Versus the competiton:
The Kia Sportage that was discontinued after the 2002 model year managed to combine the dinkiness of an econobox with the road manners of an early sport utility vehicle. Yeesh. The all-new 2005 model is a different species, and well worth consideration. If it looks like a Hyundai Tucson — or this review recalls my Tucson review — it’s because the models are sisters. South Korea’s Hyundai Motors has owned Kia for a few years and now shares with it many models and the most generous warranty in the industry.
I did test both models independently. The Sportage comes in two trim levels: the four-cylinder LX and the six-cylinder EX. Both trim levels come as front- or all-wheel drive. My test vehicle was a top-of-the-line Sportage EX V6 with all-wheel drive.
To give a better idea of the Sportage’s size, here’s a comparison against the larger Hyundai Santa Fe and the popular Ford Escape:
|SUV Dimensions Compared
Volume (cu. ft.)
|Minimum Cargo Volume
|Maximum Cargo Volume
The Sportage is within an inch or so of the Tucson in all exterior dimensions, so for all intents, the two are the same overall size. The lower, LX, trim level has black door handles and side mirrors. The EX has body-colored handles, mirrors, side molding and wheel flares. Standard are rectangular dual exhaust tips, an upscale touch.
The EX also comes with front fog lights. Both trims get 16-inch alloy wheels.
The Sportage is a so-called car-based, unibody SUV. This makes for a more rigid structure and precise handling compared to a truck-based model. The Sportage has four-wheel-independent suspension, so the ride over pothole-ridden streets is reasonably comfortable and the tires stay in contact with the road. Despite the inclusion of stabilizer bars, front and rear, body roll is moderate. While I’d like to see this shored up some, I found that it caused no undue surprises when pushing the Sportage to its limits in hard cornering. It even gives some decent steering feedback when the wheel is turned past the center position.
My test vehicle was equipped with BFGoodrich Traction T/A all-season tires rated P235/60R16 (see tire codes). The LX trim level has the same. The grip wasn’t exceptional, but it’s well matched to the vehicle’s dynamics and a good choice for all seasons. The Sportage LX’s tires are a bit narrower, rated P215/65R16. According to TireRack.com, direct replacements for both tires cost less than $70 apiece for the GL and less than $90 apiece for the others. Not bad. They’re common sizes, so more affordable tires are also available.
One of the features that makes the Sportage such a bargain is the standard Electronic Stability Program, Kia’s name for its electronic stability system. It keeps the car headed in the right direction under low-traction situations. (More on this in the next section as it regards all-wheel drive.)
The Sportage comes with a choice of engines and drivelines, but the transmission options are more restricted. The LX’s standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder mates to a five-speed-manual transmission. You can option a four-speed-automatic transmission, which is standard on the EX, but it will cost you a steep $1,600. The EX comes only with a 2.7-liter V-6. The details are as such:
||140 @ 6,000 rpm
||173 @ 6,000 rpm
||136 @ 4,500 rpm
||178 @ 4,000 rpm
Unfortunately I haven’t driven the four-cylinder, but I was able to compare the front-drive Tucson to the all-wheel-drive Sportage. With the larger of the two engines and the absence of heavy all-wheel-drive components, the Tucson had the better configuration for quick acceleration. It went from zero to 60 mph in less than 9 seconds. It’s no rocket, but it’s not bad at all for an SUV. (This should give you a notion of the Sportage’s performance with the same equipment, though there might be slight differences.) The Sportage, with its all-wheel drive, took more than a second longer. In actual use, my Sportage test vehicle was just powerful enough. The automatic, which impressed in the front-drive model, seemed like it should kick down more readily to get power out of the engine. At times it took a lot of pedal to make it respond. Aside from that, the transmission shifts smoothly and efficiently and the clutchless-manual mode works fine, holding whatever gear you choose until you shift it.
The all-wheel-drive Sportage’s merely adequate power suggests that someone who loads it up with people and/or cargo or lives in terrain hillier than Chicago (that would be any place that actually has hills) might find even the V-6 underpowered. Though the four-cylinder is a relatively sophisticated engine with continuously variable valve timing, it’s less powerful, and that means it would be slower still. I can’t imagine being satisfied with a four-cylinder/all-wheel-drive combo — hills or no hills. Theoretically, the LX’s manual transmission would get more out of the engine, perhaps making it workable. A five- or six-speed automatic would probably improve performance and possibly fuel economy to boot.
