2005 Kia Sportage

The price of gas may well prove to be the overriding concern of new-car buyers this year as they face the prospect of $1 a litre.

Thankfully, my time with the thrifty Kia Sportage came along during a brief respite from the large trucks I usually test.

An SUV by class definition, the Sportage is miserly in its use of fossil fuel.

That should qualify it for economy-car status, which most shoppers will appreciate.

Keeping in mind that my tester was fitted with the optional V6 engine, I still got in the neighbourhood of 10 to 11 L/100 km.

For 2005, the Sportage has been completely redesigned, with new sheet metal and fascia, but with a look that is vaguely familiar.

That's fine, though, because Kia is drawing consumer attention by using the same selling features as the original (despite it being all new).

At speed, the Sportage normally delivers its torque to the front axle while transferring power to the rear wheels only when slippage occurs. This full-time, so-called slip-and-grip set-up is only available on the V6 models.

But down at the showroom, you'll notice that this truck has "4WD" badges on it and an electronic 4WD lock button on the dashboard.

This prompted a phone call to Kia.

These badges are meant to draw attention to the four-wheel lock feature, said Hadi Hajjar, a Kia technical hotline specialist.

The lock button, he explained, when engaged, holds the power distribution to 50/50 between the front and rear axle (under 30 km/h but resetting automatically as the speed rises).

"Because this system requires driver input (pushing the lock button), we consider it a 4WD system rather than a part-time automatic system," said Hajjar.

Fine, but does the "lock" button actually lock each wheel, so that they turn in unison? I asked.

"No," said Hajjar, "the torque is split front and back, but because the differentials are not equipped with a limited-slip feature, the power will be directed basically to two wheels only" (meaning one in front, one in back).

This explanation confirmed my experience getting out of my cottage laneway (uphill) after an April snowstorm.

I experienced a lot of slip and not enough grip.

I'm belabouring this point, not because this is a bad system, but because most manufacturers are guilty of using inconsistent labels to describe their 4WD systems' actual abilities.

In my opinion, a "locking 4WD" system should send torque to all four wheels at the same rate while locked.

That's what I was expecting. Anything less should be called something else.

The Sportage offers its base model with a four-cylinder engine and either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission in either of two trim levels.

If you opt for the V6, you will get the automatic transmission with a Steptronic feature (move the floor shifter to the right and tap forward or backward to change gear). AWD is optional on the lesser V6 model, but standard on the top-level EX-V6.

The price walk for the straight-four, manual, FWD model starts at $19,995 and ambles up to $29,500 for the V6, automatic, 4WD dressed version.

Kia sees the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Nissan X-Trail and Chevrolet Equinox as competition.

On price, Sportage certainly is competitive, and its sense of utility is emphasized in its design. What's weak, I find, is its refinement.

For instance: the fake wood-grain dash and door inserts are just that, fake. Seat heaters with only one setting and no automatic shut-off should just be left out of the package. And how many want a window lock-out feature that prevents not only the kids from opening their windows but the driver as well? The straight-up utility items are much better executed.

For example, a spring-loaded purse strap holder on the passenger side, three baby-seat anchors, protective plastic sheeting on the backs of the flip-down 60/40 rear seats, tie-down hooks in the cargo floor, a large plastic organizer tray over the spare tire (under the floor), integrated body-side mud flaps, two-way rear hatch and/or glass opener, heated mirrors, and fog lamps.

Utility is also found in the engineering choices, such as the nicely bolstered, manually adjusted front pedestal seats.

Instrumentation is simple, concise, with everything either in or off the squared centre stack.

The floor T-shifter gives way to ample storage and cupholders.

The doors even have spaces for water bottles integrated into their map pockets.

Visibility is good, with thin angled roof pillars and plenty of glass that should give even shorter drivers a commanding road view.

The SUV stops well and drives nicely – but it has a decidedly truck-like feel to it, despite not sitting on a ladder frame. Go through the corners and there is some lean and road bumps are felt; the ride is not cushy.

But – and this is a big but – at this price point, the components deliver a solid ride in what feels like a reliable package. I'd call this the strength of the Sportage.

The key price break in the rig's lineup has to do with the choice of engine and the accompanying convenience groups.

The base standard I4 engine makes 140 hp and offers 136 lb.-ft.

of torque on a FWD set-up only. The V6 with 4WD pumps out 173 hp and gooses the torque to 178 lb.-ft.

Having driven only the V6 model, I can say that it moves the truck well and gets it off the line quickly.

My only concern was with the mid-range torque. At speed, when I hit the accelerator, there was some noticeable hesitation and, instead of a power surge, the transmission downshifted to create the asked-for torque.

Off-road, the power is adequate to the task, the problem instead is getting the power to the ground (but let's not go through that again).

Do I sound lukewarm about the Sportage? Only at the high end.

I appreciate the price and practicality of the vehicle, but the execution of many of the comfort features and the 4WD system leaves me cold.

Still, without having driven the base model, my gut feeling is that the best value in the Sportage lineup is at the low end of the price scale, where it should be a strong seller.

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