1 Dec 1996
By CHRIS HARRIS
THAT Kia managed to make the original Sportage 4WD wagon from the sow’s ear that was the front-wheel drive Pride light car (a re-badged and South Korean-made 1986-1990 Mazda 121!) was quite an achievement.
It also showed foresight, because the Sportage debuted in its home country around two years before the original Toyota RAV4 – the vehicle generally considered to be the pioneer in car-based light SUV's.
But while the Toyota drove like a car, the Sportage – with its beefed up, separate-chassis construction and low-range transmission – was ponderous and pedestrian from behind the wheel. The dynamics could only be described as vague and unappealing.
It was also sluggish. Power came courtesy of a Mazda-derived 94kW/175Nm 2.0-litre twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox. And it had a lot of weight to pull around.
The Sportage’s cabin seemed modern and pleasant to look at until an extended time revealed the uncomfortable seats, low-fi plastics and general quality, a tight driving position and a woeful lack of room for rear passengers and their cargo.
Equipment levels were OK – with central locking, power steering, powered windows and mirrors, roof racks and a limited-slip differential (LSD), but anti-lock brakes were optional and – until 2000’s update – there was no standard airbag availability.
Three limited editions – the FX (’97), SE and GSE (both ’99) – added more kit and improved trim levels, as well as that missing driver’s side airbag, but only from ’99.
The Sportage’s timing was bad – two far-more road-focussed rivals from Honda (CR-V) and Subaru (Forester) joined the impressive RAV4, placing the plodding Kia as a non-starter in the urban 4WD stakes as far as dynamics and efficiency were concerned. Only keen pricing kept it in contention.
But the Sportage nevertheless carved a niche for itself in the burgeoning SUV market, as rural buyers in particular looked past the pretty styling and unfamiliar Kia brand to the impressive off-road ability and the Sportage’s general robustness.
From April 2000 an extended Sportage was introduced, with an ungainly 305mm tail extension to solely increase luggage capacity from a paltry 1570 litres to 2220 litres.
The spare wheel moved underneath the floor from out back, equipment levels rose to include power windows and a CD player.