Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Buzzwords have become the crutch of every marketing department in the automotive industry. During the introduction of the 2005 Kia Sportage, the manufacturer's reps used the term "DNA" so many times it sounded like closing arguments in the Scott Peterson trial.
They were making the case that although the Sportage shares its engines, transmissions, chassis, dimensions and other minor details with the Hyundai Tucson, it's still a uniquely Kia vehicle.
Yeah, and Scott just liked to fish.
Less Money, More Stuff Apart from obvious similarities to its corporate cousin, the Kia Sportage is a competent mini SUV, but in today's cutthroat market every vehicle needs a hook. In the case of the Sportage, it's price. Just ask Phil Kelley, Kia's VP of sales. "The Sportage has a positive value proposition," he told us. "With its unexpected value, safety and style, it enables self-confident 'SUV Club' aspirers to get more out of life."
The base price is $15,900, but that's for the stripper 2WD base model that would barely qualify for rental fleet duty. Add 4WD, a reasonable amount of features and the optional V6 engine and the Sportage comes in at just under $20,000. Deck it out in top-of-the-line EX trim and the Sportage tops out at $21,400, which is still a couple grand less than a similarly equipped Honda CR-V, Ford Escape or Hyundai Tucson.
Two engines are available: a 2.0-liter, 140-horsepower inline four-cylinder and a 2.7-liter, 173-hp V6. The V6 comes with a four-speed automatic only, while four-cylinder models can be equipped with a five-speed manual or the automatic.
The base LX model comes with basic stuff like power windows, locks and mirrors and a CD player. Move up to the EX and you get keyless entry, an upgraded stereo, a rear cargo cover and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Leather seats can be added as well, or you can go with the luxury package that combines leather with heated seats, automatic headlights and a premium audio system with a six-disc CD changer.
An even stronger selling point for the Sportage is its array of standard safety features. Every level of trim comes with four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control, six airbags (front, side seat-mounted and side curtain) and stability control. Most vehicles in this class don't offer these items at all, let alone as standard equipment.
Less Tough, More Comfort A few hours in the Kia Sportage and the popularity of such vehicles isn't hard to understand. The Sportage is easy to get into, easy to see out of and feels instantly familiar.
The front seats remain comfortable after several hours and the thick side bolsters — a rarity in this class — give you something to lean against in the turns. In back, the Sportage has more head-, leg- and hip room than an Escape. Its seats fold completely flat in one motion, opening up an evil 66.6 cubic feet of cargo room, an average amount for the class.
The dash features recessed gauges that are plain but easy to read, and simple climate and radio controls, which could feel more substantial. Higher-line models use metallic accents to liven up the cabin, but this trim just makes the grainy plastic next to it look that much worse.
We drove V6-powered models and came away impressed with the engine's refinement but disappointed with its power. With several other V6s in this class topping 200 hp, the Sportage feels sluggish in comparison. The automatic transmission knows what you want most of the time, and there's a manual-shift gate if you think you can do better.
Unlike most mini-utes that try to isolate you from the road, the Sportage rides a little firmer, with reasonably tight steering and moderate body roll. It's not sporty, but if that's what you're looking for, you're in the wrong category to begin with. Road and wind noise are also kept to a minimum, so the cabin is quiet even if it's bouncing around.
Unlike the original Sportage that used rugged body-on-frame construction and a two-speed four-wheel-drive system, the '05 model rides on a unibody chassis with a fully independent suspension and all-wheel drive. Standard traction control and a push-button center differential lock give it some measure of off-road ability, but like most mini-utes the Sportage wasn't designed for the dirt.
What's In a Name? If you're a brand snob or need low-range gearing, the second-generation Sportage isn't going to cut it. The transfer case is gone and that Kia badge isn't getting any smaller. But if you value a long warranty, the latest safety equipment, plenty of features and a decent price, Kia now has a truck you will like. Turns out the Kia Sportage does have the right DNA, and the right value proposition.
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