No vehicle in Kia's lineup exemplifies the company's evolution from bit player to a major force in the American market better than the Sportage. When the first Sportage rolled out fifteen years ago, its singular asset was the price tag.
The Sportage was the least expensive sport-utility vehicle on the market. Buyers who had never been able to afford a new car could buy a Sportage.
By the time Kia introduced the current model in 2005, it had established itself as a safety leader, while maintaining its value pricing strategy. The new Sportage received five star federal crash test ratings in frontal and side impacts, and has one of the highest levels of standard safety features in its segment.
Sportage for Every Lifestyle
The current model is available with a choice of two engines: an inline four-cylinder or 170-horsepower V6. The test car is the upscale EX grade with a V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission. Available four-wheel drive gives the Sportage moderate off-road capability.
Though the larger engine and all-wheel drive hurts its overall fuel economy, the V6 EX is a better car on the highway than the four-cylinder. The V6 has forty more foot-pounds of torque, and peak torque occurs at lower engine speeds, for better acceleration.
Four-wheel drive adds the versatility that most buyers with active lifestyles require. The four-speed automatic transmission is the powertrain's least appealing feature. It gets the job done, but a five-speed gearbox would have improved overall fuel economy.
Though the Kia Sportage and Hyundai Tucson share the same rolling chassis, the Sportage is tuned for more aggressive driving. Gordon Dickie, who was Kia's Director of Product Quality at the time, was responsible for tuning the Sportage.
Dickie had come to Kia from Mazda, where he worked on the MazdaSpeed products. The Sportage has stiffer suspension settings and a more positive on-center feel than the Tucson: both Dickie trademarks.
Solid Highway Performance
I had the dubious pleasure of driving the first-generation Sportage from Phoenix to LA: it had as much power as a box full of field mice, and shook like a banshee in the wind. To its credit, the current model bears absolutely no resemblance to the car it replaced. It's quiet and refined, with ample power and a solid, stable footprint.
The V6 engine has plenty of power to maneuver through high-speed traffic. Though the transmission lacks large overdrive gears, it seems well mated to the engine, with no noticeable shift shock.
Visibility around the car is good: a standard rear wiper keeps the glass clear in rain and snow. Power rack-and-pinion steering feels precise at speed, while providing plenty of assist for maneuvering through parking lots.
A four-wheel drive lock button to the left of the gauge cluster gives the driver additional traction off-road. The driver can also disable the electronic stability control, allowing the wheels to spin on snow and loose dirt for better maneuverability.
The upscale EX grade comes with a high level of standard comfort and convenience features, including single-zone climate control, a sunroof, AM/FM/cassette and CD player with MP3 compatibility, a tilt steering wheel, and power front seats. A luxury package adds leather trim, front seat heaters and an audio upgrade ($1300).
There are two, twelve-volt power points: at the base of the center stack and to the left of the liftgate in the cargo bay. All four doors have map pockets with molded bottle holders.
Two open bins, in front of the armrest and at the base of the center stack, hold small electronic devices. The glovebox is rather small: a grab handle above it is probably unnecessary for the type of off-road driving most owners will do.
Two cupholders in the floor console are also large enough for bottles. Second-row passengers get two smaller cupholders that pop out of the back of the center armrest. The center seatback in back folds down to serve as an armrest for rear passengers.
The outboard second-row seats have enough leg, hip and headroom for average adults. There is no floor tunnel, but the center console limits legroom in the center position.
Levers on the rear seatbacks fold them flush with the cargo floor: the Sportage easily meets our bicycle-friendly standards. A standard tonneau cover conceals items in back, but is easy to remove for larger cargo.
The rear glass can open independently of the liftgate for loading in small items. Four tie-down loops secure large cargo stashed in back. A storage bin under the cargo floor has compartments to keep smaller items from slipping around.
A step-pad on the rear bumper makes it easier to load items up top. The EX grade comes standard with roof rails for attaching cargo racks.
The Sportage tows up to 2000 pounds: below our ALV standards, but adequate for a small trailer.
All grades come with four channel antilock brakes, traction control, and electronic stability control. The Sportage has front, side and side curtain airbags that protect both rows of passengers.
All Kias come with a ten year powertrain warranty that includes five years or 60,000 miles of roadside assistance.
The 2008 Sportage is on display at Kia dealerships nationwide.
2008 Kia Sportage EX 4X4
Likes: An affordable compact sport-utility vehicle with moderate off-road capability and a high level of standard safety and convenience features. The Sportage easily meets our bicycle-friendly standards. Roof rails are standard on the EX grade.
Dislikes: A five-speed automatic transmission would have improved fuel economy, which is not particularly good on the four-wheel drive model.