2008 Kia Sportage 4×4 EX Review

By Chris Haak

07.29.2008

Kia is in the news lately because it is introducing its new large midsize, three-row, V8-powered SUV, the Borrego, this summer. Meanwhile, seemingly out of nowhere, Kia has a fairly broad selection of SUVs and crossovers, especially considering the size of its lineup. While we at Autosavant patiently await our chance to put a 2009 Borrego through its paces, Kia provided us with a loaded Sportage 4×4 as temporary consolation.

Kia’s smallest CUV, or “cute ute,” the Sportage, is on its second generation. The original off-road capable (yet poorly designed and built) model was sold from 1995 until 2002, then the Sportage went on a hiatus for a few years, and was reborn in 2005 as a crossover, with – by all accounts – a better interior, more power, and more modern engineering than its predecessor.

The Sportage is available in either all wheel drive or front wheel drive, and with (depending upon trim level) a 2.0 liter four cylinder or a 2.7 liter V6. Four cylinder models can be had with a five-speed manual transmission, while the V6s only come with four-speed automatics. The model lineup consists of LX, LX V6, and EX V6. Standard features in all models include 16 inch alloy wheels, dual power mirrors, integrated roof rails, rear privacy glass, six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, air conditioning, power windows, power locks, cruise control, cloth seats, six airbags, four wheel disc brakes with ABS, and a tire pressure monitoring system. The EX model that I tested adds a power tilt/slide moonroof, V6 engine, four-speed automatic transmission, body color mirrors, fog lights, AM/FM/CD/MP3/cassette six-speaker stereo, remote keyless entry, trip computer, rear cargo cover/cover net, and leather wrapped steering wheel/shift knob. Finally, to top off my EX test model, it had four wheel drive and the Luxury Package, which includes color-keyed bumpers, leather seats and door panels, automatic headlamps, auto-dimming inside mirror with Homelink, and a CD changer with subwoofer.

Since their introduction, I’ve never been a fan of either the styling of the Sportage, or of its Hyundai Tucson cousin. It’s hard to pin down exactly what the problem is, but as I looked through some photos to begin writing this review, I had a “eureka” moment: most of the problem centers around the wheels and fenders; the body of the Sportage is too large for its meager 16-inch wheels, which makes a relatively compact vehicle look somewhat top-heavy. Also, the “muscular” fender flares (which are really just tacked on plastic cladding) don’t surround the entire wheel opening; instead, they stop when they reach the rear or front bumper (depending which wheel you’re looking at). The visual effect is that the fenders don’t surround the entire wheel opening, when in reality, the issue is just the appearance that the fender flares go straight front or back instead of around the wheels, and the bumpers fill in as fenders around almost half of each wheel opening. The dual exhaust outlets at the back of the Sportage are a somewhat attractive visual touch, as are the beefy integrated roof rails, and my test vehicle is far more attractive to my eyes than models that have different-colored bumpers or mirrors, but the overall look still does almost nothing for me.

Inside, the interior doesn’t scream “this is a value-oriented vehicle” at first glance, but it sort of does at first touch. The material covering the seating surfaces is allegedly leather (perforated, no less), but felt more like vinyl on the driver’s seat. I suspect that it was really some sort of leather, but certainly not of the “glove-soft” variety you’ll see other vehicles’ seats occasionally referred to. The front passenger seat ironically had smoother leather, so perhaps the cow who gave its life for the driver’s seat had a skin condition. There were a few nice touches, such as an auto dimming rearview mirror, reasonably convincing faux stainless steel surrounding the HVAC and audio controls on the center stack, a power tilt/slide moonroof, and a leather wrapped steering wheel. The lack of a center console was a big issue; it requires the driver to – gasp – keep both hands on the wheel, or to rest his right hand on the passenger seat (assuming that seat is empty, or the person sitting there doesn’t mind the intrusion).

Some details in the interior were ignored by Kia’s engineers; I’m not a nit-picker, but the huge, uncovered gap beneath the steering column (see the full photo gallery in the link at the bottom of this review) was wide enough for me to put a finger into the opening. Also, some of the junctions between different interior trim pieces could have been designed with better transitions, such as less-obvious seams and more consistent textures.

The top-end Sportage has a decent stereo; although I did not test its MP3 capability (or CD, or cassette tape capability), it tuned AM and FM radio stations well and was intuitive to operate. It also was equipped with a subwoofer that added some decent heft to the music I was listening to.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the unique smell of the interior plastics. I’m quite certain that my test vehicle was quite clean and well-detailed by the fleet company when it was delivered to me, but the “new car smell” in the Sportage was somewhat more chemical-smelling and less pleasant than any other new car I’ve spent time with. Usually, you can smell the leather seats in a new car equipped with them, but all I was able to detect was the odor of plastic and/or chemicals. It wasn’t overpowering and only readily apparent when getting into the vehicle for the first time each day. Assuming you are in the market for such a vehicle, it’s safe to say that you will quickly realize whether the odor is something you can live with during your test drive or not, so don’t let my sensitive nose stand between you and a new Kia.