What Kia calls four-wheel drive technically is all-wheel drive, which means it requires no intervention from the driver and it automatically transfers power between the front and rear axles. Basically all the power goes to the front wheels until the electronically controlled system is called upon to route up to 50 percent to the rear wheels. A lock button on the dashboard holds this 50/50 split, ostensibly for the trickiest low-traction situations. Overall, the Sportage’s all-wheel drive is meant for light-duty use, not serious off-roading, and it adds between $1,200 and $2,000 over the cost of front-wheel drive, depending on the trim level and engine.
A word on four-wheel drive: In my opinion this is a feature that’s being overhyped and oversold these days. In areas with harsh winters, it can be a godsend. It’s especially useful in hilly or mountainous regions. However, in an urban or suburban center that provides decent snow removal, front-wheel drive should do the trick in almost all circumstances. The four-wheel-drive proliferation comes in part from the SUV craze. Truck-based SUVs were all rear-wheel drive, which proved to be trouble in snow. Here the four-wheel-drive option was necessary.
The same argument makes sense for the growing number of rear-drive cars on the market. But for a car like the Sportage, why carry around all the extra hardware? It adds complexity and more maintenance and decreases fuel economy between 1 and 2 mpg average. Combined with the standard traction control (an aspect of ESP), city dwellers are likely to find the front-drive Sportage is more than good enough.
Historically, fuel economy and emissions have been a shortcoming for the Korean makes. They seem to be closing the gap in some but not all cases. The Sportage four-cylinder’s city ratings are an EPA-estimated 1 to 2 mpg better than the Ford Escape’s when comparing the automatic, but an average 2 mpg worse when comparing the versions equipped with manual transmissions. It ranks a measly 2 out of 10 (best) in the EPA Green Vehicle Guide’s air pollution ratings compared to the Escape four-cylinder’s score of 6.
For the V-6 versions, the story is somewhat reversed: The Sportage’s fuel economy is an average 0.5 to 1 mpg better than the Escape’s, and its pollution score is 6 compared to the Escape’s 3. The Honda CR-V earns a 6 across the board, and the Toyota RAV4 pulls down a 2. (Equipped only with four-cylinders, these two models have better overall fuel economy.) You can view any model’s fuel-economy estimates in the Std. Equipment & Specs section on the upper-left of this page.
The four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS do the job as advertised.
There are some interior differences between the Sportage and the Tucson, at least according to the manufacturer-supplied dimensions. They show the Sportage’s front headroom to be a few tenths of an inch greater than the Tucson’s, and the backseat headroom a more significant 0.6 inch higher. Front and rear hip room are also greater by full inches. That said, you’ll want to check for yourself. Interior dimensions are notoriously two-dimensional measurements of three-dimensional space, and measurement methods vary.
Don’t let the SUV title make you think the Sportage must be climbed into. It’s actually easier to enter than the average car because the seats are at a better height. The materials quality is consistently good and includes a very rare species: truly convincing faux metal trim. Seriously, makes and models of all prices have been incorporating plastic intended to look like metal. The problem is that it, well, doesn’t. Automakers finally have gotten their plastics not to look too plastic, and now they’re trying to turn it into something it’s not. I don’t know how Kia and Hyundai pulled it off, but these sister vehicles both have the stuff. I think it’s the brushed look of the center control panel bezel that helps make it look realistic.
The LX and EX trim levels both come with cloth-upholstered seats, though the EX has nicer fabric. Leather adorns the steering wheel and gear selector of the EX, but leather seats are an option. Power seats aren’t offered, but the driver’s seat in both trims has adjustments for the cushion height and tilt. They come in the form of knobs, which aren’t the easiest system to use when you’re seated, but it’s an important adjustment for comfort and safety. There’s no lumbar adjustment, but the center armrest can be raised and moved forward and the seats are generally comfortable. Heated seats are available on the EX trim level as part of an option package.
Visibility is good in all directions except the rear, the usual SUV and minivan limitation. The liftgate and rear window wiper mechanism block the view below a certain level. It’s no worse than the trunk of a car, but because SUVs sit higher, the blind spot obscures more, such as a lower-slung car, which makes parallel parking more challenging. Currently the Sportage doesn’t offer sonar park assist. The side mirrors are powered and they fold against the body. The EX’s are heated.
The backseat also is reasonably comfortable. At 6 feet tall, my knees just cleared the front seat’s backrest. The floor was high enough to raise my knees, but it wasn’t unduly uncomfortable, in part because the backrest angle is adjustable. (There needs to be a more accessible release, though.) Also, the floor is perfectly flat, which makes the center position more viable — when the standard center armrest is raised.
