Test drive: 2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro handles off-road better than on road

The redesigned 2023 Kia Sportage can be had as an efficient hybrid, an off-road hustler, an inexpensive commuter, or a forthcoming plug-in hybrid. But it can’t be all things at once, and Kia’s three powertrain options and seven trim levels reflect the limitations of choice. 

At the top of the fifth generation’s lineup are three new trims that could be marketed as rugged, ruggish, and ruggy. Like many automakers rolling out off-road appearance packages, Kia splits the difference between off-road pretender and soft-road intender with its X-Line and new X-Pro grade debuting on the 2023 Sportage.

I tested the X-Pro Prestige that sits at the top of the redesigned Sportage lineup. With it’s wood dash trim, heated windshield wiper nozzles, heated front and rear windshields, cooled front power seats, and twin 12.3-inch screens curved toward the driver under one piece of glass, the $38,045 embodies Kia’s push into the premium segment. With its 17-inch black alloy wheels wrapped in BF Goodrich all-terrain tires, it simultaneously appeals to outdoorsy types who want a Subaru alternative. 

Despite this dual nature and its lofty ambition, it is not the best 2023 Sportage. That honor belongs to the Sportage Hybrid

I’ll come back to this point. First, an hour off-roading in Kia’s new off-road oriented trim level proved its marketing intention. 

In a high desert valley ringed with hills and dappled with creosote bushes, the Sportage X-Pro scrambled up loose ascents, traversed a dry creek bed, hugged a banking sandy curve, and tiptoed over loose gravel. It’s no Bronco or Wrangler, but it was capable of keeping pace with a Subaru Forester through rutted service roads or deep enough into established hunting grounds. 

The main difference between Kia’s X factors is the X-Line pretends and the X-Pro intends to off-road. The both come standard with all-wheel drive and 8.3 inches of ground clearance (front-wheel-drive models have 7.1 inches). The cosmetic X-Line flashes the blacked-out look popular across the crossover SUniVerse. It wears distinct bumpers, fake skid plates, and gloss-black side mirrors, roof rails, window surrounds, and 19-inch wheels. It has four drive modes, Normal, Sport, Smart, and Snow, but no more off-road functionality than other grades. 

Like LX, EX, and SX grades, the sole engine is a 2.5-liter inline-4 that makes 187 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque across seven trims.  

Kia expects 40% of 2023 Sportage non-hybrid sales to go to X-badged models. That’s pretty optimistic for the debut of the X-Pro that now can be had on the 2023 Telluride, and, presumably, other models. 

The biggest difference between X-Line and X-Pro models is the wheels and tires. From the outside, a black roof with two-tone options distinguishes X-Pros, as well as LED fog lights and LED projector headlights on X-Pro Prestige grades. Inside, a mechanical gear shifter replaces the dial shifter in the console on other models. 

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With the push of a button in the console, the locking center differential locks torque 50/50 between the axles for better grip. Without locking the center differential, the AWD system apportions torque to the axles automatically based on wheel speed, throttle input, and steering angles. It was better to have it locked on ascents, and when negotiating ruts with one wheel in the air.  

It’s a familiar system used in the Sorento and other Kia vehicles. The extra ground clearance helps but the lack of skid plates means that drivers who approach rocky trails should turn around. The course only had loose rock. 

Traversing the dry creek bed, down and over two- to three-foot banks, with one wheel up in the air and a MacPherson front strut compressed on one side or the other, the X-Pro proved its capability. The suspension flexed enough for good articulation, and the knobby tires kept it moving without issue. 

On top of one mini-mesa, Kia instructed us to engage hill descent control, which was unnecessary. It’s one of the less sophisticated systems out there but the easiest to operate. There’s no speed settings to press; it’ll automatically adjust to the set speed at under 15 mph and when you take your foot off the throttle it’ll keep that speed. Goose it, and it’ll adjust to that speed. Once the system detects that the vehicle has leveled off, it automatically shuts off. 

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The other off-road feature that’s as good for dense switchbacks as it is for garage parking as a surround-view camera system. Three projection options split with a bird’s-eye view on the 12.3-inch touchscreen. In park or reverse, the projections look out the back; in drive, the front. You can wide screen the bird’s eye, have a rear angle with backup lines, or have a near 180-degree view behind. In drive, it can forecast what’s ahead with grid lines, spread to a wide angle, or split in half and show the view from the side mirror cameras, which spotlight what’s going on around the front wheels. The tire view was most helpful for off-road purposes. 

The 2023 Sportage X-Pro handled the kind of terrain that tempts Subaru owners, if not just Subaru marketers. Unlike an Outback or Forester, however, it rode worse for the off-roading gear on pavement. 

The 2.5-liter inline-4 and its coarse 8-speed automatic ride much louder and harsher than the Hybrid, and because the 8-speed is tuned for efficiency more than power it strains like a heart attack when pushed. The 17-inch wheels and off-road tires add more flabbiness to the handling on pavement, and it leans more into turns. Swapping out wheels would likely resolve the sloppier road manners, but that seems like a big ask for a soft-roader. 

The X-Pro satisfies its mission of giving the Kia Sportage a Subaru competitor, and any number of other soft-road grades. It’s one more way to cast the widest net and see what bites. I’d take the Hybrid, though.

Kia provided airfare and lodging for TCC to bring you this firsthand report. 

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