Long in value and off-road capability.
by Dean Stevens
Base Price (MSRP) $14,395
As Tested (MSRP) $20,010
Choosing an SUV depends a lot on what you want it to do. Right now, the market offers several compact sport-utilities with tough-truck looks, but hiding beneath their tough exteriors are the hearts and souls of passenger cars. Built on passenger-car platforms, with car-like unit-body construction, they usually feature a full-time four-wheel-drive system that's a real plus on snow-covered roads. But many of them lack real off-road capability. When the tough get going, they're better off staying in the parking lot.
Kia Sportage isn't one of these.
If the Sportage looks like a tough little truck, that's because that's exactly what it is. Kia's Sportage is built like a truck, on a separate ladder frame; and it uses a truck-like four-wheel-drive transfer case that locks the front and rear axles together for serious off-road slogging.
Yet its passenger compartment is roomy, and it comes with a reasonable list of car-like appointments. All for a very affordable price. So if your destinations reach farther than just getting to the office after a blizzard, Sportage may be the small SUV for you.
For 2001, Kia has added even more value to Sportage with its new Long Haul Warranty. The basic warranty now extends to five years or 60,000 miles, while the powertrain is warranted for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Rust-through is covered for five years or 100,000 miles; and all new Kias now come with five years of free roadside assistance, with no limit on mileage.
The Sportage is available as a four-door wagon or a two-door convertible; both body styles are offered with two- or four-wheel drive.
The least expensive model is the two-wheel-drive convertible, at $14,395. The 2WD four-door starts at $15,295.
All models come with power door locks, power windows, power mirrors, and variable intermittent wipers. Four-doors only may be ordered in up-market EX trim, which adds air conditioning, AM/FM/CD stereo, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, privacy glass, roof rack, and a rear wiper/washer. A Sportage EX 4X2 retails for $17,895, and the 4X4 starts at $19,095.
For 2001, Kia has added a high-zoot Limited version of the four-door, with a 140-watt, six-speaker stereo; remote keyless entry; and a special appearance package that includes body-colored side cladding, a chrome grille, and unique alloy wheels. Limited models start at $18,440 for 2WD, $19,640 for 4WD.
All Sportage models are powered by the same 2.0-liter twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine. All four-door models come with a five-speed manual transmission as standard equipment; an optional four-speed automatic is available for $1,000. All 2WD convertibles come with the automatic; all 4WD convertibles come with the manual.
Sportage sports sleek lines and contemporary, proportionate styling. The design is rugged and functional as well. Short overhangs, front and rear, help give the Sportage an advantage off road over other small SUVs, such as the Honda CR-V and the new Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute.
Other impressive features belie its low price. Its body-on-frame construction is a true truck-style design; and its ladder frame has six crossmembers for increased rigidity. The exhaust system is made of long-lasting stainless steel. The 4WD models have vacuum-operated, auto-locking front hubs, eliminating the need to climb out of the truck when the driver selects four-wheel-drive operation.
One of the best attributes of the Sportage is the space it affords front-seat occupants. Front legroom (44.5 inches) is generous, and headroom (39.6 inches) is phenomenal. The Sportage is roomier up front than some larger SUVs. (Isuzu's Rodeo, for example, gives front seat passengers 42.1 inches of legroom and 38.9 inches of headroom.) While the Sportage rear seat has limited legroom (31.3 inches), it still offers 37.8 inches of headroom, making back-seat accommodations more tolerable for tall passengers.
When it comes to hauling cargo, the Sportage holds its own, offering 25.8 cubic feet of space with the rear seat up and more than twice as much (54.4 cubic feet) with the seat folded. The spare tire carrier locks out of the way when fully opened, which is a blessing when loading groceries or baggage through the rear door.
Beyond the room, there are other nice touches inside the Sportage. The top of the center console slides forward to provide a comfortable armrest. Both front bucket seats recline, and the driver's seat has an adjustable lumbar support. The optional leather upholstery package ($900 on EX, $800 on Limited) has full leather seat coverings, not just leather inserts. As mentioned, power windows, locks and mirrors are standard on even the least-expensive model.
Sportage also offers a safety first. In addition to dual front airbags, it comes equipped with a smaller airbag intended to protect the driver's left leg and knee.
The well-proportioned greenhouse allows good visibility in all directions. Controls are well placed and easy to operate, and instruments are easy to read. Air conditioning in our test vehicle cooled the cabin is short order on warm Southern California afternoons. The test truck also featured Kia's straightforward, easy-to-tune AM/FM/CD stereo.
All Sportage models are powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 130 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 127 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. This engine was developed by Mazda and adapted by Kia. There's enough power to push the Sportage down a straight and level freeway with relative ease, but there's a lack of gusto on moderate grades. Sportage offers considerably more power than the 1.6-liter engine used in two-door versions of the Suzuki Vitara and Chevy Tracker, and similar output to the 2.0-liter engine found in four-door Vitara and Tracker models.
For all the equipment that comes standard on Sportage, antilock brakes remain a $490 option. Fortunately, ABS is available as a stand-alone option on all models, so buyers don't have to take an expensive options package that includes features they might not necessarily want.
We drove our Sportage on the highways and byways of Southern California, where sport-utilities are as popular as fast-food outlets, and had occasion to shift into four-wheel drive one thoroughly wet afternoon. That day, in two-wheel drive, the Sportage easily lost traction at its drive wheels, even during normal acceleration from a stop sign. A flick of a lever put us in 4WD-high and solved the problem. The Sportage was suddenly more sure-footed.
On drier days on crowded California freeways, we found the compact size of the Sportage a blessing. It slips in and out of traffic with an ease larger SUVs can't match. With its four-cylinder engine, however, you need to plan your maneuvers ahead of time and start working the accelerator a little sooner than you would with a bigger engine. It's useful to build some speed before you start climbing a steep grade. When it comes to getting the most from the Sportage, the manual transmission is much better than the automatic. If your commute makes the manual an acceptable alternative, we highly recommend it.
One thing we noticed quickly is that, for all its accouterments and design features, the Sportage has a slightly raw feel in its ride and handling. Indeed, this back-to-basics quality can be part of its charm. Just don't expect the chassis sophistication, the handling response or the vibration dampening you might get in larger SUVs, or in those based on cars, such as the Honda CR-V.
The payoff for this trucklike ride is greater off-road capability: Sportage 4x4 models use a traditional part-time four-wheel-drive system that is better suited for muddy terrain than an all-wheel-drive system, such as that found in the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute. Sportage 4x4 models are also equipped with a low-range transfer case for when the going really gets tough. This enables the Sportage to go places unreachable in a CR-V, Escape or Tribute. The rougher the terrain, the more of an advantage the Sportage offers.
The Kia Sportage offers the space and utility of an SUV for the price of a compact car. Those whose hobbies actually take them off the road may appreciate the superior off-road capability of the Sportage when compared with the more expensive, more carlike mini-SUVs from Honda, Ford and Mazda.
A four-door Sportage goes for about the same price as a two-door Vitara or Tracker, both of which offer a smaller engine, less passenger space, and a lower level of standard equipment than the Sportage. Starting at less than $17,000, the four-door, four-wheel-drive Sportage offers a good value.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.