More power: Kia’s turbocharged Sportage turns awesome |

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More power: Kia’s turbocharged Sportage turns awesome

Special to the Daily 2011 Kia Sportage SX AWD

Tenacity. That’s not a word I often scribble in my car-review notes, but it seemed appropriate with my time in an absolute eye-opener of a vehicle, the turbocharged version of the Kia Sportage. And the Sportage, itself picked as 2011 International Truck of the Year. Who knew?

I had heard that Kia (and Hyundai, its sister Korean carmaker) was planning on wedging a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder gasoline direct injection turbo into its very cute ‘ute, but I did not realize the tremendous character change the new motor would inspire.

In its standard guise, Sportage – itself a million light-years advanced from its crummy early variations, whose faulty transmissions littered the American landscape for years – sports a decent, albeit somewhat noisy 2.4-liter I4 making about 179 horses.

The new, fast-acting, twin-scroll turbo instead puts out 260 horsepower and 269 lb.-ft. of torque, turning the 3,466-pound machine into a flying wedge, still grounded by all-wheel drive.

Need to pass a cattle truck on an isolated stretch of two-lane highway with a brief, mountain-styled passing lane? Nail the accelerator on the Sportage’s and the GDI engine delivers.

Or settle in on a long stretch of Interstate and the car cruises comfortably at 80+ mph, surprisingly solid on its short wheelbase (104 inches) with the addition of the SX model’s 18-inch tires (and sharp, VW GTI-inspired wheels). The SX also features improved shocks and struts than the regular model, which adds to the feel.

It’s the kind of unexpected power I last felt in the V6 model of the Toyota RAV4, which has almost too much juice for its own good. Or, in a similar vein, the kind of power that 2.4-liter engine provides to the extremely lightweight Kia Forte five-door hatchback, which weighs only 2,896 pounds.

There’s not a tremendous efficiency penalty for all the extra power: The turbo edition still gets about 25 mpg, versus the 28 mpg generated by the naturally aspirated engine.

The Sportage’s power steering is a little stiff and sticky at lower speeds, but as I settled in for a long, high-speed haul, Sportage was responsive and fairly precise.

And in light off-roading sessions, Sportage will also do pretty decent duty, cruising along comfortably on gravel roads and even offering a modicum of ability on camping trails, with 6.8 inches of clearance. Hill-descent control and a locking center differential are provided for those who really want to test the vehicle to the max.

The six-speed automatic transmission was flawless and can be manually controlled by tapping the gear selector, useful on long downhill grades.

Design, as mentioned in previous reviews, has thoroughly trumped all memories of Sportage in the past. The sharp lines, including lots of chrome window trim and those squared-off rear passenger windows, make the Sportage look a bit more like an Audi A5 than some import toss-off (especially with those LED headlight eyeliners).

A very tall rear liftgate allows access to the 54.6 cubic feet of storage available inside if you drop the rear seatbacks. There’s no external handle on the gate, however, so you have to reach to the very bottom to activate the touchpad controls and then slam the whole thing shut with a marginally graceless swat.

SX gets a model-specific, bubbled plastic grille, dual exhaust ports, special side moldings and those fancy wheels; you can also order either blue or orange stitching and door panel/air vent accents, if you wish.

The SX model is also loaded with pretty much every possible option you’ll find on the truly expensive imports, ranging from heated and air-cooled leather seats to a push-button starter. The Kia’s premium package also adds a panoramic sunroof and a backup warning system; the $1,500 navigation system offers live Sirius traffic, a backup camera and an impressive audio system with iPod patch cords.