Korean automaker Kia's 1998 Sportage hits the market this year with an improved design that ought to appeal to anyone seeking an inexpensive compact sport-utility vehicle. That is, unless you happen to be Paul Lienert, who gave the Sportage our lowest grade of only one star. But never fear, Anita came to the defense of the beleaguered little sport-ute, arguing that it does have redeeming features (including a base price of $16,395 on our 4X4 model) - at least enough to merit a decent two-star rating.

She: You have to admit that they got at least two things right with the Sportage - its name and its looks. It reminds me of the Tonka trucks my brother used to play with when he was a kid. And they've tweaked it this year so the grille looks a little more rugged, plus those bright alloy wheels are standard. I hear the name Sportage - rhymes with portage - and it just makes me want to go out and canoe or go white-water rafting. That's a sport-ute with the right attitude.

He: Hmm, Sportage, portage. If you're into rhyming, I can think of other words we could use. How about my visage turning purple as I evaluate this primitive product that reminds me of a 1970s Japanese pickup truck?

She: Quit being so negative.

He: I'm not being negative. You have to admit that the Sportage is pretty clunky next to impressive competitors such as the Toyota RAV4 or the Honda CR-V. And you can hardly make the argument that the Sportage is a great value. You can get a comparable Honda CR-V LX with a five-speed manual transmission for $18,750 and you don't pay an extra $900 for air conditioning. Besides, once you've added some mandatory options to our test vehicle, such as a CD player and floor mats, the price rose to $18,529 - confirming the value of the CR-V in my book.

She: Oh, you want to play dueling lists, do you? The Sportage may not be the all-time best value in the world, but it is good, solid value. It's got standard items such as power accessories, a rear-window defogger and a theft-deterrent system. Plus for the hyper-athletic, it even features a unique driver's knee air bag to go along with the dual air bags. I can hardly get you up to walk around the block, Mr. Couch Commander, so I know that doesn't appeal to you. But I do my four miles every day, so I worry about things like my knees. It's good to know that Kia does, too.

He: I'm surprised you didn't start griping about the Kia from the moment you sat behind the wheel. I ran my hands around the steering wheel and figured - gee, she's going to get out her nail file and start smoothing out all the rough spots I feel. And that's only the beginning. Our Sportage had an uneven finish on some interior parts - such as the A-pillars and the back of the console - that looked cheap and unfinished. The texture was grainy in some places and smooth in others. There were exposed screw heads on the steering wheel and doors - a real no, no on a 1998 sport-ute, if you ask me. Eve n the metal VIN plate was screwed into the dash and curling up at the edges. Yuk.

She: I thought the interior was OK. Uncluttered with a good driving position. I will admit that the Sportage is at its weakest on the highway. That's where you hear the whine of what sounds like a crude powertrain, coupled with wind noise at higher speeds. And it does tend to feel a little tippy on turns, but what sport-ute doesn't?

He: Did you notice, too, that Kia replaced the old Sportage's rear-wheel antilock braking system with optional four-wheel antilock brakes that cost $490? I could go on and on. The Sportage has a Lotus-designed double-wishbone front suspension and four-link rear suspension, but it still ends up with an uncomfortable, bouncy ride, mainly because of its short wheelbase and high center of gravity.

She: But if you're comparing engines, especially to the Honda, they are almost identical. The Kia has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 130 horsepower. And for a ort-ute, it doesn't get bad gas mileage at all - 19 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway.

He: Whoa - you don't realize it, but you're helping me make a strong case for the CR-V. If they're close at all, why wouldn't you give the benefit of the doubt to Honda over Kia? They're much more of a known quantity in the United States. And they build cars here. The Sportage is greatly improved over some previous versions. But it looks to me like Kia is still trying to perfect how to make cars and trucks.

1998 Kia Sportage

Type: Part-time four-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle.

Price: Base, $16,395; as tested, $18,529 (including $425 destination charge).

What's new for '98: Mildly restyled interior and exterior, improved brakes, and muffler design, improved air conditioning.

Standard equipment: Power steering

rear window defroster

auto lock/unlock

power windows, locks, mirrors

driver's seat lumbar support

tilt steering wheel

alloy wheels

theft deterrent system

four-wheel drive system

Safety features:

Dual air bags

Driver's knee air bag

Options on test vehicle:

Air conditioning ($900)

AM/FM/CD player ($545)

carpeted floor mats ($69)

roof rack ($195).

Specifications:

Wheelbase:104.3 in.

overall length:170.3 in. (with spare tire)

curb weight:3,352 lbs.

legroom:44.5 in. front/31.1 in. rear

headroom:39.6 in. front/37.8 in. rear

shoulder room:54.4 in. front/54.4 in. rear

EPA fuel economy: 19 mpg city/23 mpg highway.

Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 130 hp at 5500 rpm; 127 lb-ft torque at 4000 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Competitors:

Chevrolet Tracker 4-door

Honda CR-V

Jeep Wrangler

Subaru Forester

Suzuki Sidekick 4-door

Toyota RAV4

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,021. 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, South Korea..