By Alex Taylor III
October 27, 2010

Kia has graduated from upstart to established commodity in the American auto market, but are consumers ready to pay close to $30,000 for one of its vehicles?

At this late date, nobody should be surprised when Kia lands in a popular segment like compact crossovers that is dominated by towering competitors like Toyota and Honda — and immediately delivers a credible competitor.

So the merits of the 2011 Sportage when stacked up against the Toyota (TM) RAV-4 and Honda (hmc) CR-V shouldn’t be exaggerated by the prejudice of low expectations. The Kia is stylish, sporty, well equipped, and fun to drive. On those points, it arguably surpasses its older competitors.

Winning “top safety pick” from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is equally praiseworthy, as its inclusion on the short list for 2011 North American Truck of the Year.

But looking at the Sportage in a brighter light, free of old prejudices, produces a different, less-flattering image.

First, some history.

The second generation Sportage, the first to be engineered as a crossover, arrived in 2004. Despite its relatively generic look and Kia’s old, low-rent image, it sold at a decent rate. In fact, Sportage sales in 2009, its last full year of availability, were more than a third higher than in its first full year.

Price was one of the Sportage’s most persuasive selling points. The 2004 model arrived at just over $16,000, and as late as 2010, you could find an LX model that started at under $20,000.

That gave Kia a nice edge over the identically sized Honda CR-V at $22,795 and the RAV-4 at $23,074.

A year later, and Kia’s all-new 2011 Sportage has arrived with a price that is nearly $2,000 higher than the old one. But Honda and Toyota, which haven’t been overhauled, have added only a couple of hundred bucks to their vehicles. So Kia goes from being a price leader to just another entrant in the competitive set.

To be sure, the RAV4 has been around since 2005 in its current configuration and the CR-V since 2006, so both are being discounted as they wait for a makeover.

But growing price equality with Kia means consumers are not being asked to pay much of a premium for the higher profile of the two Japanese brands – and, presumably, the higher resale value.

They also get significantly more cargo capacity with the Japanese vehicles. The storage area for both is rated at 73 cubic feet, while the Sportage clocks in at a stingy 55 cubic feet.

Questions of relative value aside, I was pleased with my Bright Silver Sportage EX. It looks progressive without being flashy and has an upscale interior with an attractive and highly functional instrument panel.

The Sportage is a lively driver with plenty of zing in its 2.4-liter engine. It produces 176 horsepower and feels faster than its 9.3-second zero-to-sixty clocking would suggest. Complaints about twitchy steering couldn’t be confirmed in the test vehicle.

I also appreciated the optional push button start, heated front seats, satellite radio, and panoramic sunroof.
The bill for all these goodies, however, pushed the base sticker price of $24,795 up to $29,990 on the window label.

Paying nearly $30,000 for a Kia may induce sticker shock among car shoppers. We’ll be watching carefully to see how customers react.

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