If the Sportage has a drawback, it’s noise. As speed increases, so does the noise level — particularly tire and road noise, and some wind noise. For what it’s worth, the Sportage seemed a bit better in this regard than the Tucson, mainly because I didn’t detect the constant hum I heard on the Hyundai at around 60 to 70 mph. If you’ve had any experience with undue noise, click on the link at the end of this page and email me. Overall, the Kia is competitive in terms of interior features, though the Tucson includes a few more as standard equipment, especially when comparing the low trim level. It’s closer to even between the higher trims.
In case you haven’t caught on, the Sportage’s story is more for less, and it’s true in safety equipment as well. (Not having been crash-tested yet, the Sportage’s safety report is merely an accounting of its features, which aren’t the final word.)
The Sportage has six airbags: the usual frontal type, side-impact torso bags for the front occupants and side curtain-type airbags that cover all the side windows to protect heads and prevent ejection in the event of a rollover. The front passenger seat employs the Occupant Classification System to determine the passenger’s size and deploy the two-stage airbag appropriately — if at all — in a frontal collision. Also standard, as mentioned, is ESP, one of the most significant safety features to come along in modern times.
With three-point (lap-and-shoulder) seat belts and head restraints for all seating positions, the Sportage doesn’t seem to be lacking any of the basic safety provisions.
The Sportage has many of the little touches that competitors offer — like bottle holders in the front door pockets and a bi-level center storage console — but it is missing some that are standard or optional on the Tucson. For example, the Tucson comes with remote keyless entry, an illuminated ignition and floormats, while only the Sportage EX has them. Also, the Tucson’s sun visor extenders don’t come at all on the Sportage. Marketwise, the Sportage is more than competitive. A stripped-down version of the LX comes without air conditioning, but the other levels include A/C; power windows, door locks and mirrors; and an illuminated, locking glove box as standard equipment. Oddly, the vanity mirrors don’t have lights. An optional premium stereo, complete with a dedicated subwoofer, comes in an EX option package. All of the standard and optional features, and their prices, can be seen by clicking on the appropriate button on the upper-left of this page. If you want to compare the Sportage to the Tucson, instead click on the Side-by-Side Comparison link, upper-right.
Whether you consider it a feature or not, you can’t ignore warranties when determining value. The Sportage gets Kia’s generous 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper coverage and 10-year/100,000-mile drivetrain warranty. Kia also recently extended its corrosion coverage from 5 years/100,000 miles to 7 years/unlimited miles.
As shown earlier in the table, the Sportage’s cargo volume is competitive, and its cargo hatch proves quite versatile. The rear window opens independently of the liftgate, which itself raises clear of most heads. There’s no liftover lip at the rear of the cargo floor. The Sportage doesn’t offer the Tucson’s rubbery-plastic floormat, but its retractable cargo cover is much better than the rigid one Hyundai uses.
The 60/40-split backseat couldn’t be easier to operate. You just lift the seatback handle and fold. Done. This when some manufacturers are introducing new models that require the head restraints to be removed and/or the cushion to be flipped forward initially. The front passenger seat also folds down to create a flat surface from the liftgate to the dashboard.
The Sportage four-cylinder has a towing capacity of 1,500 pounds for a trailer with its own brakes. The V-6 increases that maximum to 2,000 pounds. Roof rails are standard, and you can add the cross-members for less than $200. The rack’s capacity is 100 pounds. Bear in mind that you can’t necessarily fill the seats, the cargo area and the roof rack all at the same time. Kia cites a maximum of 860 pounds for all occupants and cargo.
The concept of sister vehicles is an old one, and of late I’ve thought its time has passed. American buyers seem less accepting of models that are rebadged and/or restyled versions of others, or are loaded up with more expensive features and given an entirely different brand name. In this class, the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner are a good example. The best platform sharing results in two models that no one would ever guess are related, such as the Volvo S80 and Ford Five Hundred sedans. In SUVs, the Acura MDX and Honda Pilot are even more alike, but not obviously so to the buyer.
One could argue that the Sportage and Tucson are stranger still, because their prices are roughly the same. But this sibling rivalry could prove useful to you. If you find inventories low or asking prices high at one dealership, you can try the other brand. Chances are that Kia, which is less well known than Hyundai, will have the better deals. The base Kia is the most affordable and the top-line Hyundai is the most loaded. Look closely and you’ll see the features offered by each trim level are accounted for in their sticker prices. So if you’re going to base one model on another, you’d best make it a good one. That’s what Kia has done.