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Kia Sportage offers versatility at a low price

August 19, 2005|by DAN LYONS/Motor Matters

What size is the right size? The trend in sport utility vehicles is to downsize, and be more car-like. That makes sense, because few people take their SUVs off road. On road, smaller beats bigger, because a lighter vehicle is more nimble and uses less gas. The trick is to find the right balance: small enough to be agile but big enough to be useful.

Two Korean makes have stepped up to the plate this year with new compact models: the Hyundai Tucson and its corporate cousin, the Kia Sportage. Sportage and Tucson share the same architecture and the same first impression: they're right-sized.

The Sportage name first appeared in the marketplace in 1995. The latest generation Sportage is longer, taller and wider than the model it replaces. Sportage is available in LX or EX trim levels, with four- or six-cylinder power, in front- or all-wheel drive configurations. Pricing starts at $16,490, and the lowest priced 4x4 is $18,490. My tester was a top line, EX 4x4. With V-6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission, it had a sticker price of $18,790.

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Sportage is a car-based SUV, built on a modified version of the Kia Spectra platform. All-wheel-drive models like my tester operate in front-wheel drive most of the time. In normal conditions, Sportage's electronic 4x4 system channels up to 99 percent of its power through the front tires. The system monitors throttle control, front-wheel slippage and the angle of the front tires, shifting as much as 50 percent of the engine's torque rearward as needed to maintain traction. That's how most all-wheel drive systems operate, but Sportage takes it one step further, and that step makes it one step better, off pavement. A dash-mounted button allows the driver to lock the power split at 50/50 front/back, when driving in low-speed, poor-traction conditions. The locking differential and an undercarriage skid plate for the power train make the Sportage well suited for light off-roading. Sportage has 7.7 inches of ground clearance below, with angles of approach/ departure of 29.5 and 28.7 degrees, respectively, so there's decent clearance below.

Sportage has more off-road capacity than most of its owners will ever need. A full complement of traction enhancements and safety equipment are on board as standard issue. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, Traction Control, and an Electronic Stability Program are part of the package, as are front and side air bags for driver and passenger, and two full-length side curtains.

Sportage has a comfortable road ride, and with four-wheel independent suspension, good-for-the-breed handling. The base, four-cylinder engine makes 140 horsepower, and 136 lbs.-ft. of torque. The 2.7-liter V-6 engine that I tested was rated at 173 horsepower and 178 lbs.-ft. of torque. Gas mileage estimates range from an EPA-rated 19 miles per gallon city, 23 mpg highway for a V-6 automatic, to 22 mpg, 27 mpg with the four-cylinder engine and either automatic or manual transmission. The V-6 runs smoothly and cruises easily at highway speeds. There's enough power on tap for passing, though you've got to dig your spurs into the throttle to find it. Four-cylinder models can be equipped to tow as much as 1,500 pounds. And that's 2,000 pounds for V-6 models.

The Sportage interior scores points for space and ease of use. Sportage will seat four to five average-sized adults without complaint. The driver has easy access to all controls and switches. The cabin has lots of spots to put gear, including a center console that does double duty. In addition to housing multiple cubbyholes, the cover slides forward and up, so you can rest your inside elbow on it.

Rear seats fold easily to a position flush with the load floor and can be operated with one hand. Even the passenger side front seat flips forward, so you can haul long loads, be it a step ladder or a surf board. Storage capacity ranges from 23.6 - 66.6 cubic feet, and lift-over height in back is low. With the rear seats down, the cargo hold will swallow, for example, a large mountain bike, with the wheels on. The cargo hold floor is made of a composite material that's easy to keep clean, and tie-down hooks are scattered about, to help secure gear.

Like Hyundai's Tucson, the Kia Sportage enters a market segment stacked with strong competition. What Sportage offers is a versatile SUV at a value price, and it's backed by a long (10-year/100,000-mile) powertrain warranty.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2005

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