- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2005

Off the radar for a couple of years, the Sportage returns to Kia showrooms in 2005 transformed and ready to take on the likes of the Honda CR-V and Toyota’s RAV4.

That the new Sportage can run among such heady company may sound wildly overstated to anyone familiar with its previous iteration; however, it may help to think of the old Sportage as a caterpillar that spent two years in a pupa state, cocooned and undergoing all manner of unspeakable change, finally emerging two years later as a butterfly.

Too over the top? Perhaps, but it does convey the level of change and improvement found in the completely redesigned Sportage.

While most automotive redesigns are evolutionary, the new Sportage is a clean-sheet-of-paper project. It is automotive urban renewal. Kia didn’t remodel the previous-generation Kia. It burned it to the ground and created a new one on its ashes. Where the previous Sportage was a body-on-frame truck-based structure, the new one is based on carlike unibody architecture. This is a major philosophical shift, setting the tone for every other element in the updated Sportage. Virtually every aspect has been improved.

While the exterior dimensions aren’t significantly changed, the new Sportage is a bit bigger than the previous one. Despite a wheelbase shorter by nearly an inch, the 2005 version’s overall length is increased by an inch. It is nearly 3 inches wider and stands 1.7 inch taller. All of this growth has also increased curb weight by roughly 200 pounds.Kia has made the most of the larger outer shell by translating it into more space inside. Maximum cargo capacity has ballooned from 55.4 cubic feet to 67 cubic feet.

While the previous Sportage had only one trim level, the new one has two: LX and EX. Adequately equipped, the LX comes standard with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, dual power outboard mirrors and a six-speaker audio system with CD player. Stepping up to the EX adds such frills as a power sunroof, heated outboard mirrors, remote keyless entry, trip computer and an upgraded audio system that adds MP3 and a cassette deck. Both versions have side-impact air bags up front and side curtain air bags that span the length of the passenger compartment.

Not only has the old four-cylinder engine been replaced with one slightly more efficient and powerful, Sportage has gained a V-6 — optional on the LX and standard on the EX. Still displacing 2.0 liters, the new four-banger produces 140 horsepower — a 10-horsepower increase. The 2.7-liter V-6 provides more spirited performance, calling up 173 horsepower and 178 foot-pounds of peak torque. Either the standard five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission can be mated to the 2.0L. Whether LX or EX, 2.7L is only paired with the automatic, but it’s a driver-shiftable design to allow for some human input.

When armed with the V-6, the Sportage EX is remarkably competent. On the road it cruises effortlessly at speed, yet still has enough gusto for passing slower vehicles. Its fully independent suspension provides a smooth ride, but doesn’t sacrifice handling in the process. It corners crisply for an SUV and the steering is quite responsive. It is relatively easy on fuel.

Inside the cabin is laid out and screwed together as well as any SUV in the segment. Some thought went into styling the dashboard, which is a pleasant-to-look-at collection of curves and sweeping lines. All of the controls are conveniently placed and simple to operate. The seats are firm and comfortable.

Sightlines are excellent with very little to block the driver’s view in any direction. In simple terms: The Sportage cabin just doesn’t provoke complaint.

Sportage ads say one can be had for around $16,000. Figuring in the delivery charge, the 2WD LX 2.0L is priced at $16,490. At the top end of the Sportage spectrum is the 4WD EX with a base sticker of $21,990. When value is a key concern, the Kia Sportage certainly qualifies.

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