Kia Sportage: V-6 power for the price of a 4-cylinder

Friday, September 9, 2005

When the first Sportage went on sale in 1995 I thought it was cute, and because it was inexpensive and rugged-looking, I considered buying one. So did a lot of other Americans -- Kia sold 62,000 of them at its peak in 2000. But sales declined rapidly after that, owing to stiff competition from bigger, more comfortable small SUVs such as the Honda CR-V, Jeep Liberty, and Ford Escape. Kia pulled the plug on the Sportage after the 2002 model year.

My "gear-head" readers who already know that Kia and Hyundai are joined at the hip won't be surprised when I say the Sportage and the Hyundai Tucson share platforms. But a Kia is not just a "re-badged Hyundai," as one reader wrote to me recently -- there's still plenty of individuality in the two brands. In the case of the Sportage and the Tucson, each has its own shocks, bushings, spring rates, and sheet metal. They were styled by separate teams -- the Sportage has a chiseled look, whereas the Tucson has a pudgier appearance. And they're built at different assembly plants in Korea. Peter M. Butterfield, Kia's CEO, has been quoted as saying, "Kia is to Hyundai what BMW is to Mercedes." Translation: Kia is focused on building sporty vehicles like BMW, while Hyundai, ˆ la Mercedes, builds more luxurious cars. Well, that's a bit of a stretch, but it makes good advertising fodder. Let's take a test drive and decide for ourselves.

We're in a top-of-the-line four-wheel-drive EX Sportage that, for $22,700, comes standard with a 2.7-liter V-6, four-speed automatic, and Borg-Warner electronic four-wheel drive system. The latter is a full-time unit that routes up to 50 percent of available torque to the rear wheels when the situation demands it. Although there's no low range, the system can be locked in place for a 50/50-torque split via a four-wheel-drive button on the dash -- a nice feature not available from some of the competition.

That price also includes optional cross bars on the luggage rack ($185), cargo tray ($75), and a rear spoiler ($150). But what we don't pay extra for are six airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, an electronic stability program with traction control and 16-inch alloy wheels. There's more: A/C, a power sunroof, cruise control, a leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel, and a six-speaker stereo capable of playing cassettes, CDs, and MP3s. Don't need four-wheel-drive? An entry-level front-drive Sportage LX with a four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission starts at $16,490, which is less than the price of the old 2002 Sportage!

Out on the winding roads around Cape Girardeau our test vehicle displays minimal body roll and a firm, but not punishing BMW-like ride. The steering is accurate and the braking is impressive. The 2.7-liter V-6 is good for 173 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque -- not impressive for a V-6, but certainly better than what you get from the competition's 4-bangers. But our Sportage weighs about 3740 pounds, so the acceleration is not what we could call "sporty." This heavy vehicle needs the V-6, whereas a lighter SUV can get along fine with a 4-cylinder. On the other hand, the Sportage V-6 should get about 23-mpg/highway and 19-mpg/city -- not bad for a four-wheel-drive, V-6 SUV with automatic transmission.

Cruising down the interstate we're quite comfortable with the air conditioning, quality sound system and cruise control engaged. There's a power sunroof overhead, power windows and mirrors, and a leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel adding a luxurious touch. The upgraded fabrics and plastics, as well as the damped movement on the glove box and sunglasses-holder doors seem to contradict the Sportage's low price.

Before we head for home we pick up some supplies and discover that loading groceries into the cargo area is accomplished via the liftgate or the back window, which opens separately. There's also an under-the-floor storage area for concealing our cameras. The 60/40-split back seats offer even more versatility.

Since you're as practical as I am you're concerned not just about price, comfort, and convenience, but also quality and warranty. Relax! Kia has demonstrated a 64-percent improvement in initial quality over the past five years, according to J.D. Power. And this SUV will be inexpensive to maintain for many years to come, thanks to its 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

We roll back onto the dealer's lot faced with a tough choice -- BMW X5 or Kia Sportage? They both have three letters and leather-wrapped steering wheels. I guess we'll opt for the Kia -- it has the better warranty!

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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