Body This One Can Take a Beating Like the Honda CR-V, Kia's Sportage has been around for a few years and has earned a reputation as a pretty decent off-road SUV. Decent enough to complete the grueling Paris-Dakar Rally, and that's no small feat. The Sportage was designed to take a beating, both on and off road. Available in both four-door hardtop and two-door convertible, this tough little SUV is perfect for those who enjoy getting into the great outdoors-beyond the paved scenic overlook. For our purpose, we will focus on the 4-door hardtop. It should be noted that although the engine/drivetrain are the same for both 4-door and 2-door Sportages, some of the high-end features discussed on the 4-door do not apply to the convertible.
The design, though not new, is still attractive, with a tall, upright body and gentle curves rounding out the corners. Body cladding surrounds the lower doors and the wheels are handsome and rugged. One small drawback is the rear hatch. The spare tire is mounted on a swing out rack that must be released and moved to the side before the hatch can be opened. This in itself is no big deal, until you try it with a couple grocery bags in your arms. Inside, the Sportage interior is pleasant, but dated, even with the new dashboard design. Seating is comfortable for two adults and two children and that's about it. The Sportage is on the small side in this class; its cargo volume with the rear seat folded down is only 55.4 cu. ft. While not the biggest out there, it's still plenty good for two people and their camping gear.
The Sportage is equipped with a part-time 4-wheel-drive system that is excellent for tackling deep snow and loose sand. Unlike all-wheel drive, part-time 4WD cannot be engaged under normal driving conditions because the system requires conditions that allow the wheels to slip. This basic 4-wheel-drive system employs a high/low transfer case that must be engaged manually from inside the vehicle. When not engaged, the 4WD Sportage reverts to rear-wheel-drive mode. This is a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to traction and why most competitors use the front wheels to propel their 2WD SUVs.
On the safety front, the Sportage comes equipped with dual-front-passenger airbags which are supplemented by a unique feature not found in any other small SUV; a driver-side knee airbag. In the event of collision, this device protects the driver's lower legs from impacting the dash.
Driving the Sportage is a bit like entering a time warp, circa 1985. You would swear you were driving a brand new 1985 Japanese mini SUV. By today's standards, the steering is vague and the brakes and shift mechanicals feel crude. Even though Kia touts the suspension was tuned by Lotus, the Sportage is not a sports car and the standard tires reinforce this fact with every hard cornering maneuver. The little 2.0-liter strains to keep up with freeway traffic and does not sound very happy when pushed beyond 3500 rpm. All of which brings us to the conclusion that this is a great little SUV for true off road use, but not the best choice if you just want to cruise the highways and look like you do a lot of 4-wheeling.
The Sportage comes in both a base and EX trim. We think the best Sportage for the money is the base 4WD model with optional air conditioning, a nice AM/FM/CD player and a 5-speed manual. The pricing seems like it should be lower, but outfitted in this manner, the Sportage is still reasonable. Once you add the EX package and then throw in leather and power everything, the Sportage quickly exceeds $20,000. For what it is, the Sportage is a good vehicle, but it is not a luxury SUV and all the leather seating and fake wood in Korea can't change that.