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A rugged off-roader for the urban jungle; A matter of opinion.

Byline: Alistair Coull & Val Jessop

TODAY'S 4x4s have to cross a broad band of buyers. Off-road ability is important but so are on-road manners and saloon car comfort.

At the top end of the market, cars like the BMW X5, Lexus RX300, Mercedes Benz M-Class and the Range Rover have terrific on-road presence, luxurious interiors, very rarely get taken off-road and are very pricey.

Then there are the workhorses of the sector like the LandRover Defender and Daihatsu Fourtrak which may lack the refinement of their more expensive cousins but like nothing better than being up to their axles in mud.

The majority of the players, however, occupy the middle ground. Some have genuine on and off-road ability, some just have the chunky looks of the true 4x4 but couldn't really go further off-road than Sainsbury's car park. Most are roomy and fairly versatile but what is true of all them is this - sales are still booming.

A popular choice in this sector of the market is the Kia Sportage. Over 9,000 have been sold in the UK since it was first launched in 1995.

The Sportage is built in Germany and it shows in the general quality of the small 4x4 compared to the rest of the Korean company's products.

It may not be up to tackling the likes of the Honda HR-V or Toyota RAV4, but the Sportage is capable enough in town, with a firm but controlled ride and reasonable handling.

The 2.0-litre engine is willing but lags behind some rivals for economy. Interior space is good without being brilliant although the Sportage is well-priced and very well-specified.

Unlike some of its rivals, the Kia has a proper off-road set-up with low-range gearing and switchable four wheel drive - essential for those stickier moments!

The test car was the new XSE version which has a price tag of only pounds 12,995 yet manages to include the extras all fashion-conscious buyers need such as ABS, alloy wheels, air conditioning, rear roof spoiler, roof rails, rear wheel cover and remote central locking.

To make it even more distinctive, a special 'bright pack' costing pounds 785 adds driving lamps, stainless steel front 'A' bar, side steps and rear wheel cover.

Safety was a major priority for Sportage designers. It has a relatively low centre of gravity for stability, lateral protection in all four doors and the car is fitted with a driver's airbag.

Active safety is helped by ventilated front disc brakes and ABS. The Sportage comes with three years unlimited mileage warranty, six-year anti-perforation cover and three-year European roadside help.

IT may be a relative newcomer in the midi 4x4 market but the Kia Sportage is catching up fast with its much more established rivals whose pedigrees give them a flying start.

Full marks to the Koreans for managing to shoe-horn so much into a compact multi-leisure vehicle at an incredible price of pounds 12,995.

Such a highly competitive price-tag gives you all the essentials of a rugged off-roader while providing comfort and a reasonable suspension for the urban jungle.

Okay, it hasn't got the kudos of some of its rivals but its pricing means that Kia can cast its net much wider and as a result has enjoyed a considerable sales boost in this sector.

The cost of equivalent middle-sized 4x4 from by-word manufacturers like Mitsubishi or Toyota often puts such a vehicle beyond the reach of many potential customers and that is where Kia is king.

The test vehicle was a special edition XSE and its aforementioned price includes alloy wheels, air conditioning, ABS, power steering, rear roof spoiler, roof rails, and remote central locking.

All this and a nicely packaged model that looks every inch the safari trekker, reasonably equipped for grip and traction when the going gets tough but versatile and sprite enough for around town.

Powered by a 2.0-litre 126bhp petrol engine, the Sportage responds well: smoothly and quietly while delivering impressive acceleration for such a middleweight.

Ride can be a little on the choppy side, but nothing more than you would expect from a vehicle of this type. I certainly thought it was acceptable both in town and on the open road.

Power steering is nicely light and balanced and the Sportage is easy to manoeuvre even in tight spots with the large glass area affording a good all-round view.

There was no hint of body roll.

The Sportage held its ground and head well without lurching. Even when you turned up the tempo on more twisting routes, it didn't exhibit the see-sawing motion that can be quite bad on some 4x4s.

The driver's seat has no height adjustment, although the steering wheel does. That said, the driving position is fair with a supportive seat. Instruments are easy to read although some minor controls are scattered.

The Sportage is a good-looking vehicle with plenty of personality:

it embraces the rugged pioneering spirit yet is easy and pleasant enough to drive to work while providing an admirable all-rounder, ideal for the family and leisure/sport minded.

As with every newcomer and particularly a relative newcomer (at least in terms of these shores), its products have a harder time convincing customers to take a gamble as a lesser-known marque, but the latest Sportage is one of the best so far offered by Kia. It certainly offers a lot for the money.

There is no diesel option but with an average 25.7mpg it is reasonably frugal and on longer motorway journeys it is possible to return nearer 30mpg.

Kia Sportage XSE Engine: 1998cc 16V DOHC 126bhp@5300rpm Performance: Top speed: 104mph 0-62: 14.7secs Economy: Town:19.3/ out of town: 31.4/ mixed: 25.7mpg Insurance: Group 9 Price: pounds 12,995 OTR
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Motoring
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Apr 5, 2002
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Next Article:Advanced group ready for launch; Motorcycling By William Leece.

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