The negative news reports at the end of 2022 were a sharp dose of reality for the auto industry. New car sales dropped again, the third straight year after five high-flying years with sales averaging over 17 million new units. While EV sales increased to 5% of this shrinking total, their average transaction price exceeded $66,000, dragging the entire industry’s new car average transaction price to over $48,000 — an astounding increase of over 30% in barely a year’s time. Even worse, over 15% of new vehicle buyers have monthly payments above $1,000 a month — increasing the likelihood of negative equity and higher default ratios.

And with several new EV car makers on the threshold of collapse, with existing EV prices seemingly increasing by the week as battery material costs continuously rise, the quest for affordable, responsible, comfortable transportation might seem out of reach for many drivers.

Arriving under this dark cloud — of stormy, overcast winter weather to boot — our Shadow Matte Gray-painted Kia Sportage Hybrid shined a bright light on what is possible, and positive, about new car options.

While the flat gray paint admirably masked the grime of winter driving on the Kia’s new body, the car’s daily performance created much optimism of why hybrid vehicles continue to be among the most alluring purchase options for the majority of drivers.

Mechanically identical to its Hyundai Tucson sibling, the Kia was redesigned for 2022. Base power, starting at $27,615 with front drive, comes from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 187 horsepower running through a new 8-speed automatic. Our top-of-the-line SX-trimmed Hybrid, $38,155, uses a turbocharged 1.6-liter engine mated to the hybrid battery and electric motor to make a peak 227 horsepower with AWD and a 6-speed automatic transmission.

The turbo-engine supplies nice torque, increasing the “feel” of extra power when you want it. The Sportage can glide around town in hybrid mode with the engine resting, yet it quickly and graciously comes alive as your right foot requests swifter acceleration. This seamless transition occurs all through the drive, with readouts available if you wish to visually monitor your economy. Fuel economy ratings are 38/38 mpg for the hybrid, with realized mileage averaging 33-36-mpg during January.

An interior view of the Sportage. Photo by Tim Plouff.

Riding atop a fully independent suspension that stretches out on a 109-inch wheelbase — currently the longest chassis in the compact SUV class — the Sportage delivers a smooth, balanced ride with agile road manners. The cabin is roomy front and back, with peak cargo space surpassing most rivals. The optional Carmine Red interior in our otherwise black SX tester is dramatically extroverted; handsome for some, perhaps less so for others. The seats are heated and cooled, with memory, plus a power passenger seat, too — a feature that some makers regard as irrelevant.

Kia has amassed an impressive list of quality achievements over the past few years, not the least of which is rising to the top of the J.D. Power quality ratings. This is due in part to the high-content levels found in its new vehicles, providing extra value compared to the competition, but also the usefulness of these pieces.

Subtle features in the Sportage included bag hooks and USB jacks on the back of the front seats, along with grab handles built into the back of the headrests. The rear load deck has two flat settings, allowing you to hide items in the spare tire well (where a spare tire actually exists, unlike its sibling from Hyundai and many other crossovers) or lower your deck for larger cargo. There are multiple air vents in the middle of the dash, to increase heating and cooling efficiency, plus Kia has hidden the rear wiper under the hatch’s air dam — where it remains clean and dry when needed for storm clean-up.

The seats are comfortable, the view out is serene, and piloting the Sportage is rewarding. The panoramic roof, the remote parking assist (with you outside the vehicle), the blind spot/lane change cameras, the heated steering wheel and the locking AWD are all pluses in a car that works very well.

The heated windshield, with tiny wires running vertically, can be visually distorting for some in certain lighting, and the dual-operational panel in the lower dash that controls both audio and climate functions with knobs and buttons, could use slightly larger contact points, but that’s the extent of complaints. Distinct, easy-to-use-by-touch steering wheel buttons offset these issues.

The seamless operation of the hybrid system with elevated power and economy, plus the comfort and control afforded by the Sportage’s cabin with its expansive, well-integrated information panels, clearly shows that Kia is paying attention to what consumers want.

Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles for over 20 years.