SAN FRANCISCO Perhaps you didn't notice, but Kia's small SUV has been absent for nearly three years. The Sportage's return is made possible by the Hyundai Tucson, which handed over its platform, body structure, and powertrains to little brother Kia, which, as usual, was free to tweak them in an effort to distinguish its own vehicles from those of its corporate benefactor.Chief tinkerer of the trickle-down goods is director of product quality Gordon Dickie, an affable Scotsman who arrived at Kia Motors America after stints at Volvo and Mazda. Whereas the Tucson suffers from the soggy suspension and insipid steering that afflict many Korean cars, including much of Kia's lineup, Dickie and his team grasped for a higher ride-and-handling bar for the Sportage. The resulting vehicle is surprisingly decent to drive, with firmly damped suspension, reasonable steering feel and feedback, strong brakes, and a big dollop of body control on top of it all.
We didn't drive a Sportage with the 2.0-liter four, although we expect that its 140 hp and 136 lb-ft of torque are little more than adequate. Aim instead for the 173-hp, 2.7-liter V-6, mated solely to a four-speed automatic transmission and available with all-wheel drive starting at only $20,290. All models, even the $16,490 stripper, have standard antilock brakes, stability and traction control, and six air bags.
It's not quite in the same league as the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4, and the Ford Escape, but the Sportage has a nicely packaged interior and lots of standard features for the money. While the same can be said for nearly every product from Hyundai and Kia, what distinguishes the Sportage is the fact that it is one of the few Korean cars to add competitive driving dynamics to the equation.
On Sale: Now
Price: $20,589 (EX; $23,440 as tested)
Engine: 2.7L V-6, 173 hp, 178 lb-ft
Drive: Front-wheel (standard), 4-wheel (optional)