By on April 25, 2005

The KIA Sportage: for $23k, who's complaining?  I have no desire to piss off the Koreans, Northern or Southern. For those of you involved in that region's automobile industry, who probably view anything other than a puff piece as an affront to your family's honor, let me say this: the Kia Sportage EX 4WD is a nice SUV. It's nice– in the same sense that attractive women used to call me a "nice guy". In other words, the Sportage is about as sexy as mitosis.

One look at the Sportage proves that you can't reverse engineer style. The exterior incorporates all of the standard SUV design cues: blistered wheels arches, bisected radiator grill, integrated roof rack, blacked-out window surrounds, letterbox exhausts, etc. Like every other occidental pastiche, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The Sportage is too big here (back end), too small there (rear three-quarter glass), not enough aggression anywhere.

A 'cute ute'.  Like using an Irish setter for a guard dog?Of course, the Sportage's aesthetic pacifism and diminutive footprint qualify the mini-SUV as a "cute ute'. Now THERE'S a segment that baffles me. Why would anyone want an SUV that doesn't even LOOK like it can go off-road? To my mind, driving a cute ute is like using an Irish Setter for a guard dog. I suppose the appeal centers on the genre's raised driving position, high[er]mileage and LL Bean lite fashionability. I could say the Sportage, Escape, RAV4 and CRV are all chicks' SUV's, but then I'd run the risk getting flattened by a soccer Mom in a Sequoia.

Anyway, one of the great things about cheap cars is that they aren't expensive cars. You adjust the seats with levers and knobs, the radio looks like a radio, nothing beeps at you and you don't need a programming degree to direct air to both your face and your feet.

A common sense car interior without a single RTFM issue. The Sportage's airy, comfortable cabin makes perfect sense, with the added attraction that the materials aren't made by GM's suppliers. There's even a bit of cleverness here and there, like the crooked window wiper arm on the passenger side. And Kia's decision to sacrifice luggage space for rear legroom– a boon to Moms who need reach-around access to baby wipes, milk and far flung toys– was the right choice for the right car at the right price.

Yes, there is that. Even at this point, it's worth mentioning that you'd be hard-pressed to spend $23k on a fully-loaded Sportage EX 4WD, which comes with a five-year, 60k-mile "limited basic" warranty. Financially-challenged buyers have every reason to stop reading this review and head straight for their local KIA dealer. At that price, it's not as if you're looking for an SUV with the soul of a sports car.

The V6 that thinks it's a four. Well if you are, don't. Despite the brand's stated goal– to position KIA as sporty spice to Hyundai's posh– even the top-of-the-line Sportage EX doesn't have the stones for the job. Its 2.7-liter, 173hp powerplant is a rough-revving, asthmatic unit. What's more, the V6-that-thinks-it's-a-four is charged with propelling a lardy (if reassuringly substantial) 3740 pound SUV. Zero to sixty takes, let's see, wait, almost there… 10.2 seconds. And that's at full chat.

As for handling, a Sportage used in anger is a Hell of a steer: understeer (lots), torque steer (before the 4WD kicks in) and Angus steer (Ponderosa ponderousness). That said, the rack and pinion helm offers something remarkably akin to genuine feedback, and the tires tell you when G-forces are about to inflate your insurance premiums. The four-wheel disc brakes demand some serious pushing, but they'll slow the Korean from 70mph to naught in 172 feet– some 20 feet sooner than a Jeep Liberty Limited Edition 4WD.

Profile of a winner (if not a sinner).The Sportage's chassis is the biggest disappointment. Let me put it this way: if the Sportage has a performance-tuned suspension, someone at Kia is tone deaf. The need to tie down the SUV to avoid lateral flop was obviously Job One. You get all of the pain of a poor roadway with none of the pleasure of extra cornering ability. Vehicles like this tell me that manufacturers are trying to fool an entire generation of drivers into equating BCW (Bang Crash Wallop) with "road feel".

Of course, thrashing a Sportage is about as ludicrous as using a Mazda Miata to move house. The best thing you could say about the Korean SUV's driving dynamics, perhaps the only thing that really needs saying, is that it's safe. Predictable, controllable, stable and safe. Which makes the Sportage safe, affordable, practical and environmentally responsible.

Anyone notice the missing word 'fun'? Still, you can't blame the Kia Sportage for being so damn sensible. When it comes to the sales chart, there's no denying that nice guys finish first.

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3 Comments on “KIA Sportage EX 4WD Review...”

  • avatar

    Cute UTEs are pretty useful little vehicles, especially for those who live where there is ice and snow. It gets you where you’ve gotta go and it gets you there safely, cost effectively and reliably. My wife is a nurse and spent her last 10 years driving a long wheelbase Suzuki Sidekick to work from the country in some truly horrendous weather. It never failed her and it didn’t cost a fortune. Maintenance was a dream. Seeing how our local Kia dealer handles maintenance, I’d say the Sportage is a pretty safe bet too. Things to look for in these mini-SUVs are heated power mirrors, NO roof rack, a good bumper front and rear (leaves out the RAV4) and good road clearance. Roof racks are a pain in the ass when ice and snow accumulates on them.  

  • avatar

    Car reviewers often forget that many car owners are just looking for dependable, affordable and highly utilitarian transportation. We have a two year old Sportage that has fit that bill better than any of the dozen plus vehicles I have owned over the years. It is one vehicle that I would repurchase today if my current one was stolen or totalled.

  • avatar

    There are lots of people interested in a no frills, get the job done vehicle and the Kia Sportage EX we have does just this. I’m not interested in hype or a seriously fun to drive suv that gets 15 mpg and has all of the cutting edge equipment. My Kia’s A/C blows ice cold on those 90+ degree high humidity days and it goes through hell and high water and always gets over 20 mpg no matter what. It’s dependable as a Timex and I love it. This is a great SUV!

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