ORLANDO, FL – Surely customers must have scratched their heads after driving the old Sportage cross/utility vehicle, wondering where Kia hid the “sport.”

And, while the new-generation Sportage, on sale last year, is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor, it still lacks the performance attributes implied by the first five letters of its name.

Now, thanks to the addition of Hyundai-Kia’s 2.0L direct-injected turbocharged 4-cyl., the Sportage finally lives up to its name – but not without a hitch.

The 2.0T engine, available in the Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima midsize sedans, is standard in the ’11 Sportage SX. The SX trim level is used across most of the Kia lineup, but in some cases, as with the larger Sorento CUV, signifies only appearance changes, such as a different wheel design or an upgraded interior.

The 2.0T, making 256 hp and 264 lb.-ft. (358 Nm) of torque, is a great addition to the line, a big improvement over the 2.4L I-4 Ward’s tested last year in the Sportage EX.

That engine, while churning out a respectable 176 hp and 168 lb.-ft. (228 Nm) of torque, is loud and raucous, especially at lower speeds, and suffers from a tractor-like exhaust note.

A much more pleasing guttural growl emanates from the 2.0T-equipped Sportage SX driven here, and that comes only under hard acceleration with the otherwise quiet engine.

Kia supplied only front-wheel-drive Sportage SXs for testing. The heavier all-wheel-drive EX model Ward’s tested last year proved sluggish when accelerating at highway speeds, but the 2.0T likely will solve that problem, though we won’t know for sure until we can get behind the wheel.

Acceleration is anything but labored with the FWD Sportage SX, which gets up to speed lightning-quick thanks to readily available peak torque that comes in at just 1,850-3,000 rpm and a highly pliable gas pedal.

The EX model’s sometimes jarring suspension is replaced by one that absorbs some of the road imperfections rather than transmit them to passengers. Kia added high-performance dampers and firmed up the shock and strut settings in the SX to provide the CUV with its more balanced ride.

Extreme torque steer is the one hitch. Keeping the FWD Sportage SX aimed straight can be a struggle. Buyers would do well by opting for the Magna Dynamax AWD system, which adds only $1,500 to an already relatively pricey vehicle.

Low prices continue to be a Kia advantage, although the gap with its competitors is shrinking as the Korean auto maker outfits its vehicles with more up-market features and higher-quality interior materials.

The Sportage SX is less expensive than turbocharged Acura RDX and Subaru Forester models. But the advantage over the Forester is small: $25,795 for a FWD Sportage SX vs. $26,995 for an AWD ʼ11 Forester with a 224-hp 2.5T engine.

The Sportage SX even bases higher than a Volkswagen Tiguan, which starts at $24,820 with a 6-speed-automatic and 200-hp 2.0T engine. However, a Tiguan with similar creature comforts as the Kia can top $30,000.

Kia estimates Sportage SX fuel economy to be best-in-class, 22/27 mpg (10.7-8.7 L/100 km) city/highway in FWD models and 21/25 mpg (11.2-9.4 L/100 km) with AWD.

Ward’s returned better than 27 mpg on a flat highway stretch in one day of driving and saw readings of 22 mpg and 25 mpg under similar conditions the second day.

’11 Kia Sportage SX FWD
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive 5-passenger cross/utility vehicle
Engine 2.0L direct-injected and turbocharged DOHC inline 4-cyl., aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 256 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 264 lb.-ft. (358 Nm) @ 1,850-3,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 86 x 86
Compression ratio 9.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 103.9 ins. (264 cm)
Overall length 175.2 ins. (445 cm)
Overall width 73.0 ins. (185 cm)
Overall height 64.4 ins. (163 cm)
Curb weight 3,311 lbs. (1,502 kg)
Base price $25,795, plus $695 destination and handling
Fuel economy 22/27 mpg (10.7-8.7 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Acura RDX, Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Tiguan
Pros Cons
264 lb.-ft. Lots of torque steer w/FWD
Nice interior Puckering leather
Cheaper than rivals Barely

Sportage SXs driven here are well-equipped, with standard leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, Bluetooth connectivity, power door locks with remote keyless entry, dual-zone climate controls and optional cooled driver’s seat and navigation system.

Standard SX exterior features include a black gloss and chrome grille, chrome door handles, dual exhausts and 18-in. alloy wheels.

Fit and finish is above average, with the only flub noted a puckering of leather on rear-seat corners. An optional interior with blue accents is very cool.

A shorter test drive in the Forte 5-door with Kia’s 173-hp 2.4L port-injected 4-cyl., mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission, proves this car, too, offers quick acceleration, but produces a lot more engine noise.

Fuel economy of 29.8 mpg (7.9 L/100 km), over mostly highway driving, helps compensate for some of the racket.

The Forte SX interior mimics that of the Sportage SX: lots of dark-grey hard plastic punctuated by color, in this case orange.

The Forte offers more supportive seats, with better thigh bolstering. Yet, fit-and-finish is not as good, with plastics suffering from slightly varied colors, sheens and textures too subtle to be intentional. Two different shades of painted silver on the interior door handles and surrounding trim clash.

The Forte SX starts at $19,395, not including a $695 destination and handling charge. A lot of content is available for just over $20,000, including standard sport-cloth seating, 17-in. alloy wheels, Bluetooth, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and paddle shifters.

With their performance attributes, good fuel economy and highly styled interiors, the Sportage and Forte SX grades should go a long way toward convincing buyers Kia no longer is a minor player in the market.

Despite a few drawbacks, both vehicles are exemplary in certain areas, notably fuel economy and interior panache, exceeding many competitors.

The Sportage SX and Forte SX are on sale now at U.S. Kia dealers.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com