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'99 Kia Sportage 4x4

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San Francisco:  This week's test drive centers on a bright blue 1999 Kia Sportage 4x4 Wagon, a vehicle that impressed the Sport Utility crowd when it arrived on the scene five years ago. This Korean built 4x4 attracts those who want all-wheel fun and security, yet don't have $30,000 available to spend. In this sense, Kia is a great success.

The company's reputation is built on its affordable "Sephia" compact automobile, and the highly popular "Sportage" 4x4 Sport Ute. Sportage comes in convertible, 2-door, and 4-door versions and is available in both 2WD and 4WD configuration. The 4x4 setup is conventional rear-drive until 4WD is accessed, something we opt for over the competition's front drive, prior to 4x4 or All Wheel Drive engagement. The competition, by the way, is tough, with the likes of Honda CR-V, Toyota Rav4, Isuzu Amigo, Chevy Tracker, Suzuki Vitara and Subaru Forester, all more than tidy foes. In Kia's corner are price, as none come close, and an ever-improving product.

Now let's look at the Sportage up close and personal. In the looks department, Kia is indeed better looking than some comparable models. A more rounded, modern design puts Kia in the competitor's ballpark, all accomplished while still offering excellent cabin visibility for driver and passengers. The interior is quite roomy, a noteworthy feat considering its compact class.

Standard features abound, including power windows, locks and mirrors. The only engine available is a 16-valve 4-cylinder, hooked to either a 5-speed manual or optional automatic transmission. There are automatic locking hubs on the 4-wheel drive system, a rear defroster, split folding rear seat, driver lumbar system, nice alloy wheels and a full spare behind the rear tailgate. Kia also offers as standard equipment an excellent air bag setup, which includes a driver's knee airbag. This design addresses the many knee injuries that have surfaced on sport utes and minivans in government crash tests. Therefore, we applaud Kia's addressing of the situation, especially since the vehicle's base price is only $16,295, with all of the above equipment (sans automatic tranny) as standard. Notable options include air conditioning, AM/FM/Stereo/CD, carpeted floor mats and a roof rack, which pushed the final bottom line, including destination, to $18,384. Still, when comparing the competition, Kia is one of the lowest priced 4x4 fun vehicles out there.

On the road, the 4-door Kia drives well, delivering a smoother ride than the previously mentioned Vitara or Tracker models. Our tester came equipped with the standard 5-speed transmission, geared to get the most from the small, 122 cubic-inch, 130-horse 4-banger. If there is an Achilles heel with Sportage, it is the under-powered engine, which struggles motoring over the numerous hills that dot the landscape leading to and from this writer's home. On steep inclines, downshifts to second gear are normal, and that's without any passengers in the vehicle. Load up a Kia with the family, a dog and groceries (yes, there's lots of room behind the second seat), and Sportage suffers from a lack of horsepower. On the plus side, gas mileage is very good, with EPA numbers 23 on the highway and 19 in town which are quite impressive.

After driving Sportage 500-miles, we liked how well the wagon felt on the road, yet still would like to see either a more powerful 4-cylinder or, perhaps, a V-6 option in the future. Other than the lack of power, we actually began to like Kia Sportage more and more. As the week went by, our early criticisms in the power department changed to, "but, it's a lot of fun to drive and it handles well for its size." The engine is loud, but other than that, Kia is well within range of causing market share to go their way, especially if the buyer lives in non-mountainous regions. You may not enjoy lugging up the hills of San Francisco or traversing the Appalachian Mountain roads in Pennsylvania, but if you're from Kansas, that little four-cylinder is adequate for all purposes. Of note is the fact that our Sportage came with a 5-speed manual, so we can surmise that the Automatic will be a tad slower when pushed in mountain situations or quick, passing maneuvers.

On the plus side are good stability in the turns, lots of head clearance for passengers, easy entry and exit and a spacious 55.4 cu. ft. of cargo space. Capacities include a 15.8-gallon fuel tank on the 4-door and 14.0 on the 2-door model. Also noteworthy is the availability of a 2WD model, although we feel Kia's strongest point is battling the 4x4 Sport Utes head-to-head, based on its attractive price. The gross vehicle weight is 3,280 lbs., not light by any means and desirable considering weight equates to safety. The wheelbase is 104.3 for the 4-door, while much smaller at 92.9 for the 2-door convertible.

One area where Kia doesn't lack is in the attention department. Numerous interested onlookers inquired as to our like or dislike for Kia, and, based on their needs, answers were appropriate. With that in mind, if you need a 4x4 Sport Ute that will offer great fun at low cost, Kia may be your answer. Sportage rates a serious look if considering this class of SUV. By Greg Zyla AutoWire.Net - San Francisco

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Byline:  By Greg Zyla AutoWire.Net - San Francisco
Column Name:  Gutsy and Affordable
Topic:  '99 Kia Sportage 4x4 SUV
Word Count:  882
Photo Caption:  '99 Kia Sportage 4x4
Photo Credits:  Kia PR
Series #:   1999 - 24

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