Mountain Wheels: Brothers in arms: Hyundai’s Tucson and Kia’s Sportage face off

With brawnier looks and truck-styled tires, the X-Pro version of the Kia Sportage provides some added versatility, but comes up short on power.
Courtesy photo

I opted to skip the L.A. Auto Show again this year — hope you caught news of the new, finally cool-looking Toyota Prius among other launches there — and instead reflected on a couple of California-ized Korean SUVs that might appeal to mountain drivers.

The 2022 (and now 2023) versions of the related Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage are not at all like what many people still curiously remember them being from literally a quarter century ago, ie., terrible and austere imports. They were that, back in the Bill Clinton era, but that was a long time ago.

Nowadays, they’re a pair of feature-laden and competitive small SUVs, one of which has even been geared and gussied up, Outback Wilderness-style, into a more competent off-roader. That model, the $38,815 Kia Sportage X-Pro, gets chunkier looks and some snow-and-mud-ready tires, and is also assembled in West Point, Georgia, with an American-made engine and transmission.

The $39,130 Tucson, meanwhile, appeared to me as a hybrid, still made in South Korea, but capable of combined mileage a full 12 mpg higher than the Sportage’s 25 mpg number. Its list of standard options might cost as much as its actual sales price if added as upgrades on a European import of this size.

For customers seeking reliable, stylish and versatile alternatives, there are subtle differences between the two siblings, and lots of choices within the two models. Tucson offers 10 trim variations, including a 187-horsepower 2.5-liter gasoline engine and a plug-in electric hybrid with 261 horsepower and a 33-mile entirely electric range; the regular hybrid is a 180-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder and electrical drive unit, with standard all-wheel drive added.

That engine is indeed turbocharged, still a rarity in the hybrid world, and while it’s not a screaming banger, you can get a little extra spark out of it in sport mode. Vague, electrified steering and a relatively hollow and bouncy feel to the drivetrain were about the only signs of the relatively low price point; it’s got loads of design cues that have filtered down directly from the Palisade. And, as an optional add-on, the remote smart parking that can roll the car in and out of a parking spot for easy access and bewilderment of your friends and neighbors. 

Some of those are a little intense, like an entirely lit-up-at-night stack of LED lamps on the grille and distinctive rear lamps, while the clean and elegantly-designed cabin is a nod to more expensive models. There’s a cool wraparound trim and an entirely flat dash, and the mixture of black gloss faces and sometimes-hard-to-use haptic controls is also very contemporary, as are pushbutton transmission controls that look like Scrabble tiles.

Rear seating room is not enormous — 41.3 inches, like the front seats — but there’s 74.5 cubic feet of storage if you drop the rear seats. In my drives, my overall mileage was closer to 34.3 mpg, still considerably better than the gas model.

Kia’s Sportage, meanwhile, also pursues the modern design aesthetic with its own distinctive, boomerang-shaped LED running lamps and some really futuristic oddities such as a two-mode HVAC and audio control strip in the cabin that’s controlled by one set of switches, which you have to switch back and forth between modes. I guess if the Germans thought that was a good idea, the Koreans have to copy it.

The X-Pro model’s nearly square-edged tires certainly give the Sportage some added versatility, though I would like to slightly re-imagine the offering with its own, unique 227-horsepower hybrid engine thrown in, or the even more powerful plug-in hybrid setup, both now available on 2023 Sportage models.

Power here is, however, the Kia rendition of the aforementioned 187-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and, sadly, not all that sparky, compared to the turbo in the hybrid. I felt that altitude really kicked the Sportage’s butt, and the car had tangible power issues going up a steep dirt grade, and even needed some gear kickdowns from its eight-speed automatic to get moving during highway drives.

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