Ten years ago, Kia Sportage was a pioneer among sport utilities, blazing the trail for a whole generation of compacts.

Undeniably cute and appealing, Sportage was a major hit among young drivers, who found a lot to like about its styling, four-wheel drive and, primarily, modest price tag.

But the little truckette had significant warts: harsh ride, dicey handling, cramped interior and limited capabilities. Still, Sportage was the first major success for the South Korean automaker until production stopped three years ago in the face of strong competition.

Sportage is back for 2005 and much improved. A near twin to Tucson by Hyundai, which now owns Kia, Sportage is bigger, roomier, more refined, better equipped and more powerful.In this hot part of the SUV market, Sportage now competes on equal terms with such popular compacts as Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander and Jeep Liberty.

Sportage carries a significant price advantage, with a well-equipped base LX model starting at $15,900. The top-end EX tested here came with all the goodies, including V-6 engine and four-wheel drive for just $21,990.

Even the base model comes with a full complement of safety features, including side-curtain airbags and electronic stability control.

Another plus is the strong warranty: five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain.

All of which makes Sportage a strong contender in this increasingly popular SUV arena.

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REALITY CHECK

Here's how our featured car compares with others in its class.

Ford Escape XLT

* Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sport utility vehicle, all-wheel drive

* Base price: $25,140

* Engine: 3-liter V-6, 200 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 193 pound-feet of torque at $4,850 rpm

* Wheel base: 103.1 inches

* EPA rating: 18 city, 22 highway

Honda CR-V EX4

* Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sport utility vehicle, all-wheel drive

* Base price: $22,650

* Engine: 2.4-liter inline 4,160 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 162 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm

* Wheel base: 103.3 inches

* EPA rating: 21 city, 26 highway

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PRICING

Base price: $21,400.

Price as tested: $21,990.

OPTIONS

* All features standard in top EX package, including V-6 with automatic, full power features, power sunroof, fog lights, heated outside mirrors, leather shift knob and steering wheel, keyless remote, cargo cover, upgraded seat fabric.

* Four-wheel drive adds $1,401 to $19,999 EX price.

* Shipping, $590.

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THE LOWDOWN

PERFORMANCE: The 2.7-liter V-6 is fairly small but powerful enough to propel this 3,500-pound SUV to highway speeds with decent acceleration. The 173-horsepower engine sets up a harsh roar, however, even under moderate throttle.

The competition offers more muscle, such as Escape's 200-horsepower V-6.

Standard engine is a 140-horsepower, 2-liter four that comes with a five-speed manual or automatic. The four-speed automatic, the only transmission with the V-6, sometimes shifts sluggishly.

DRIVABILITY: Compact SUVs overall have improved tremendously in driving characteristics, becoming more carlike with stable handling and control.

Sportage is right up there with the established models, with all-independent suspension built onto a unibody sedan chassis.

Sportage comes standard with desirable electronic features, such as traction control, electronic stability control, anti-lock, all-disc brakes and brake-force distribution. Full safety air bags, including full side curtains, also come standard.

STYLING: The body lines are clean and streamlined but pretty standard stuff. Sixteen-inch alloy wheels, roof rack and rear privacy glass come standard.

INTERIOR: Here's where the value really shows. The fully equipped cabin looks and feels high-quality with attractive design and materials and loads of desirable features. The rear seat flops down easily to increase cargo capacity, and the audio system sounds good.

Interior space is fairly roomy.

BOTTOM LINE: Although Sportage seems redundant compared with the slightly bigger Kia Sorento, expect the bigger SUV to grow in size and luxury in coming years. Same thing for Hyundai, where Santa Fe is moving on up.