By Jeremy Cato

Pemberton, British Columbia – Here on Pemberton Meadows Road, 35 kilometres north of the ski resort town of Whistler, the sun is bright and the cool air is an almost balmy -2 C. A local stops me as I go in for coffee at a place which bills itself as a “roadside latte barn.”

2005 Kia Sportage
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“Waddya think of that Sportage?” asks June, a most pleasant woman enjoying her morning brew.

June somehow knows this is the newest Kia on the block. That’s right, Kia: the same Korean automaker that went bankrupt a couple of years ago and was rescued by Hyundai, the biggest Korean automaker of all.

And the Sportage? Kia introduced it to Canada in 1999 when the company entered our marketplace, only to discontinue it in 2002 when it became painfully clear it just didn’t have the quality, performance and features to compete in the exploding compact SUV market.

Here we are, three years later, and the Sportage is back as the first of three new models from a Kia which has grand designs on growth. In Canada, that means increasing 2004’s annual sales of about 26,000 to 50,000 units in 2007. To get there, Kia has added the Sportage this year, and will introduce a new Rio subcompact in the summer, followed by a renovated Magentis midsize sedan based on the new 2006 Hyundai Sonata platform.

Kia’s acquisition by Hyundai brought needed cash for new models and a vision for the new alliance. By 2010, the combined companies want to become one of the top five automakers in the world, based on volume. That would mean global sales of more than five million units.

By 2010, officials from both companies would like Kia to be competing head-to-head with Honda in the sporty, more youthful market. Hyundai, meanwhile, has Toyota as its target. Theoretically, the two brands should not overlap if they execute the grand plan properly — but that’s a big if.

“We’re not where we need to be,” says Kia Canada president Bill Porter, who came on board two years ago carrying a wealth of experience, having worked for Honda, Hyundai and Nissan. “What we need to do is develop a personality for the (Kia) brand. The idea is to become a destination brand, not a brand competing just on price.”

2005 Kia Sportage
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Back at the latte barn, June is less interested in the grand vision than she is curious about this new little sport-ute. It’s aimed squarely at the likes of…well, it’s a very long list: the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan X-Trail, Subaru Forester, Jeep Liberty and, yes, even Hyundai’s own new Tucson, which is the same vehicle with different sheet metal and some content. There are a lot of entries, but the compact SUV segment does account for 48 per cent of all SUV sales in Canada.

I tell her I think it’s a competitive entry, well-priced, and with an impressive array of standard safety features: stability control, traction control, antilock brakes and six airbags, including side curtain bags (the Hyundai Tucson only comes two front airbags). Power’s not bad from the base four-cylinder engine (140 horsepower) but the 173 hp, 2.7-litre V6 is the better choice.

Prices range from $19,995 for the front-wheel-drive, stripped LX starter model, to $29,500 for a loaded EX-V6 with all-wheel-drive and an automatic “Steptronic” transmission that allows for clutchless manual shifting.

Even Porter, the Kia president, concedes that the first time around, Sportage’s quality “was not there.” This new version will need to earn its stripes.

2005 Kia Sportage
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I’m off for some light off-roading in the Pemberton Valley. Past Pemberton proper, I find a nice selection of empty two-lane roads, none of which offers any particular challenge to this new Sportage in terms of pavement quality or handling demands. A brief unpaved stretch with snow gives me a chance to test the AWD system, which is very basic. It keeps me rolling, though you can feel the power being transferred to the rear wheels when the front wheels start to slip.

What really stands out is an impressive array of standard features and enough rear-seat room to be adult-friendly, though at the expense of cargo space. The standard array of goodies include 16-inch wheels, CD stereo with six speakers, power windows, mirrors and door locks, cruise control, a dual flip-open tailgate (the glass and rear hatch can be opened separately) and tilt steering.

Marketing director Gordon Sadler is quick to point out that the base Sportage has a $3,000 price advantage over the Escape XLS, a $4,500 advantage over the Tribute GX and a $6,003 edge over the X-Trail XE. There is an even more impressive advantage when you compare the Sportage EX-V6 to the Honda CR-V EXL ($4,100), the RAV4 Limited ($2,730) and the Escape Limited ($6,715). He also pushes the safety angle hard.

2005 Kia Sportage
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“Eighty per cent of SUV owners say automakers need to make SUVs safer and we’ve responded to that,” says Sadler, a former Michelin executive who just joined Kia in December. The standard six airbags, traction control and electronic stability control are all there to give Kia some bragging rights on the safety front. What we’ll need to wait for is government and insurance industry crash and rollover tests to verify their effectiveness in this new model.

The AWD system is adequate and competitive for the segment, though not an outstanding work of engineering. Kia is not alone in this, however.

Like others such as the Honda CR-V, the Sportage (and the Hyundai Tucson) starts out as strictly a front-driver. The AWD system kicks in only when the front wheels start to slip.

If you are in a really tough spot, such starting uphill on a snowy grade, it’s best to turn off the electronic stability control (ESP) by punching its button on the dashboard. If you don’t, you’ll find ESP trying to intervene with the brake and throttle when you really want power going to the wheels. With ESP off, you get solid forward progress.

As well, the Sportage comes with a “4WD lock” button, which splits power 50/50 to each axle no matter how much any wheel spins. Turn the ESP off and lock the four-wheel-drive, and you should not have any trouble getting off the slickest snow-bound driveway. I tried all this on a little snow-covered service road cutting through the heart of the Pemberton Valley, and it all worked fine.

Fine is a perfect word for the Sportage, in fact. This vehicle is nice enough to cause some concern among the more established players in this compact SUV segment.

For power, the four-cylinder has to work pretty hard to move the 1,465 kg base Sportage. The five-speed manual transmission does not deliver very sharp or precise shifts, and the throws between gears are very long.

The V6 with the automatic transmission is a much better choice. This version scoots along nicely, even though it can weigh up to 1,600 kg. The autobox is slightly sloppy in its shifts – there is a distinct pause when you hit the throttle for a passing-lane downshift – but in the overall scheme of things, this is not a huge issue.

2005 Kia Sportage
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As for the interior, it is very comfortable; as I tooled along in the B.C. sunshine, it occurred to me this is generally a nice cabin in which to travel. Still, it would be nice to have the front floor mats snap onto their hooks properly, rather than having them slide around and bunch up, and I’d like to see more than one 12-volt plug up front, too. The seats are firmly padded and covered in attractive and apparently durable materials.

The back seat is suitable for two adults, and it splits and folds flat for hauling longer items. At the very rear, the cargo hold is smallish with the seatbacks up, but it is available with a nifty storage tray for organizing your gear. The cargo net is standard, which is not always the case with rival models.

Porter says Kia Canada is completely optimistic about this Sportage’s prospects. He says there of the 15,000 current owners of the old Sportage: half of them are happy, but that leaves the other half. “We know who has had problems (with the old Sportage) and we’re prepared to step up and do the right thing,” he says.

He also says he is convinced the new model’s quality will be very, very good. Will he guarantee the 2005 Sportage will have equal quality to, say, a Toyota RAV4? A straight shooter like Porter knows he can’t, not yet. “I wish I could, but I can’t,” he smiles. “These vehicles need to be on the road for a while and then we’ll have the proof.”

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