With gasoline prices setting new records almost daily, the auto market is ripe for manufacturers such as Kia.

Heavy on fuel-efficient cars and crossover utility vehicles, and light on trucks (actually, the company has none), this South Korean automaker now owned by Hyundai is well positioned to take advantage of the changing consumer habits.

In record numbers, people are giving up their larger, less-fuel-efficient vehicles such as pickups and traditional SUVs, and turning to vehicles that make sense as gasoline approaches $4 a gallon (or as in some markets, has already surpassed that mark).

It hasn't been easy for Kia, but the company has come a long way since introduction of its first vehicles in the U.S. market in 1995.

The first two vehicles from Kia were the compact Sportage sport utility vehicle and the subcompact Sephia sedan. Both sold well, and the Sportage was quite popular, giving consumers a well-built yet economical SUV that was surprisingly roomy - nearly as big inside as most midsize models at the time.

The Sephia was replaced in 2001 by the Rio, which is now the best-selling economy car in the brand's lineup. It comes in sedan and five-door hatchback versions.

Kia has added other vehicles over the past few years, including the midsize Optima sedan and Sorento crossover, the compact Spectra sedan and liftback, the Sedona minivan, and the premium Amanti full-size sedan, and the Rondo subcompact crossover, with its three rows of seats.

While the Rondo is one of the smallest and most-fuel-efficient vehicles designed for seven passengers, the roomier Sportage, which is almost a midsize utility vehicle, makes a great alternative to the bigger, less-efficient SUVs that are barely hanging on in today's market.

This is the second generation of the Sportage, introduced for 2006. It's essentially the same vehicle as the Hyundai Tucson, which arrived a year earlier, but there are some differences in the two.

Both are compact crossovers based on the architecture of the Hyundai Elantra compact sedan, but unlike the Elantra, both are offered with an optional 2.7-liter V-6 engine, which powered our test model.

Kia dropped the previous Sportage model when the Sorento was introduced in 2003, but said at the time that a replacement was on the way.

The base two-wheel-drive Sportage LX, with a five-speed manual gearbox and the same 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine as the base Tucson, starts at $16,050 (plus $625 freight).

These vehicles are more affordable than most in their class, which includes the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V among import brands, and the Ford Escape, Chevy Equinox, Jeep Liberty, Dodge Nitro, Pontiac Torrent and Saturn Vue among domestics.

All-wheel-drive models with four-cylinder engine and manual transmission start at $19,545, and V-6 versions with automatic transmission and two-wheel drive begin at $20,045.

Our tester, though, was the top model, the EX four-wheel drive with the V-6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission. List price is $22,895, and with a luxury option package ($1,300) that tacked on leather seats, heated front seats, automatic headlights, auto-dimming rearview mirror, universal garage/gate opener and a stereo with an in-dash CD changer, our vehicle's sticker totaled $24,820, including freight.

The Sportage has seating for up to five people, with a surprisingly roomy interior for a car with such a compact profile.

The base engine is a Hyundai 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder with a cast-iron block and aluminum cylinder head, rated at 140 horsepower and 136 foot-pounds of torque. It can be connected either to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

This engine is the best choice for fuel economy, and I suspect that many customers today would choose it even though it has less power than the optional V-6. EPA ratings for two-wheel-drive models are 20 miles per gallon city/25 highway with the manual gearbox, and 19/25 with the automatic. The four-wheel-drive, four-cylinder model, available only with manual, is rated at 19/24.

For the V-6 engine, with 173 horsepower and 178 foot-pounds of torque, the ratings are slightly lower: 17 city/23 highway with two-wheel drive, and for our tester, with the on-demand four-wheel drive, 17/21. Only the automatic transmission is offered with the V-6.

With that big of a difference in highway fuel economy, the four-wheel drive doesn't make sense unless you're in a place where you might really need it, such as snow country.

But unlike the previous generation of the Sportage, the newest model's four-wheel drive does not come with a two-speed transfer case for serious off-road use. That takes the Sportage out of the class of SUVs designed for the trail. It would be suitable for light off-road use, though, and there is a switch on the dash that locks the four-wheel drive.

Safety features standard across the board include four-wheel disc brakes with a four-channel antilock system, electronic stability control and traction control, front seat-mounted side air bags, side-curtain air bags for both rows, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

The Sportage is generally roomy and comfortable, but I did find the driver's seat a bit tight for larger folks. The rear bench seat can hold three adults, though, and there is decent legroom.

My tester was full of amenities, as well it should have been as it was the top model. Surprisingly, though, the climate-control system was manual, not automatic.

There was another oddity: The upgraded audio system that came with the luxury package brought a six-disc CD changer, but it eliminated the MP3 playback capability that the base single-disc audio system offered. I learned this rather quickly early in my test drive as I inserted a CD with 273 MP3 music files on it, and got an "Error" message. The audio system didn't have an auxiliary input jack for my iPod, either, but it did have a cassette player. Unfortunately, I tossed out all of my cassette tapes about 15 years ago.

Among the other standard features on the tester were 16-inch alloy wheels, power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote; sunroof; trip computer; leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, included even without the leather upholstery upgrade; eight-way manual driver's seat adjustment; cruise control; variable intermittent wipers; roof rails; a cargo cover; dual vanity mirrors; fog lights; privacy glass; and front and rear cupholders.

The rear hatch lifts up all in one piece, or the window can be flipped up by itself. The cargo area has 23.6 cubic feet of space with the rear seat up, but can be expanded to 66.6 cubic feet with the rear seat folded. The seatback has a 60/40 split so part of the seating capacity can be maintained while expanding the cargo space.

This vehicle isn't really designed for towing, but can take a trailer weighing up to 1,000 pounds (2,000 pounds if the trailer has brakes).

With the V-6, there is plenty of power, and the vehicle quickly moves to highway speeds even on uphill freeway on-ramps.

The ride is smooth, and the vehicle is surprisingly quiet inside for a low-end SUV. I've tested some premium sedans recently that were much noisier.

Overall, the Sportage offers a good mix of performance, styling, safety, utility and fuel economy in an affordable package.

And one great thing about Kia products: They come with a 10-year, 100,000-mile extended powertrain warranty, one of the best in the industry. The base warranty covers the car bumper-to-bumper for five years/60,000 miles, and includes 24-hour roadside assistance during that period.

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at chambers@star- telegram.com.