2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid Review: Grow Up, Glow Up

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The latest iteration of the Kia Sportage gets a major glow-up. Kia has been aggressively pushing the design of its vehicles to the point that this muscular 2023 Sportage Hybrid SX Prestige looks of a completely different lineage to the cute, small SUV it replaces. (Heck, it’s barely recognizable as a Kia’s.) And behind that wild styling is a sweet new hybrid powertrain, vastly improved cabin tech and the automaker’s latest driver-assistance technology.

Head-turning new look

The new Sportage is larger than before at 183.5 inches from bumper to bumper — 7.1 inches longer than the outgoing model — and has an extra 3.4 inches between its axles, bringing the new wheelbase to 108.5 inches. Sharply creased shoulders, more muscular flanks and horizontal grille and rear bumper elements create the illusion of a much broader stance, despite the 73.4-inch wide SUV only being 0.4 inches wider than its forebear. Overall, the new look is more mature with a good balance of proportions familiar to modern SUVs in this class with thoughtful and challenging design details that turn heads wherever the Sportage goes.

The growth spurt makes room for a more spacious interior. The Sportage Hybrid now boasts more legroom than the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, particularly on the second row where it’s gained a 3.5-inch advantage (41.3 inches versus the RAV4’s 37.8 inches). And even with the battery pack costing a bit of cargo capacity versus the non-hybrid model, the 39.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the Sportage Hybrid’s optional hands-free liftgate (73.7 cubes with the seats folded flat) is still very generous for this class, beating the RAV4 Hybrid’s 37.5 cubic feet.

Despite being called Shadow Matte Gray, this example’s optional $595 exterior finish is more satin than true matte and, frankly, more premium-looking for it. The top SX Prestige spec feels like it was designed with this finish in mind, complementing the paint with satin chrome accents on the grille and window surrounds and contrasting with glossy black trim around the body and wheel arches. And while the LX and EX trim levels come with machine-finish 17- and 18-inch alloy wheels, respectively, the SX Prestige features practically color-matched matte gray 18s with 235/60 all-season tires.

1.6-liter turbocharged hybrid

The Sportage Hybrid is powered by a 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-4 mated to a 44-kilowatt electric motor and a 1.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-polymer battery. Together, they make a total of 227 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque which is routed through a 6-speed automatic transmission to either the front wheels or an optional all-wheel-drive system with a locking center differential for light off-road use. This is essentially the same hybrid powertrain from the outstanding Hyundai Tucson Hybrid, but with one more pony, so if you don’t love the Kia’s look, maybe the Hyundai will tickle your fancy.

User-selectable drive modes (Normal, Eco and Sport) allow broad customization of the Sportage Hybrid’s responsiveness. Meanwhile, standard paddle shifters grant more precise control over the transmission’s behavior, but I almost never need them given the hybrid SUV’s comfort-tuned suspension favoring a more relaxed driving style.

Front-wheel drive is more efficient, but EX and SX Prestige models come standard with all-wheel drive.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The hybrid is the most powerful Sportage variant (for now), being substantially more potent than the 187-hp 2.5-liter engine in the non-hybrid. I’m impressed with the smooth acceleration and solid passing power. The 1.6-liter engine doesn’t deliver the most pleasant wide-open-throttle auditory experience, but it is a lot less drone-y than most CVT-equipped hybrids and, during light cruising and city driving, the Sportage Hybrid is satisfyingly quiet.

It’s also fuel-efficient. The front-drive Sportage Hybrid averages 42 mpg in the city, 48 mpg highway and 43 mpg combined according to the EPA’s estimates. Adding all-wheel drive knocks the numbers for my example down to a tidy 38 mpg across the board. Over a 149-mile mix of performance testing and relaxed cruising, I averaged 35.5 mpg — not too far off the mark.

Wait for the PHEV?

