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Click to view picture gallery“Looking for a junior
  4x4 for five at an
  affordable price?
  Offering a lot of kit for
  the money and an
  economical 2.0-litre
  turbodiesel engine,
  Kia’s latest Sportage
  could be right up
  your street...

FOR THOSE BUYERS reluctant to fork out extra for a Land Rover, Toyota or Honda badge (Freelander, RAV4 and CR-V respectively), the Sportage offers an alternative choice. The initial affordability of Kia's 4x4 Sportage, a compact SUV, is not in question with prices starting from 15,295 and each model coming with an extensive array of equipment and a three-year unlimited mileage warranty.

What is in question, though, is whether the current haranguing of 4x4 owners by environmentalists and the mooted vast increase is taxation by the government and local authorities will curtail the popularity of such vehicles.

With the new '56' plate registration almost upon us, it will be interest-ing to see if the buying public's love of 4x4s is showing any signs of diminishing. Will 2006 mark ten consecutive years of continued growth for 4x4s/SUVs — or will sales stall?

For the record, in 2005 the UK's 4x4 market sector grew by 7.7 per cent to reach 187,392 sales.

The Kia Sportage, particularly the 2.0-litre CRDi diesel model, offers better fuel economy, has lower CO2 emission levels and has a road footprint no larger than a medium-sized car or estate car with a petrol engine — so I really do not see what the opposition is to them. Yes, there are some gas guzzling 4x4s and yes, some people do use them inconsiderately (but that goes for everything from a forty-tonner down to a scooter) but the vast majority do not. So, live and let live, I say.

The Sportage range offers three engine options: a 2.0-litre petrol and diesel and a 2.7-litre V6 petrol. Two-litre models are available in XE
and XS specifications, while the 2.7-litre petrol model comes only with automatic transmission and in range-topping XS trim and equipment levels.

The Sportage has a five-door monocoque bodyshell with seating for five adults and a largish load area of 667-litres that can be extended up to 1,887-litres with the split/folding rear seats not in use. As many of the compact SUVs do get used by caravaners and boat or trailer towers, the Sportage's braked towing capacity of 1,600kg, while not exactly offering full-blown workhorse performance, is sufficient for the recreational uses mentioned. Obviously if you were planning on day-in, day-out heavy towing duties, you'd want something bigger.

All Sportage models have an 'intelligent' four-wheel drive Active Torque Transfer system, which progressively transfers drive from the front wheels to all four wheels if slippage is detected. In severe conditions, four-wheel drive can be engaged manually via a lock function.

The Sportage chassis has fully independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and anti-lock disc brakes all round, with electronic brake force distribution for maximum stopping power. Traction control is fitted as standard equipment on the XE while the XS version also has ESP stability control.

Will it fit my garage and can I get it in to a height restricted car park? This compact 4x4 is 4,350mm long, 1,840mm wide and 1,695mm high (1,730mm with roof rails). So, yes and yes. And it's a reasonable package with a user-friendly, top-hinged tailgate. The spare wheel is now carried internally, making loading easier and lowering the centre of gravity to improve handling. The glass screen opens independently of the tailgate — a useful benefit when loading or unloading small items in confined spaces.

The rear seats have a 'Drop & Fold' one-touch system, which lowers the cushion and ensures the backrest folds fully flat to create a spacious, square-sided, flat-floored cargo area more than 1.6 metres long. To accommodate even longer loads, the front passenger seat backrest folds forwards, lying flat on the cushion. All very practical.

The Sportage is also up to scratch on safety features too, with twin front airbags, front side and full-length curtain airbags, front seat-belt pre-tensioners with load limiters and three, three-point rear seat belts.

The generous standard specification includes 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, JVC CD/Radio with MP3 player (I found it a bit fiddly to use), electric windows and door mirrors, front fog lamps, auto lights, remote central locking, tilt (but not reach) adjustable steering column, roof rails, a sunglasses holder and a good number of handy storage areas.

XS versions, such as my test vehicle, add leather trim, front seat warmers, climate control, cruise control, privacy glass, an electric tilt-and-slide sunroof and six (instead of four) speakers.

So as far as space, levels of equipment and general technical specif-ication goes the Kia Sportage looks a sensible and affordable purchase if you want a 4x4 SUV.

The vast majority of Sportage buyers opt for the 2.0-litre diesel model. By all accounts, the same-sized petrol engine is a limited performer and not that fuel efficient. The 2.7-litre V6 offers much better performance but buyers shopping for an affordable SUV will not want to live with its fuel economy. This leaves the 2.0-litre CRDi as the model to go for. From a financial point of view, residual values for the diesel model will be stronger as well.

Personally, I would skip the higher XS specification model priced at 18,195 because the 16,495 XE suits most people well enough — unless of course the dealer is willing to offer a discount!

The overall 'muscular' styling of the Sportage is well proportioned —
if not quite as sharp-looking as the latest Japanese or European offerings. But then, with its Unique Selling Proposition being 'look how much you get for your money', it doesn't need to be. Likewise the interior is roomy, but the quality of the trim is not up to Germanic standards. That said, it all looks and feels soundly well built and feels pretty strong.

It rides high. Enough for the driver to look down on most other road-users. The down side of this is that there is considerable body roll during cornering, with handling and steering that are somewhat vague and give little feedback to the driver. That said, people who have the need for a part-time 4x4 system on their SUV will not find the handling shortcomings a problem, particularly as this is notably offset by the advantage of all-wheel traction off-road or in rain, ice and snowy conditions on normal roads.

The 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine diesel is no ball of fire. A tad noisy at start up, but it gets better once you're on the move. The 4-cylinder, Euro IV compliant turbodiesel's power output is 138bhp, with very decent torque of 225lb ft from only 1,800rpm. This, coupled with a new six-speed manual transmission, makes it a flexible performer and the gear ratios are just right for both on- and off-road driving. In fact, I was impressed by just how amiable the diesel Sportage was to drive around town or on country roads. It is not a particularly comfortable vehicle over potholed surfaces but it does the job, and at a reasonable price.

So yes, the Kia Sportage has its limitations — vague handling, and it's not as sophisticated as some — but for those on a modest budget it's affordable, has lots of kit for the money, is roomy enough for five with a pleasant and spacious cabin, offers good boot space for accommod-ating large loads and you can take it off-road. And, unlike some of the competition, it doesn't suffer from a drink problem, either — my overall test consumption worked out to 32.4mpg. Kia's official figure is a bit higher, at 39.8mpg. Overall, the Sportage makes a good case for itself — certainly enough to justify it as being worthy of your consideration. Who knows, you may be pleasantly surprised. — David Miles

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Kia Sportage 2.0 CRDi XS 5-door
| 18,195
Maximum speed: 104mph | 0-62mph: 13.8 seconds
Overall test MPG: 32.4mpg | Power: 138bhp | Torque: 225lb ft

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------------------------------------------------------------------- Kia Sportage XS