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2001 Kia Sportage: Redesign boosts compact crossover

Pluses include sharp styling, peppy four-cylinder engine and optional all-wheel-drive system
by: Patrick Cote The restyled Sportage is ready to take on the competition with contemporary looks, premium options and good road manners.

I don't understand the appeal of two-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles.

Growing up in the rainy Pacific Northwest, I appreciate the practicality of all-wheel-drive SUVs, both the traditional ones based on trucks and the newer crossovers based on cars. The greater traction makes them safer in wintry months. And their better off-road abilities open up more recreational opportunities.

In my mind, without all-wheel-drive, SUVs have few advantages over conventional cars. Sure, they can carry more gear and handle better over rough roads. The higher ride height also offers better views of surrounding traffic. But they tend to get worse mileage and can be harder to get in and out of, especially for rear seat passengers.

Of course, many people buy two-wheel-drive SUVs because the need the extra carrying capacity and wouldn't be caught dead in a minivan. But to be perfectly honest, minivans have more interior room, carry as much or more gear, and are easier for rear seat passengers to use, especially those with sliding side doors.

That said, there's a lot to like about the front-wheel-drive 2011 Kia Sportage, especially when equipped with the convenience and luxury options that came on our loaded test model.

The compact Sportage crossover was completely redesigned this year. Gone is the frumpy look that gave the old version all the curb appeal of a washing machine. It has been replaced with cutting edge, sharply angled lines and big, stylish alloy wheels. Many of the design cues seem lifted from the flashy Acura RDX crossover, but they are well integrated with the aggressive grill and large liftgate.

The interior also benefits from a personality transformation. The wide dash and center console has a clean, contemporary look. Materials are much improved, especially the optional heat and cooled front leather seats in our test model. The optional navigation system worked well, as did the premium stereo system. Although much of the interior was hard plastic, the pieces are well-designed and fit together well.

The biggest change was on the road, though. The new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine produces 176 horsepower, 26 more than last year's four banger. In fact, it's more powerful than last year's 173 horsepower V6 but gets better mileage. Acceleration was brisk, aided by the responsive six-speed automatic transmission. The ride was mostly smooth and well-controlled, although a little bouncy over rough pavement because of the Sportage's short wheelbase.

Although short, the Sportage is relatively tall, offering decent headroom for rear seat passengers and a good amount of cargo capacity. Our test model came with both front and rear seat sunroofs that made the interior feel light and airy when open.

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COURTESY OF NORTHWEST AUTOMOTIVE PRESS ASSOCIATION • All-wheel-drive equipped Sportages can go off-road, but are happier handling rain and snow on city streets.

After a week of driving, the Sportage proved itself to be a reasonable alternative to a conventional car. It is intended to compete against such other compact crossovers as the more expensive Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-7, Mitsubishi Outlander, Suzuki Grand Vitara and Toyota RAV-4, which also come in either two-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive configurations.

At the same time, I'm not sure why anyone who buy the two-wheel-drive versions of these vehicles since they cost more and get worse mileage than all compact and even some midsize cars. The new generation of boxy vehicles like the Kia Soul and Scion xB cost less, carry a fair amount of cargo and don't look like the minvans they actually are. And manufacturers are once again building hatchbacks and station wagons that meet such needs, too.

Fortunately, I was able to drive an all-wheel-drive version of the 2011 Sportage over the summer at Mudfest, the annual competition among off-road vehicles organized by the Northwest Automotive Writers Association. It was only a little bit slower on the road than the two-wheel-drive version, but was able to handle the simpler of our two test trails.

The Sportage was not really up to the more serious trail, which was designed for such heavy-duty off-road vehicles as the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Land Rover 4 (LR4), the Range Rover and the truck-based Toyota 4Runner. But on the simpler trail, the Sportage did as well as the more expensive all-wheel-drive versions of the Honda Accord Crosstour and Acura ZDX. The same goes for the Kia's corporate sibling, the Hyundai Tucson, which was also redesigned this year.

During the two-day test, the Sportage and Tucson seemed tiny. All the other vehicles we tested were larger, some, like the Cherokee and Range Rover, much larger. But during the week of test driving, the Sportage proved itself to be a very reasonable size. It was sufficiently roomy inside but small enough to weave in and out of city traffic and easily parallel park.

The two-wheel-drive base version of the Sportage starts at $18,295. The all-wheel-drive version is only available on the more expensive LX and EX versions. Our fully-loaded EX test model cost $28,490, which is more expensive than the cheapest all-wheel-drive version, which begins at $21,795 - or $3,500 more than the least expensive two-wheel-drive version.

Either way you go, the 2011 Sportage is an attractive, easy-to-live with vehicle that offers decent performance, good views of the road and a surprising amount of cargo space. The all-wheel-drive option makes it more suitable for wet weather drivers and gives you more recreational opportunities.

• Model: Sportage.

• Manufacturer: Kia.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front (as tested) and all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five door, five-passenger SUV.

• Engines: 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder (176 hp, 168 lb-ft torque).

• Transmissions: Six-speed manual; Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 2/31 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $18,000 ($28,490 as tested).