When Kia debuted the Sportage mini-SUV in 1995, it made a big impression with us. Its Easter-egg body styling and abundance of glass gave it a roomy feel that belied its relatively small size. It was highly maneuverable, user-friendly, and delivered plenty of smiles per gallon. But the Sportage's design had grown rather stale of late, so Kia Motors has refreshened the little ute for the 2006 model year.
The new Sportage rides on the same 103.5-inch wheelbase as its sister SUV, the Hyundai Tucson, and shares much of the Hyundai's componentry. A 140hp 2.0L I-4 is the standard powerplant, with a 173hp 2.7L V-6 an available option. Either five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions are offered (the four-speed comes standard with the V-6). We tested both powerplants with the juicebox trans, and thought the four-cylinder a bit sprightlier off the line, if somewhat buzzier than the V-6, and perfectly capable of keeping up to freeway speeds without incessant throttle-mashing. The four-wheel independent suspension does a commendable job of absorbing road irregularities at slower speeds, though things can get a bit bumpy on the highway. Power rack-and-pinion steering is firm to the touch, though the vehicle tends to understeer slightly in high-speed cornering, albeit with little body roll. In all, the new Kia is a competent performer on pavement.
Gone for 2006, however, is the two-speed transfer case found in previous Sportages. In its place is a full-time all-wheel-drive system that utilizes traction control-as well as throttle-position, steering, and wheelspeed sensors-to transfer torque as needed from front to rear wheels as tractive conditions demand. In low-traction/low-speed conditions, a pushbutton on the dash engages a viscous-coupling center differential that locks torque distribution at a 50/50 split, front to rear. At speeds over 20 mph, the diff disengages automatically and the Sportage resumes operation in front-wheel drive. The system is identical to the Tucson's, and similar to the system we tested last month on the Honda Ridgeline SUT. Much as we may bemoan the loss of low-range gear reduction, it seems pretty clear that these "full-time variable" drive systems are the wave of the future, for smaller SUVs in any case. So can you 'wheel the Kia? Sure-you just need to be mindful of its limitations. We had a chance to flog our tester in the dirt and in the dunes, and as long as we kept the revs up (both engines make peak horsepower near redline), we found the Sportage a fun, if slightly rough-riding, sand buggy.
Outside and inside, the Kia is all new. We liked the refined body styling, and the interior is thoughtfully appointed, with plainly legible gauges, and all controls and switches well-marked and intuitive to operate. Air conditioning, power windows and doors, CD stereo, and six-position airbags (dual front, dual side, and side curtains) are all standard offerings, as are four-wheel disc brakes and a front skidplate for off-pavement forays.
Where the Sportage really shines is on its window sticker. With a starting base price of $17,900 for the 4x4 model, the Sportage represents a promising bargain for the entry-level SUV buyer who's looking for more amenities than, say, a Jeep Wrangler can offer, while coming in for thousands less than a Toyota RAV-4, Jeep Liberty, or Ford Escape. Kia forecasts sales of 35,000 units in two trim levels for the 2006 model year.
Vehicle: 2006 Kia Sportage
Price: $17,900-21,400 (4x4)
Engine: 2.0L I-4/2.7L V-6
Horsepower @ rpm: 140 @ 6,000/173 @ 6,000
Torque (lb-ft) @ rpm: 136 @ 4,500,178 @ 4,000
Transmissions: Five-speed manual/four-speed automatic
Low range: N/A
Axle ratio: 4.53:1/4.626:1 (depending on transmission)
Crawl ratio: 16.48:1 (I-4/manual)
Suspension, f/r: IFS, MacPherson struts, coil springs, gas shocks/IRS, dual transverse link, stabilizer bar, gas shocks
Wheels: 16x6/5J alloy
Tires: P235/60R16 (V-6)
Steering: Power rack-and-pinion
Turning circle (ft.): 35.4
Brakes, f/r: 11-inch discs/11.2-inch discs; four-wheel ABS
Wheelbase (in.): 103.5
Length (in.): 171.3
Width (in.): 70.9
Height (in.): 66.7
Track, f/r (in.): 60.6/60.6
Ground clearance (in.): 7.7
Approach/departure angles (deg.): 29.5/28.7
Base curb weight (lb.): 3,521
Towing capacity (lb.): 2,000 (V-6)
EPA mileage, city/hwy. (mpg): 19/23 (V-6)
Interior cargo volume (cu. ft.): 103.9