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Expert Reviews 1 of 2
By Anita And Paul Lienert
The Detroit News
May 14, 1997
We've been hunting for the baby sport-ute equivalent of a Swiss army knife. You know, a practical, affordable tool with lots of "surprise and delight" features, as the marketing folks like to say. Unfortunately, the 1997 Kia Sportage 4x4 has
more "surprise and disappoint" features - the puzzling addition of a driver's side "knee bag," but the lack of a passenger air bag, for instance. And the Korean baby truck also strikes us as being far too "teenage" for adult tastes. At first
glance, the under-$16,000 base price makes the Sportage seem like a real bargain against the more expensive Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 - until you take a closer look at some of its flaws and idiosyncrasies and what you may be sacrificing up in the name of
"value." She: I guess the first thing I'm giving up is my security blanket. I like to know that I can find a dealer with little difficulty when I buy a car. That's the first strike against Kia. It's only got about 200 dealers in the United States
and they're mostly located on the coasts and across the south. That may be enough of an anxiety-producer to make me pass on the Sportage, even though it has its merits. He: Worry, worry, worry. You're being way too fretful. Hey, I like the
Sportage. Dynamically, it's a pretty nice vehicle - better than a Suzuki Sidekick or a Geo Tracker. But for every positive thing I can say about the vehicle, there's some negative, too. She: You're being way too diplomatic. I wouldn't recommend
this car to a friend or family member. Why should I foist it off on our readers? It's a car for somebody with a teenage mentality. You know, someone who thinks they're immortal, infallible - and infertile. They never ever dream that they'll someday need a
mechanic or get in an accident where they'd need a passenger air bag. Plus they wear those awful stuffed-animal backpacks and Tasmanian Devil baseball caps. Buy the Sportage! Adolescence rules! He: Something wrong with my Taz hat? Oh, you just
don't like it when I wear it backwards, right? And by the way, remember you're supposed to be an auto writer here, not a mother. She: Go to your room. He: You're supposed to talk about stuff like the base engine. The one in the Sportage,
for instance, is the most powerful in the class. It makes 130 horsepower and is pretty lively. The Sportage is also nimble and easy to maneuver, and seems to soak up potholes really well. On the down side, you only get rear-wheel antilock brakes. I also
agree with you on one point. The lack of a passenger air bag is really inexcusable. Kia would have been better served to skip that silly knee bag, which is supposed to keep the driver from sliding under the dashboard in a collision, and just invest the
money in a regular passenger bag. She: You're nit-picking the details on the Sportage. But I have a more overriding problem. As a brand, Kia has yet to burn itself into the culture. What the heck is a Sportage? What t
he heck is a Kia? That was the consensus in every grocery store parking lot I was in here in southeastern Michigan, where Kia doesn't plan to set up dealers until 1998. Everybody wondered what it was and nobody could define it. He: They don't
really have that problem in Florida and southern California. She: I also worry that there are too many sport utes on the market - just like there are too many cereal choices. It creates thoughtless consumerism. You can get what you need with a
RAV4 or a CR-V. Or a Tracker or a Suzuki X-90. Why crowd the market with even more confusing choices? He: Gee, everybody needs a Kia Pet. And it IS better than a Tracker or an X-90, hands down. In one respect, you're probably right. The lack of
name recognition has probably put a crimp in the Sportage's chances for success. The size and price otherwise would make it a great candidate for cult-vehicle status. She: Yeah, if you're waiting for that space ship hiding behind Hale-Bopp
He: You sure can't argue with all the standard features. For the $15,995 base price, you get power windows, locks and mirrors, some very comfortable reclining bucket seats in front and a split-folding bench in the rear, plus carpeting throughout the
vehicle. That's pretty remarkable even before you add in the four-wheel drive system and the twim-cam 2.0-liter engine. Plus you can customize the Sportage with fun options like a $96 bike carrier and a $121 ski rack. She: But the price of the
Sportage is deceptive. At first, I got really excited about its sticker, especially when you consider that the CR-V is priced at $20,000 and the four-door RAV4 4x4 starts at nearly $18,000. But when you're giving up things like a dealer network, a
reputation solidified over time and a passenger air bag, I'd feel a lot better if the Sportage were a true bargain - in the $10,000-$12,000 range. Then I'd figure: "Hey I'm a pioneer - I'm taking a chance on something, but there's also something in it for
me." He: You sound like the perfect candidate for that space ship. Why don't you see if you can do a test-drive on THAT? I still think the Sportage has its virtues. The back seat is a little cramped, but there's loads of room up front and plenty
of cargo space. Although some of the trim pieces should fit together tighter, the vehicle we tested looks to be much better quality than the prototypes I drove last summer. One gripe that Kia still needs to attend to, and that's the noisy driveline. It's
really noticeable above 50 miles per hour. She: Probably the Sportage's biggest plus is styling. Its smooth, rounded body looks like it was born to carry a canoe or a kayak. But the exterior design is not flawless. The outside spare-tire carrier
was irritating to operate with its separate controls for the tire and the lift gate. If I were really hot to buy one, I'd wait until fall when the instrument panel gets redesigned and the Sportage gets that passenger air bag. And if I were at all
conservative, I'd wait until Kia got more established in the United States before I took a chance on the company. He: You're being too harsh. The Sportage is a heck of a lot more practical than some of the so-called "youth" vehicles like the X-90
and the Tracker, and it's simply a better vehicle, period. I went four-wheeling in it in Montana last summer and it did a great job. Fun and functional. What more could you ask for? I think you should lighten up. You can practice by buying chocolate
Frosted Flakes instead of Wheaties. And quit staring at that damn comet. 1997 Kia Sportage 4x4 Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, four-passenger sport-utility vehicle. Price: Base, $15,995; as tested, $17,969 (inc. $425
destination charge). What's new for '97: Driver-side knee bolster, redesigned grille, full-size spare-tire carrier, standard power door locks, theft-deterrent system, optional AM-FM stereo with CD player, optional four-s
peed automatic on two-wheel-drive models. Standard equipment: All-season radial tires, alloy wheels, automatic locking front hubs, power steering, power windows, power door locks, power outside mirrors, split folding rear seats, tachometer,
digital clock, variable intermittent wipers, rear defogger, theft-deterrent system. Safety features: Driver-side air bag, inflatable knee bolster (driver side), rear-wheel antilock brakes. Options on test vehicle: Air conditioning ($900);
premium AM-FM stereo ($400); roof rack ($185); carpeted floor mats ($64). EPA fuel economy: 19 mpg city/23 mpg highway. Engine: 2.0-liter I-4; 130-hp at 5500 rpm; 127 lb-ft torque at 4000 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed manual.
Competitors: Geo Tracker, Suzuki Sidekick, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Jeep Wrangler. Specifications: Wheelbase, 104.3 inches; overall length, 159.3 inches; curb weight, 3314 pounds; legroom, 44.5 inches front/31.1 inches rear; headroom, 3. nc
es front/37.8 inches rear; shoulder room, 54.4 inches front/54.4 inches rear. 12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,030. Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no
tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts. Where built: Asan Bay, Korea.