HALF MOON BAY, Calif. -- Skyline Boulevard, California route 35, runs along spiny ridges of the Santa Cruz Mountains which bump up as a substantial barrier between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
On occasion we tackle this route for drive tests but it's tricky -- a narrow band of blacktop charted through groves of towering redwood trees in a series of swoops and dips and hairpin kinks plus off-shoots like the zigzag Tunitas Creek Road which winds down to the Pacific Coast Highway a few miles south of Half Moon Bay.
For one pass over Skyline Boulevard and Tunitas Creek Road we're romping through redwood-shaded wiggles to explore the enthused and agile nature of a redesigned 2011 Sportage crossover utility vehicle (CUV) in the compact class from the Kia brand out of South Korea.
Sportage may be a familiar name since it landed in America back in 1995 as the first sport utility vehicle (SUV) from Kia. The original Sportage was a truckish workhorse, wiry and tough despite the itsy-bitsy scale, and it became the brand's best-selling vehicle.
In 2005 Kia applied the Sportage nameplate to a CUV based on the front-wheel-drive (FWD) platform of a car. It blended the boxy look of a SUV with the versatile cabin of a five-door hatchback wagon but the smooth ride quality and sure-footed handling of a compact sedan.
Now for 2011 Kia's third generation treatment of Sportage represent a total restructure for the CUV.
The platform is new with wheelbase length stretching 103.9 inches long and track width running 63.5 inches up front and 63.6 inches in back. Positioning the wheels out near edges of the chassis brings stability to the stance and enhances Sportage's agility when cornering.
The overall structure of Sportage for 2011 is longer (by 3.5 inches) and broader (by 2.1 inches) yet lower in height (by 2.3 inches) to drop the center of gravity for better handling attributes.
Roll over pavement bumps and the independent suspension -- MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link arrangement in back with a stabilizer bar at both ends tuned to check excessive lateral roll of the body -- blips the silica tires (base version 16-inch 215/70R16, optional 17-inch 225/60R17 or top-trim 18-inch 235/55R18) in exacting up-down motions and makes a firm ride quality.
Turn the plump padded steering wheel and Sportage cuts with direct action, thanks to a rack and pinion system with motor power assistance.
A disc brake mounts at each wheel with 11.0-inch vented front rotors and 10.3-inch solid rear rotors on FWD models.
All tie by computerized links to a sophisticated anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD), plus electronic stability control (ESC) with traction control system (TCS), even hill-start assist control (HAC) and downhill brake control (DBC).
All trim variations of Sportage for 2011 stock a load of passive safety gear like frontal and seat-mounted side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags mounted above outboard seats at front and rear rows.
Sportage also totes a forceful four-cylinder powertrain distributed across three tiers of trim -- a base price-leader edition, the upgraded LX and a deluxe EX.
Further, the wagon supports two traction formats with either FWD or AWD (all-wheel-drive).
The optional Dynamax electronic AWD system normally directs all power from the engine to the front wheels, thus reducing the fuel consumption. When front wheels slip, however, the device can divert some of the power to turn the rear wheels. A driver-activated locking switch for the center differential fixes the torque split evenly at 50/50 front/rear when steering Sportage on slippery dirt trails or winter-slick pavement.
For locomotion Kia installs a dual-cam four-cylinder Theta II engine which displaces 2.4 liters and carries CVVT (continuously variable valve timing) equipment for better engine breathing.
The plant generates 176 hp at 6000 rpm and torque of 168 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
Sportage's base edition comes with a standard six-speed manual transmission.
Sportage LX and EX trims employ a six-speed electronic automatic rigged with Kia's Sportmatic manual shifting mode.
EPA fuel economy figures climb up to 31 mpg for highway driving using the automatic transmission, or 28 mpg for highway driving with the AWD traction equipment.
The slinky shape of Sportage 2011 differs dramatically from the ho-hum upright style of the previous version.
Fresh exterior skin seems windswept sleek with dramatic wrap-around headlamps, a sculpted hood and the raked windshield leading up to a roofline that tapers over the cabin with narrow windows and side pillars muted to forge the profile of a slinky two-door coupe.
And on each flank there's a crisp character line cut below side windows and it ties into the bulging -- muscular -- wheel arches.
Climb aboard the new Sportage and you'll notice another benefit of the car-like unibody structure: Kia's designers managed to drop the cabin floor but still retain a reasonable chassis height for ground clearance. As a result, you don't have to hike up to climb aboard, but simply slip in sideways like you might enter a sedan.
The cabin layout shows a pair of bucket seats in front flanking a versatile console. On the second row a bench is designed to seat two comfortably but hold three riders if necessary. The rear seatback splits 60/40 and folds down to expand the cargo area.
Stow space is generous at 26.1 cubic feet but with rear seatbacks folded it expands to 54.6 cubic feet.
Sportage in base trim comes with standard equipment such as air conditioning, power controls for windows and door locks and mirrors, a tilting steering wheel, power outlets (two up front and one in the cargo bay), and an audio kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3/Satellite Radio and six speakers plus iPod/USB input jacks.
Sportage LX increases gear with a remote keyless entry system and exterior mirrors rigged with LED turn signal indicators, while Sportage EX adds power controls for the driver's seat, leather binding the steering wheel and shifter knob, foglamps in front fascia, a spoiler on the tail and rails on the roof plus body trim accents in chrome.