It’s amazing what joining forces can do for a car company. Take Kia’s original small SUV, the Sportage. When this thing first arrived on the scene in 1995, it was a bit like a Korean Lada Niva. It boasted a very short wheelbase, one of the roughest four-cylinder engines ever encountered and actually worked better off road than on. Not surprisingly sales were very marginal and the model was dropped in North America in 2002.
|1. The current Sportage was first launched in 2005 and face-lifted in 2008 with new bumpers and trim.
2. A choice of 4×2 and 4×4 drivelines are offered, though 4×4 models with four-cylinder engines come only with a five-speed manual gearbox.
3. All current Sportages are built in South Korea or Slovakia (for the European market).
4. Interiors, despite high feature content, come with cloth upholstery only.
5. Much of the Sportage’s structure and running gear are shared with the Hyundai Tucson.
Three years later and now part of the Hyundai concern, Kia unveiled a second generation Sportage, a car based crossover utility with an available V-6 engine. Thanks to the Hyundai influence, the difference between this and its predecessor is like night and day.
Having driven both the original and second generation Sportage, it’s clear to see that the current one has an entirely different set of priorities. With the Sorento assuming the role of the true off-roader, the Sportage is now a fully fledge member of the cars on stilts brigade. Much of this vehicle’s structure is shared with the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Spectra/Hyundai Elantra small sedans. As a result, compared to the original Sportage, quality is far improved, in fact the fit and finish have a distinct, German like precision. Everything’s nice and tight and the doors have an authoritative clunk when you close them. Inside, it’s the same thing. It really DOES feel German. Perhaps even Toyota should take a look here, since their interiors aren’t what they used to be by many respects.
One thing we have to admire about Kia is the feature content. Despite three trim levels, even the base LX model comes loaded to the gills with power windows, locks, mirrors, a full in-car entertainment system with CD/MP3 and Satellite Radio and standard air conditioning. Our top-level EX basically had the same equipment levels – the only options being a trip minder and navigation system. Practicality is a strong suit of the Sportage, with plenty of interior room. The rear seats fold virtually flat, yielding an impressive 66.6 cubic feet of cargo space (or 23 cubic feet with the seats up).
Anybody who’s driven a recent Kia (or Hyundai) for that matter will feel right at home in the Sportage. Because it pretty much is a car, it also drives like one. The unibody structure feels tight and rigid and although the ride is quite firm for a crossover, it’s not jarring. Big potholes and cracks can be felt, but there’s very little quivering or creaking through the structure when you do hit them. The steering is one aspect that deserves mention. It’s superb, very smooth and linear, again very German like, think Volkswagen Golf/Rabbit – I’m serious. On the highway, the Sportage tracks straight and true and through corners you can feel exactly where this CUV wants to go each time you turn the wheel, with honest feedback.
The MacPherson strut suspension is fairly nicely dialed in. That reasonably firm ride translates into competent handling which is definitely more car-like than crossover. Freeway on-ramps present few problems and although you can’t stab the throttle going around turns like a Porsche, you can still accelerate with aplomb without worrying if you’ll scrape the door handles on the tarmac.
V6 ENGINE THE BETTER OPTION, BUT 4-SPEED AUTO DISAPPOINTING
Like it’s Tucson cousin, the Sportage has a choice of two powertrains – a 2.0-liter four cylinder with 140 horsepower (a diesel is also offered in Europe) and a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, plus a 2.7-liter V-6 with 173 ponies that only comes with the auto.
The four-cylinder is fairly gruff, particularly with the automatic. It often feels strained at times, especially under heavy acceleration and despite its 140hp rating appears to have far less at its disposal under most driving situations. It’s also not that fuel-efficient and you will struggle to get more than 21-22 mpg, even in highway driving.
The V-6 is the only engine to go for in our opinion; it’s noticeably more torquey and far smoother, making light work of most traffic conditions. However, like the four-cylinder, fuel economy is mediocre and our 4×4 equipped EX was averaging about 19 mpg – the V-8 powered pickup we tested the week before did better! Therefore, if you think you’ll be saving on fuel by purchasing a Sportage, think again. Even the five-speed manual equipped versions aren’t much better at conserving gas – expect a best of 24-25 mpg on the highway.
The Sportage comes with a choice of front or four-wheel drive, the latter being a full-time system (though strangely, it’s not available with the four-cylinder/automatic powertrain combo). If you live in a part of the country where winter weather is a fact of life, the 4×4 system is a welcome addition and although it gives no pretense of off-road capability, in slippery on-road conditions the 4×4 Sportage equates itself rather well. Even with the V-6, the system does an admirable job in maximizing traction and there’s very little slippage. And going back to the fuel economy thing, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between the front and four-wheel drive versions, so, in our books, if you can opt for four-wheel drive you definitely should do it.
All Sportages come equipped with four-wheel disc brakes, plus standard ABS and among crossovers of this ilk, stopping is a strong point, nice and direct with good pedal feel and short distance – try 121 feet from 60 mph, which betters many rivals in the compact SUV class.
Although the fuel economy issue is a bit of a sore point, when all’s said and done the 2009 Kia Sportage is on the whole an excellent package, with tons of features, good quality and outstanding road manners for its class. Throw in the pricing factor – the base LX four cylinder starts at just $19,695, the V-6 version at $20,695 and even the top level 4×4 EX only lists at $23,400 and there’s no question that in today’s market the 2009 Kia Sportage offers tremendous bang for the buck.
Great build quality High feature content Superb steering
Poor fuel economy for the class Four-speed automatic transmission showing its age Top-line EX offers little extra over mid-grade versions