not, although that’s not its mission. Wheel and tire choice reflect that, as does handling. As does – in a less positive way – the steering. It’s fine, though it doesn’t really offer much feedback through the too-light wheel. The Sportage will go where you point it, but you won’t be encouraged to dive-bomb an off-ramp.
The Not-Mechanical Bits That Matter
Inside the Sportage, I loved the Carmine Red seats that were both stylish and comfortable. Visibility was decent overall, with a fairly low dashboard and expansive-enough window glass up front. Blind-spot cameras feeding the gauge cluster screen are brilliant and help with rear visibility.
Kia’s infotainment software continues to be good, and the Harman/Kardon sound system bumps just fine for most people. My biggest gripe is with the dual-use touch panel that controls infotainment and climate control. What seemed easy to use last May was frustrating in bumpier city driving. It was too easy to inadvertently touch the “change mode” control while reaching for the volume knob, which lead to me setting the climate control to Low or High depending on which ’90s throwback came up on shuffle.
Fuel economy was not quite up to Kia’s claims of 38 miles per gallon, both city and highway, with my average coming in closer to 30. The naturally-aspirated Sportage is only rated at 23 miles per gallon, though, so the improvement is still there. My drives were mostly short and in cold winter weather, too, which affects any vehicle.
And About That Hybrid Bit
Back to my original question, though. Kia’s hybrid system on the Sportage is so good that I wonder why they’re selling the naturally-aspirated model at all. I’d ask the same of Toyota and Honda and Ford and everyone else. The obvious answer comes down to cost, with the less-complex engines being cheaper to produce and allowing a lower starting price. Economies of scale, though, are indeed A Thing, and I wonder how much cheaper Kia and others could make these “basic” hybrid systems if they produced so many more of them.
Power windows, for example, were once a costly option, and now it’s cheaper to standardize that option across the board.
Kia currently charges only $1,000 to make most basic Sportage LX with front-wheel drive a hybrid. The difference is even less if you compare the top SX Prestige trim in all-wheel drive, as I sampled, coming in at just $600. I’m curious if Kia will share the take rate per drivetrain once they get a full year of sales under their 2023 Sportage’s belt. I initially predicted most buyers would choose the naturally-aspirated model – it’s the only one available on the (slightly) more rugged X-Pro trim and is indeed cheaper.
Hybrids are not a novelty at this point. We’re not talking 2005-era Prius anymore. Hybrid drivetrains have been proven with millions of miles of New York taxi use alongside millions of private owners’ miles. In a car generally considered an appliance – even a very nice appliance, as this 2023 Kia Sportage indeed is – I really can’t see a downside.