Of course, if you’re as impressed with the Sportage Hybrid’s performance as I am, it may be worth waiting for the upcoming plug-in hybrid model expected to launch later this year. The PHEV swaps in a bigger 7.2-kWh battery pack that can be recharged at an outlet or charging station for up to 32 miles of electric range before reverting to gasoline hybrid operation, which should boost overall efficiency. It should also be a touch more powerful thanks to its 67-kW electric motor.

However, there are potential trade-offs to consider: Making room for more battery will cost the PHEV 1.8 inches of rear legroom and 2.1 cubic feet of cargo space — though, it’ll still finish ahead of the RAV4 by both metrics. There’s also the higher expected price and potentially more limited availability to consider. Still, if it’s anywhere near as good as the Hyundai Tucson PHEV — which it almost certainly will be with the same powertrain and tech — the Sportage PHEV will be worth the wait.

The hybrid is great, but I reckon the plug-in version coming later this year will be worth waiting for.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Dual-screen cabin tech

The Sportage’s cockpit is home to Kia’s now-familiar dual-display infotainment system that bonds two screens to a single curved glass panel stretching halfway across the dashboard. This is essentially the same infotainment setup we’ve seen previously in the Kia EV6, but with the EV-specific menus swapped out for hybrid screens.

The left display is home to the standard 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and information display. The right is where you’ll find the latest generation of Kia’s UVO touchscreen infotainment. The base LX trim features an 8-inch touchscreen, while EX and SX Prestige step up to a 12.3-inch display with navigation. I’m a fan of this system’s logical and familiar menu system, the user-customizable ‘star’ shortcut buttons on the steering wheel and dashboard and its unique, weird features like the ability to record audio memos or listen to nature sounds on the go. 

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard for all models with wireless connectivity on the base LX spec’s 8-inch system, but not the big-screen EX or SX Prestige models. This is an odd omission that makes the wireless phone charger added at these trim levels feel slightly less useful, but not quite a deal breaker.

Inside, you’ll find improved tech, but also much nicer cabin materials like the SX Prestige’s perforated and quilted SynTex seats.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Standard Drivewise driving aids

Regardless of trim, all 2023 Kia Sportage Hybrids come standard with the automaker’s Drivewise driver aid suite. This rolls in lane-keeping assist, forward-collision avoidance with braking assist, blind-spot monitoring, auto-braking rear cross-traffic alert and rear park distance sensors. Other optional safety features that come online with the SX Prestige trim include adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, Kia’s blind spot view cameras and surround-view parking cameras, as well as 360-degree parking distance sensors with collision avoidance brake assist. 

The SX Prestige also adds Kia’s Remote Smart Parking, a feature that allows the driver to move the Sportage straight forward or in reverse while standing curbside. For safety, the system uses the distance sensors to prevent collisions with obstructions or pedestrians and only operates when the driver is close to the vehicle. It’s nowhere near as complex as, say, Tesla’s Summon promises, but it’s also extremely simple to operate. Just line the car up with a narrow parking spot, hop out and hold a button on the key fob to guide the Sportage home. As a person living with a garage that mostly goes unused because most cars won’t fit while still being able to open their doors, I’d use this feature every day given the chance.

At the upper trim levels, opting for the hybrid system is almost a no-brainer.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The one to get

The 2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid starts at $28,585 (including $1,295 destination) for the base Hybrid LX, a $1,300 premium over the same non-hybrid spec. Add $1,800 if you want all-wheel drive, but only if you think you’ll really need it for your climate; the base Sportage Hybrid is potentially much more cost and fuel efficient without it. EX and SX Prestige models roll all-wheel drive into their respective $32,285 and $37,485 price tags, simplifying packaging somewhat and reducing the hybrid tax to as low as $900 for the top SX spec — choosing the hybrid is almost a no-brainer at this grade.

Including paint and carpeted floor mats, my example comes in at $38,235 as tested — over $4,000 less than RAV4 Hybrid Limited when comparably equipped. So not only is the 2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid one of the top picks in its class with excellent performance and outstanding design inside and out, it’s one of the best values, too.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.