Our first day with the new 2005 Kia Sportage, we decided to pick up a friend for lunch in status-obsessed Brentwood, California. You probably know the place as the former home of O.J. and The Governator.
As she walked toward the little SUV, our trendy friend's first words were, "What is that?"
"It's the new Kia Sportage," we replied.
"Oh . A Kia? Are those things even safe?"
"Not only is it safe," we said. "This new Sportage is part of a recent wave of cars and SUVs from South Korea's second-largest automaker that are well-designed, well-built and comfortable, and they typically cost thousands less than the Japanese competition. And just for that, you're paying for lunch."
Although Japan still dominates the ultracompetitive small-SUV market, prices have been creeping up on the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 over the past few years. So the window of opportunity is open, and Kia's latest 'ute, which is a mechanical twin to the Hyundai Tucson, packs a ton of practical features into a sporty package for thousands less.
Our 2005 Kia Sportage EX 4x4 carried a $21,400 base price, which includes a V6 engine, traction and stability control, side curtain and seat-mounted side airbags, power windows and locks, keyless entry, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a sunroof. An extra $1,300 got us the Luxury Package, which adds monochromatic bumpers, nicely contoured heated leather seats, automatic headlamps and an in-dash six-disc CD changer stereo. Other options included side step bars ($340) and a tow hitch ($340), neither of which we found particularly useful.
Total sticker price was $23,970, but we ran some numbers on the Edmunds.com True Market Value calculator and found this vehicle typically sells for $22,322 after rebates. In contrast, the only Honda CR-V with heated leather seats and four-wheel drive is the Special Edition model, which carries a TMV price of $24,278 and isn't even available with a V6.
The Sportage also includes a five-year/unlimited mileage bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. Honda only covers its cars for three years or 36,000 miles. Things were starting to look up for the little Kia.
Putting the Sport in Sportage
Right off the bat, the new Sportage feels much improved over the previous model. Based on a modified Kia Spectra/Hyundai Elantra unibody passenger car platform, the new 'ute is tighter and more responsive than the old body-on-frame version. The steering isn't very precise, but there's enough resistance to prevent that twitchy oversensitive sensation many SUVs suffer from.
Hard cornering certainly isn't the Sportage's forte, but it handles respectably well for a vehicle in this class. Push too hard and the standard stability and traction control programs will intervene to keep you headed in the right direction.
In the slalom, tire adhesion proved disappointing, but body roll was well controlled and the steering felt great. When we tested a Tucson recently, the vehicle's power steering couldn't keep up with the car and gave up halfway through the test. The Sportage didn't have this problem.
Braking is also commendable thanks to standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. Stops from 60 mph take just 120 feet. A CR-V needs 129 feet.
Not Enough Power to Burn
While lower-cost Sportage HX models come with a 140-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, the LX is powered by 2.7-liter, 173-hp V6. The dual-overhead cam six isn't a towering inferno of power, but it's remarkably smooth, offers enough juice to pass big rigs on the highway and makes the little truck fun to hop around town in.
Its off-the-line oomph, however, could be better. Its 0-to-60-mph time of 10.7 seconds is two full seconds slower than the last four-cylinder Honda's CR-V we tested, which was 200 pounds lighter and had a five-speed manual transmission.
The rest of the running gear is pretty standard for a small SUV. The four-speed automatic isn't quite as smooth as the five-speed units offered by Honda and Toyota, but it always manages to keep the V6 right in its power band. The "Shiftronic" manual-shift mode is a little gimmicky, but the shifter itself feels solid and is easy to grip.
Yes Snow, Dirt No
Kia calls this Sportage a 4x4, but in reality it's better suited to pavement-bound activities. Four-wheel independent suspension, all-wheel drive and an electronically activated center-locking differential help the Kia power over snowdrifts or the occasional dirt road, but with only 7.7 inches of ground clearance and the lack of a low-range, you'd be better off skipping off-road trails.
It's What's Inside That Counts
They say true beauty comes from within, and that is certainly true with the Sportage. Not that the little SUV is ugly, far from it. The lines are soft and inoffensive with a decidedly organic look, but it's the Sportage's interior that really shines.
The Kia's cabin feels downright cavernous. The Sportage boasts 40.7 inches of front headroom and 42.1 inches of front legroom, both of which best the CR-V's dimensions. It's interesting to note that the Honda is a full 10 inches longer overall (181.8 inches versus 171.3 inches), meaning the Sportage is not only more space-efficient, it's also easier to parallel park.
Rear-seat leg- and headroom aren't quite as plentiful, but still more than acceptable for a vehicle in this class. Cargo space measures 23.6 cubic feet with the seats up and 67 cubic feet when they're folded flat. Not surprisingly, the larger CR-V offers more space; 33.5 cubic feet with its seats up and 72 cubic feet when its rear seat is folded. But the Sportage proved large enough. We hauled everything from engine parts to birthday presents with no problem.
Fit and finish is impressive, even luxurious considering the $23K price tag. The seats are firm and supportive, and the eight-way power-adjustable driver seat (standard on the HX) makes it easy to find a comfortable position. Most of the two-tone interior panels are covered in either soft-touch or textured material, save for a few brushed-aluminum trim pieces that do a nice job of dressing things up.
The triple-dial climate controls feel a little flimsy, but they're well within reach and easy to operate. Also, the in-dash six-disc CD changer stereo pumps out plenty of crystal-clear tunes, but we didn't love the old-school LCD display or the fact that despite the "MP3" label on the head unit it refused to play some (but not all) of our MP3 CDs.
