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2000 Kia Sportage

Call it perverse, but I enjoy cars that challenge me, that don't behave exactly as I would expect them to. My red and silver Kia Sportage, with gray leather interior, is a pointed case.

Call it perverse, but I enjoy cars that challenge me, that don't behave exactly as I would expect them to.

My red and silver Kia Sportage, with gray leather interior, is a pointed case.

With its soggy brakes, flaccid handling and weak, gruff engine (at least it's also slow), I should have returned this small SUV with a displeased, condescending look, key held up in the air like it was emanating a foul odour. But I didn't — exactly the opposite — and here's why.

There's a cheerfulness about the Sportage's execution that renders the package more endearing than it has a right to be. Its styling, with long wheelbase packed under a stubby, ribbed body, should look ungainly, but doesn't. The wide-eyed headlights and bumper extenders up front, and the rounded rear hatch, verge on cuddly.

Inside, where hard plastics (well-aligned, to be sure) predominate, the mood is lightened by big round instruments and excellent seats with attractive and correctly-angled half-moon headrests.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed my Sportage less had Toronto not been covered in snow for most of my week-long test period.

But its Michelin Arctic Alpin tires and part-time four-wheel drive (which can be engaged at speeds up to 80 km/h) never left me wanting for traction.

In warmer weather, Sportage is less pleasing.

Its body leans heavily in even the slowest corners, rear end bobbing up and down. Its average brakes were connected to a soggy, uncommunicative pedal.

Under acceleration, the engine complains loudly and at cold idle, my tester's clattered like an old diesel.

And yet, for all of its dynamic deficiencies, the Sportage was still fun in the dry.

Said deficiencies mean planning ahead, which mean a more involving driving experience.

And the sense of achievement that comes from wrestling the Sportage down a twisty road is far greater than making, say, an Acura Integra do the same.

In the Sportage, I felt every lump in the asphalt, I heard the engine protesting and the tires complaining, and came out a hero after every corner.

To be fair to Kia, very few of its potential owners will be expecting sportscar performance — and won't subject their trucks to such indignities.

The Sportage's base price includes a full load of standard equipment, from power everything and air conditioning to ABS.

Passenger space is fine (though access to cargo is made difficult by the swing-aside spare), and there's that cheerful, gung-ho kind of determination in its soul.

Kia's pitched the Sportage into a competitive cute-ute market, but it really has only one direct opponent in size and price: Suzuki's base-model Vitara.

Though a better-driving and more solid vehicle, with a proven reliability record, the Vitara feels too serious, less smiley-faced. And it comes with fewer standard features.

Ultimately, the choice between the two is far more difficult than it logically should be.



Prices/residuals*

Base: $20,995/43

EX: $23,595/43

Freight: $480

Air tax: $100



*Residual percentage for a 36-month lease, as supplied by the current ALG Canadian Percentage Guide. Freelance journalist



Laurance Yap prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

Email: automotive @ bigfoot.com

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