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2001 Kia Sportage

Psst. Hey. Wanna buy a sport-ute? It's brand-new with four doors and four-wheel drive, for less than 21-grand.

Psst. Hey. Wanna buy a sport-ute? It's brand-new with four doors and four-wheel drive, for less than 21-grand.

Without having to make an all-cash payment to a guy behind a shipping container, you can buy this sport utility vehicle (SUV) from licenced dealerships in Canada.

It's the Kia Sportage 4×4, and its bargain-basement price includes a full manufacturer's warranty.

So, what's the catch? Only that the Sportage is a very basic SUV. That said, it offers a lot for the money as a traditional 4×4 in a cute-looking package.

The base price is $20,995. Option it up with leather, air, automatic and various toys, and the maximum list price still falls short of $27,000, before any discount negotiated with the dealer.

The Sportage is a small truck, a sub-compact almost. Its tidy dimensions are wrapped in a smooth box that is conservatively styled and up to date.

Kia has often been associated with Ford in the past, but is now owned and controlled by the largest automaker in South Korea, Hyundai.

The quality of an inexpensive vehicle built with the low wages of that country might be questioned, but if you are thinking of rusty old Ponys, think again. The quality of South Korean

vehicles has come a long way.

Assembly quality was decent on the Sportage models tested.

Very few trim pieces were out of perfect alignment. The plastic centre console, which doubles as an armrest, pulls open to the rear as a drawer and hinges open at the front — it is innovative, if not crafted from the most expensive materials or made to the closest tolerances.

Some prospective buyers might wonder how well such a low-priced vehicle might last. To the extent possible, durability was examined using a vehicle that had just completed a long-term

test.

With more than 20,000 kilometres on the odometer, the Sportage showed little sign of wear.

The leather seats in particular seamed to be holding up well. The only defect appeared to be the internal muffler baffles that had come loose and were rattling inside.

Perhaps they were shaken loose from the rough ride, you say? Granted, the ride on the road is not always smooth, but this is a small, tall 4×4. As such, it can be made to lean in the

corners, and the rear axle can be upset over bumps.

In parking lots, or on narrow trails, it is extremely agile, while visibility down the road is above most of the crowd. To the rear, however, the spare tire interrupts the view for backing up.

This is an offroad-ready vehicle, and there is a generous ground clearance of more than 20 centimetres (7.8 in).

A two-speed transfer case has a low range that allows the vehicle to crawl over rocks with increased torque and power output from the engine.

Being a part-time system, it can power either the rear two wheels or all four.

Transferring between two and four-wheel drive can be done up to 80 km/h. This is not leading edge technology here, but it works.

The 2.0 L four-cylinder engine produces 130-horsepower and almost the same figure in pounds-feet of torque, but pushing around a 1,900-kilogram (4,300 lb) block of metal makes the

acceleration leisurely — the overhead cam engine is willing to work and revs like a banshee.

Equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission, the Sportage can be encouraged to keep up with traffic; with the optional four-speed automatic, it isn't quite so easy.

The self-shifter has dual modes — economy and power — selected by a push-button hidden behind the steering wheel. When the button is depressed, an optimistic "Power" indicator lights up

in the dash.

Several switches affecting the cruise control are obscured by the steering wheel. And that speed control is set and adjusted by three buttons mounted on the steering wheel.

The driver has two air bags — one is to protect the driver's knees. Positioned low in the dash, it prevents the driver from sub-marining under the steering wheel in the event of a collision. There is also a passenger-side air bag.

Three-point seat belts and headrests are included for the four outboard seats. The rear seat middle rider is shortchanged, getting no headrest and a manually adjustable belt for the lap only.

The rear seats fold down and flip forward to enlarge the cargo area. Two strings keep the seats secured when folded up.

The rearseat back rests are split 50-50, but the bottom seat cushion is one piece. Thus, the flat load floor can only be achieved when all rear seat passengers are absent.

In EX models, the cargo area is fully carpeted. An under-floor storage area holds the jack and wrench with extra room to spare for a few more tools, and the spare tire is mounted behind the

tailgate under a vinyl fabric cover. It swings out to the left and latches open at the fully open 90-degree position.

The one-piece liftgate opens upwards and requires the simultaneous use of both hands — one turning the key while the other pulls on the handle.

There is no remote release, and the window does not open separately. This makes loading of small items easier by way of the rear side doors.

In the cargo area, under the rear seat, the fuel gauge electrical connections are covered by a flap of carpet. This location for a fuel tank is safe but having the electrical wires

from it in the cargo area is unusual and has been questioned by some critics.

Still, federal safety regulators on both sides of the border have approved it.

On the most recently tested Sportage, a layer of foam has been added for extra protection.

Kia backs its vehicles with a three-year warranty in Canada.

The Sportage should become a hot commodity, and a legitimate deal.

Base prices

*4×4 base: $20,995

*EX: $23,595

*As tested: $26,945

Freelance journalist Paul Fleet prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

Email: pfleet@idirect.com

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