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Swamp thang! Sportage proves abilities against serious off-road goers

"Welcome to the swamp!" called out our hosts from the Central Ontario 4×4 club as we wheeled into the Bobcaygeon Community Centre parking lot in our brand-new Kia Sportage.

"Aieeee!" Hey, that was our line ellipsis} Truth be told, upon gazing at the machinery gathered around us for the club's Swampswimmer off-road rally, I was beginning to question whether my mojo would be working for the rest of the day.

Gathered around us was some darned serious off-road machinery: Jeeps with foot-high lift kits and small-block Chevy LT1 engines; Toyota 4Runners with big knobby tires and their bumpers removed for better approach and departure angles; and even two Mercedes Unimog military four-wheel-drivers.

Swampswimmer has run for 28 consecutive years in the fall, and attracts some serious off-roaders. Rally master Trish Groom tells stories of teams showing up with customized, GPS-equipped Hummers; of late, late nights spent trying to haul stuck trucks out of the often-deep muck.

And here we (Michael La Fave, from World of Wheels magazine, co-drove) were in a bone-stock Sportage, replete with street-grade rubber, low ground clearance, and cutesy but vulnerable-looking plastic mouldings on the bottom.

Welcomed to the swamp? It felt like we were about to be tried by fire.

We needn't really have worried. Because the Sportage is a real truck. Powered by a four-cylinder engine that is at best adequate on the road, the Kia's low-range gearing does mean this little sport-ute clambers happily up steep grades and over obstacles.

With minimal overhangs, we never scraped a bumper on anything (though we did put a dent in the exhaust tip), and all body parts remained firmly in place.

Thick skid plates — which, yes, we did dent during the course of our day — did their job well, protecting essential driveline components and keeping the fuel and oil reservoirs out of harm's way.

Deflated from their standard 40 psi to 28, the Kumho tires gripped surfaces that looked for-sure impassable, and simply wrapped around smaller rocks to help the Kia up slopes that looked too muddy, too leafy, too challenging to pass. The trucklet's full frame took a few hard knocks too, banging over rocks, wading through creeks, and twisting and bending under huge forces while trying to climb up hills.

But nothing broke, and even more impressively, no squeaks or rattles developed through our drive.

Swampswimmer isn't about speed. Not only because an off-road speed rally would simply destroy the environment (like other clubs, Central Ontario 4×4 advises its members to tread lightly, and leave things as they were before they drove through).

But because the primary attraction to four-wheel trailriding like this is going at a slow enough pace to really enjoy the beautiful scenery passing by your mud-splattered windows; scenery you would never be able to see from a car, and couldn't access simply by walking up a hill and over a hiking path.

Nearly every corner on our 50-km trek revealed another stunning vista, another natural phenomenon we'd never encountered before.

Competitors were guided by a route book listing average speeds, intersections, turns, and caution points. Scattered randomly along the way were checkpoints. Their role: to calculate how far off the "ideal time" the teams were: drive too fast, or too slow, and points are deducted from your total. The goal was to achieve as accurate a drive as possible, one that replicated the speed and time directions listed as closely as possible.

Driver and co-driver both being typical leadfeet, our times were wildly off even by the first stop.

It all ended far too soon. As tough as the Sportage was, it was not going to make its way up the rock-climb portion of the event, unless the Unimog at the top winched it up. Plus our city-slicker natures were catching up with us and we wanted food, clean clothes, and shelter from the millions of ladybugs falling from the sky.

The real Swampswimmers? They'd drive on well into the night, climbing rocks and slinging mud long after the sun went down.

The ride home was blissfully quiet. Though a bit unruly at high revs, the Sportage's engine and driveline were unintrusive at a gentle cruise.

Except for a whistle from the side mirrors, the cabin was hushed, the floor still dry despite the water crossings, the temperature comfortable from the standard a/c sitting in the redesigned-for-2002 dash.

Leaning back in the supportive buckets — as good on the drive out as they were on the drive in and entirely fatigue-free, we were both suffused with a newfound respect for this little Kia: nobody, least of all ourselves, had expected it to get as far as it did, and everyone was impressed by its durability, strength, and comfort.

Heck, if this is the swamp, I'll be first in next year.

HIGHS Surprising off-roadability Well-protected drivetrain Sturdy construction LOWS Wheezy, noisy engine Lacklustre acceleration Squishy brakesHighs Surprising off-roadability Well-protected drivetrain Sturdy construction Lows Wheezy, noisy engine Lacklustre on-road acceleration Squishy brakes E-mail: Yap @ mac.com E-mail: Yap @ mac.com

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