What's New for 1996
The world's first knee airbag arrives in conjunction with a driver airbag, and a two-wheel-drive edition is available this year. A spirited twin-cam engine arrived late in 1995, and cured Sportage's power ills.
Many residents of the Midwest and along the East Coast don't know what the heck a Kia is. Kia's are built near Seoul, South Korea, and are currently sold in western and southeastern U.S. markets. The company builds an inexpensive compact sedan, called the Sephia, and a wonderfully affordable sport utility called the Sportage.
Part-owned by Ford and Mazda, Kia relies heavily on resources from both companies as it struggles to its feet in a tough marketplace. The Sportage, currently available only in four-door style but soon to be joined by a two-door model with a removable roof, is the product of a collaboration between Kia, Ford, Mazda and suspension-tuning guru Lotus. Designed from the start as a sport utility, the Sportage sports tough ladder frame construction, shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive, and a Mazda-based powerplant.
Two trim levels are available: base and EX. Base models are well-trimmed, including power windows, alloy wheels, tinted glass, split-folding seats, a remote fuel door release, power mirrors and a rear defroster. The EX adds power door locks, cruise control, rear wiper and a remote liftgate release. Optional are a roof rack, a spare tire carrier, air conditioning, premium stereo, an automatic transmission and a limited slip differential.
A wide variety of colors are available on the Sportage's smoothly styled flanks; few of which appear to have originated from the minds of the folks currently in charge of painting Hot Wheels cars. The look is rugged yet cute; perfect for family duty in the burbs. Off-road, we found the Sportage confidence-inspiring, but it didn't feel as tight as a Suzuki Sidekick four-door we recently drove.
For most owners, that won't matter. Few SUV's actually leave the pavement, and on the pavement is where the Sportage shines. Lotus engineers worked wonders here, and the Sportage is stable and comfortable. The seating position is high and upright, visibility is outstanding, and the layout of the dashboard and controls is top-notch. Rear seat riders enjoy lots of room and support, afforded by "stadium style" elevated seating. From the driver's seat, the Sportage looks and feels much more substantial than its low price would lead you to believe. Our only quibble with the Sportage's interior was the lack of storage space. Without the optional spare tire carrier, the cargo area is downright tiny.
Kia hopes the younger families and active singles that will be buying the Sportage will find its affordability a welcome trade for some cargo room. With a loaded EX topping out at around $20,000, we think they've got little to worry about.