The 173-horsepower 2.7 liter V6 starts easily and is fairly smooth and quiet, at least at more pedestrian speeds. It’s really bringing a knife to a gunfight, though, as its 2.7 liters is smaller than its V6-powered competitors such as the Toyota RAV4 (which has a 3.5 liter V6 that pumps out nearly 100 more horsepower), and the four speed automatic that it’s coupled to doesn’t help matters. Sometimes, vehicles such as the Chevy Equinox with the 3.4 liter V6 or the Dodge Grand Caravan with the 3.8 liter V6, can overcome a less-powerful engine with an extra gear ratio or two, but the Sportage doesn’t have that benefit. The V6 doesn’t have a flat torque curve – it has a flat horsepower curve, and it seemingly reaches its peak around 2,000 RPMs, and just goes through the motions beyond that. Flooring the accelerator from a stop will give a brisk jump for the first few feet, followed by the “oh, crap, this thing is really underpowered” sensation for the next 11 seconds until it hits 60. Leaving the automatic in “drive” results in a smooth 1-2 shift, but one of the slowest ones I’ve experienced. It’s as if the transmission stops for a full second, thinks about what gear should be next, puts it in that gear, and resumes acceleration. The far-apart ratios also do their best to keep the engine out of its powerband with each shift. Fortunately, the Sportage has a standard manumatic feature that allows the driver to tap the gear selection up or down, which actually seems to shift more quickly than the transmission on its own is able to. The Sportage will upshift as it approaches the redline even in manual mode, and will not allow itself to bump against the rev limited, but we’re not talking about a sports car after all.

The power rack and pinion steering had decent feel for a sorta-truck, and the brakes seemed to grab well enough. The Sportage’s narrow track and tall-ish profile did make me tread very carefully on curvy roads. I never felt unsafe or unstable with it, but I also didn’t want to tempt fate either. At least I’d be pretty safe had I rolled it over, since it has six airbags and a five-star safety rating all around. (The government actually gives the Sportage four stars for a rollover rating, which is great for an SUV/CUV).

Fuel economy in mixed driving was 18.6 miles per gallon. That figure actually included very few highway miles, and was mostly done on back roads. According to the EPA, the Sportage should get 17 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway; in fact, the first day I had it, I had 20.1 miles per gallon appearing after a 27-mile trip. Still, for the relatively small size and uncompetitive engine power, mileage could be far better – for example, the much-larger, much more powerful 2009 Chevrolet Traverse is rated at 16/23 in AWD guise. By the way, the four cylinder Honda CR-V AWD is rated at 20/26 and the Toyota RAV4 AWD is rated at 20/25 with the four cylinder and 19/26 with the V6. The CR-V’s four cylinder produces 166 horsepower to the Sportage V6’s 173, so there’s not much benefit to buying the Kia just to get a V6.

In spite of losing some paper battles with its competitors such as the CR-V, the Sportage is significantly less expensive (over $3,500 cheaper than a CR-V and almost $5,000 cheaper than a four cylinder RAV4 according to TrueDelta, when factoring in rebates on the Kia), and includes a 10 year/100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty. I’d probably look pretty closely at a CR-V and RAV4 before committing to buy a Sportage, but from a pricing standpoint, it’s almost competitive with USED CR-Vs and RAV4s instead of new ones.

Not having a lot of familiarity with the suddenly-popular compact SUV/crossover segment, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Sportage. What I found was a versatile vehicle that had enough space for my tall wife and me, plus enough room behind us for two car seats, in a package that offers a lot on paper, but needs some work in the powertrain and refinement departments. I’d probably buy a different vehicle if I was shopping in this segment, or wait for the next generation, as Kia has been improving its vehicles by leaps and bounds from generation to generation. I’d wager that the Borrego, in spite of competing in a completely different size and price class, improves greatly on many of the criticisms that I had of the Sportage’s attention to detail and powertrain.

For more images of the Kia Sportage 4×4 EX, click here.

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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3 Comments

  1. I drove a Kia Sportage on a spring business trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and was surprised on what a decent vehicle it was.

    It handled the climb up the El Cajon pass out of the LA Basin up into the Mojave area with no complaints – I used the “manumatic” transmission to pass, and the 2.6 V6 was a good trade off between power and economy (quick aside – I rented a fully loaded Toyota RAV-4 around the beginning of ’08 and found it to be a thirsty little beast). I made it to Vegas on half a tank if I remember correctly.

    The seating was fully adjustable and comfortable (cloth not leather), the AC was excellent in the desert heat, and the ride was good for an econo-SUV. There was plenty of storage space for my luggage and equipment and well placed cubby holes for water bottle and cell phone storage. I’m not a big car audiophile, but I found the radio easy to figure out and it sounded great.

    It’s a nice, inexpensive soccer mom/dad SUV for hauling two or three kids to school, practice, etc. Throw some Happy Meal debris in the back seat, a soccer ball rolling around the hatch area, and a car seat or two and you’ve got a modern-day Rambler Wagon. Tack on that 100k warranty and this isn’t a bad vehicle for what it is…

  2. Rambler Wagon????

    You’re showing your age!

  3. At least he didn’t say edsel.

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