A small SUV with real off-road capability.

by Dean Stevens

Base Price (MSRP) $14,795
As Tested (MSRP) $19,509

With its roomy passenger compartment, long list of standard equipment, easy-to-operate four-wheel-drive system and reasonable price, the Kia Sportage might be perfect for SUV shoppers on a tight budget.

Unlike most small SUVs, which are based on a carlike unitbody chassis, the Sportage uses body-on-frame construction. The available four-wheel-drive system is a part-time system with a two-speed transfer case designed for serious mud slogging. The Kia Sportage can go just about anywhere.

Model Lineup

The Sportage is available as a four-door hardtop and a two-door soft-top convertible. Both body styles are available with two- or four-wheel drive. The least expensive convertible starts at $13,995. The base four-door Sportage ($14,795 for a 4X2) is well appointed with power door locks, power windows, power mirrors, and intermittent wipers.

There's also an upgraded trim package for four-door models. The Sportage EX adds air conditioning, AM/FM/CD stereo, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather-wrapped gear shift knob, privacy glass, roof rack, and rear wiper/washer. A Sportage EX 4X2 retails for $16,295, and the 4X4 starts at $18,595. Base and EX versions are essentially the same mechanically.

Walkaround

It's so cute! That's the typical reaction when someone looks at a Kia Sportage for the first time. And it is, although we're not sure that cute is necessarily the image buyers want to project with their rugged, adventure-seeking sport-utility vehicles. No worries with the Sportage, because this little SUV has its own rugged charm. Its sleek lines and contemporary, proportionate styling could also be labeled downright pretty.

The design of the Sportage is functional as well. Short front and rear overhangs are among the reasons the Sportage offers better off-road capability than other small SUVs, such as the Honda CR-V and the new Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute.

Interior Features

One of the best attributes of the Kia 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's rear seat has limited legroom (31.3 inches), it still offers 37.8 inches of headroom, making the accommodations more tolerable for tall passengers.

When it comes to hauling cargo, the Sportage holds its own. There is 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. That's not bad for a small SUV.

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 adjustable lumbar support. The optional leather upholstery package ($900) has full leather seat coverings, not just leather inserts. As mentioned, power windows, locks and mirrors are standard on 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 knee and leg.

The well-proportioned greenhouse allows good visibility in all directions. Controls are well placed and easy to operate, and instruments are easy to read. The 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. While both air and the CD are standard on the EX, they added $900 and $475, respectively, to the bottom line on our 4x4 base model.

We used the Sportage the way most buyers will: going shopping, getting around town and taking co-workers to lunch. The fact that its spare tire carrier locks out of the way when fully opened is a blessing when you are loading groceries or baggage through the rear door. The copious interior space ensured that our colleagues were comfortable on the way to and from the local lunch spot. Just be sure to assign the shorter passengers to the rear seat.

Driving Impressions

All Sportage models are powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 130 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 127 foot-pounds of torque at 4000 rpm. This engine was developed by Mazda and adapted by Kia, and while it will push the Sportage down a straight and level freeway with relative ease, it loses some of its gusto on moderate grades. Yet it has considerably more power than the 1.6-liter engine in two-door versions of the Suzuki Vitara and Chevy Tracker, and similar output to the 2.0-liter inline-4 in four-door Vitara and Tracker models.

In the Sportage, you can choose from two transmissions: A 5-speed manual and an electronically controlled 4-speed automatic (The convertible comes only with the manual).

Sportage boasts other impressive features that 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.

For all the equipment that comes standard on Sportage, antilock brakes remain a $490 option. Fortunately, ABS is available on all models, so buyers don't have to take a 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 Sportage engine, the manual transmission is much better than the automatic. If your commute makes the manual an acceptable alternative, we highly recommend it.

One thing you notice 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 the Sportage's charm. Just don't expect the chassis sophistication, the handling response or the vibration dampening you might get in larger SUVs or those based on cars, such as the Honda CR-V.

The payoff for its trucklike ride is greater off-road capability: Sportage 4x4 models use a traditional part-time four-wheel-drive system that is better equipped 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.

Final Word

The Kia Sportage offers the space and utility of an SUV for the price of a compact car. For about the price of a base Sportage 4-door, you get a two-door Vitara or Tracker with less equipment, a smaller engine and a smaller passenger compartment. Those whose hobbies take them off 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. Starting at less than $17,000, the four-door hard top four-wheel-drive model offers a good value.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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