Slamming doors on the Sportage produces a satisfyingly solid thump, and wind and road noise are kept to a minimum. Sitting behind the leather-wrapped wheel, it feels like a more expensive vehicle than it is.
The Bottom Line
Kia has come a long way from its roots as a cheap bargain-basement alternative to the Japanese Big Three. Its cars and SUVs just keep getting better, but prices have remained relatively low.
With the possible exception of a few status-conscious West L.A. snobs, the 2005 Kia Sportage would be a great pick for any small-SUV shopper who holds value in higher regard than nameplate recognition. Sporty handling, a 10-year warranty and an impressive list of standard safety equipment combined with a price tag $2,000 lower than the competition makes Kia's latest sport-ute a real bargain in our book.
System Score: 7.5
Our Sportage EX came equipped with the Luxury Package, which includes a seven-speaker audio system (six midrange speakers and a powered subwoofer) with an in-dash six-disc MP3 CD changer. This unit is an upgrade from the regular EX which offers only a single CD player.
Based on sound quality alone, this stereo would probably get a 6.5 or maybe a 7. The bass isn't very deep, the highs are tinny and there is no midrange control. However, the overall sound quality is fair or slightly above average. Clarity is one of its strong points. Now add the fact that this system offers MP3 capability and an in-dash changer, and the value part of the equation bumps up the score a little.
The LCD display screen looks a little dated, and while it seems perfectly suited for radio station tuning and CDs, once you pop in an MP3-format CD, it's hard for it to accommodate all the folders and subfolders in an easy-to-use manner. A bigger screen would be ideal for systems with the MP3 feature. The toggle button for navigating MP3 folders is useful and easy to figure out. We also had some problems getting it to read a few of our burned MP3 CDs that work fine in other vehicles.
Best Feature: In-dash CD changer.
Worst Feature: Just average sound quality.
Conclusion: Like the car itself, the Sportage's stereo is an excellent value. It provides acceptable sound and lots of versatility. — Dan Kahn
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
The short version of how I feel about this car? The Japanese should officially be worried.
Kia has made a steady transition from "good to buy if you're on a budget" to "good to buy if you want maximum value" over the last five years. I suspect the simple "just plain good to buy" moniker will be applied soon enough. The newest Sportage is yet another assault on a traditional Japanese stronghold (the small SUV segment). This one has exceptional steering, comfortable seats and effective (if not really beautiful) styling.
I wish it had a bit more power, though off-the-line torque isn't an issue. The tires could be grippier, as they tend to give up easily when pushing the car in corners (not that most owners will do this). Finally, the interior materials still aren't Honda/Toyota quality (though calling them Nissan quality would be a fair assessment).
But here's the bottom line: For a car to be successful it has to be easy for potential buyers to see themselves owning one — with no regrets. As I drove the Sportage around I found myself thinking, "Well, there's plenty of room for my two kids and I know Stacie would like the overall driving dynamics and the price is very reasonable and ."
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I first saw the Sportage at the Paris auto show and I remember thinking what a huge step forward it was for Kia. The two-tier hatch is great and the interior is much higher quality than the previous version.
Driving the Sportage only reinforces my already favorable opinion of the car. In theory, I'd rather have the Sportage than a Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V. Still, that doesn't eliminate the stigma of owning a Kia. I suspect many young college students or recent grads will find brands like Honda, Nissan and even Hyundai a little more, well, stylish.
A smooth and quiet motor says a lot about a vehicle's engineering quality. On more than one occasion I thought the engine was off when, in fact, it was idling. Handling is a little sloppy but I don't think most people will care. The Kia Sportage is a great commuter and the added versatility of its SUV configuration makes it a nice little weekend car as well.
Yes, I know that Kias are fine cars. I'm just not sure the buying public has the same opinion. Those who cross this little truck off their list because of a perceived lack of prestige are making a big mistake.
"We just bought a black cherry 2005 Sportage EX here in Hawaii and so far everything is great. I'm over 6' 2" and have several inches of headroom and plenty of legroom. We fit our two teenagers and 10-year-old in the back without squeezing, and it holds groceries better than our minivan. The rear window hatch is better for piling in bags than the rear hatch of the van. The only problem I'm having, although minor, is with the MP3 player. It doesn't seem to play MP3 discs even though it says it does on the window sticker. I get ERROR on the CD changer display and it ejects the MP3 disc. The manual for the 6-CD changer says it doesn't play MP3 discs. If I had to choose I'd rather have the MP3 disc support than a 6-CD changer." — Carrigan, May 5, 2005
"My wife just bought an EX 4WD Sportage. Not enough experience (50 miles) to rate this vehicle yet. The fit, finish and overall quality seem wonderful. We looked at the CR-V. For around the same price the CR-V had little in the way of options to make it equal to the EX. The Sportage rode better, was quieter and more powerful than the CR-V. Now if only Kia had legendary Honda quality for the long haul. The salesman at the Honda store tried to knock the Hyundai and Kia by saying only people from the lower socioeconomic class buy those products, therefore their opinions mean nothing. How demeaning and stupid! The guy does not know me from Adam. I could be on welfare. That really turned us off to Honda." — Artgpo, April 12, 2005
"I bought the Sportage EX with the luxury package. Only driven it about 40 miles but so far I love it. It's so nice. Now I want to buy all the accessories for it." — Axguy, April 17, 2005
"I like everything else about the Sportage and think that it is a real value but probably won't buy it for its lack of the foot/leg rest. I believe that Korean cars, like Korean electronics, are getting as good as Japanese cars, and will be a real value until people realize the change, and then Korean prices will go up and their warranties go down in line with the competition." — Yiggy69, May 28, 2005