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Car reviews - Kia - Sportage - 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Keen pricing, attractive styling, sound build quality
Room for improvement
Sluggish acceleration, ponderous handling, vague steering

16 May 2001

KIA'S Sportage has been a bread and butter model for the company since its introduction in December, 1996.

The chunky-looking off-roader competes against the likes of the Suzuki Grand Vitara, Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester, although it undercuts all these rivals on price.

The latest iteration of the Sportage SE, launched in July, 1999, is priced below the previous model and includes air-conditioning at no extra cost.

The standard equipment list now also includes a driver's airbag, power windows and mirrors, central locking, power steering and a four-speaker stereo.

The nearest competitor on price is the much more expensive Suzuki Grand Vitara which comes with air-conditioning but no airbag.

The Subaru Forester, with air-conditioning but no airbag is also well above the Sportage on price, while the five-door Toyota RAV4 comes close to $35,000 when similarly equipped.

The Sportage's keen pricing shows Kia has realised the only way it can compete in the cut-throat segment is to offer a lot of car for the money.

External changes to the latest Sportage were kept to a minimum with a revised grille and multi-reflector tail-lights the most obvious distinguishing elements from earlier models.

Even though it was first unveiled at the 1991 Tokyo motor show, the Sportage's rugged, simple lines have stood the test of time and the car still looks attractive and relatively modern.

The 2.0-litre engine has been carried over more or less unchanged but Kia claims a revised cylinder head and a tweaked engine management system endow it with greater refinement and better response.

In practice, the engine performs as well as can be expected, given that it is being asked to lug around a 1455kg vehicle (1490kg in auto form).

What this means is that overtaking manoeuvres need to be carefully planned and you may need to find a lower gear at the slightest sign of a gradient.

Given the need for frequent gear changes, it is unfortunate the shift action is somewhat vague and, consequently, a cacophony of clashing synchros can be a relatively common occurrence unless care is exercised.

The previous Sportage came in for some criticism for its sub- standard suspension settings and, consequently, the latest version's underpinnings have been tweaked slightly.

The bad news is that, although perhaps better than before, the Sportage still tends to pitch and wallow without provocation and the car has an unnerving tendency to wander around even on smooth, straight roads. Pushed into corners, the little off- roader tends to feel unsettled - a feeling exacerbated by the slightly vague, uncommunicative steering.

On the positive side, the ride is not too bad and the seats are reasonably comfortable.

With its dual-range transmission and ladder frame chassis the Sportage can be pointed into the roughest 4WD territory without qualms - places a RAV4, Forester or CRV could not even contemplate.

The interior is relatively plain and spartan but pleasing nonetheless. The instrumentation is clear and easy to read and all the switchgear is also well placed.

One of the worthwhile improvements to the current model is the vastly simplified spare wheel release mechanism which requires a simple pull on a lever to enable the wheel to be swung out of the way when opening the tailgate.

In the previous model, by comparison, opening the tailgate involved a seven-step procedure.

The high-mounted spare wheel still obstructs rearward vision, though, making reverse parking more difficult than it could be.

Overall build quality is also better than before and fit and finish is beyond reproach both inside and outside. The test car was also free of squeaks and rattles.

The inherent strength of the ladder frame chassis makes it a better proposition for regular forays onto rough terrain than the monocoque construction used in occasional off-roaders such as the RAV4 and CRV.

Vacuum-operated free-wheeling hubs mean high range four-wheel drive can now be engaged or disengaged on the fly at speeds of up to 80km/h. Engaging low range requires the vehicle to be brought to a standstill.

The Sportage has approach and departure angles of 36 degrees and 33 degrees respectively and Kia says its low centre of gravity enables it to traverse sideways slopes of up to 45 degrees.

Overall, the Kia is a reasonably competent package let down mainly by its less than perfect suspension settings.

But its sharp pricing, sound build quality and generous equipment list make it an alternative worth considering against its more expensive - and often less capable off-road - rivals.

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