Introduction

The name Sportage doesn't really conjure up warm memories. Many folks remember the Sportage of yesterday, a crude cute-ute that was plagued with quality issues, a weak engine and a cheap interior. Introduced globally in 1993, the Kia Sportage was a body-on-frame compact SUV. Updates and revisions through the years were made in an effort to keep the truck-based 'ute competitive. The axe fell in 2002 when the aging Sportage disappeared to make way for the infinitely more refined midsize Sorento. Kia realized a gap was left when the Sportage departed, and knew it had to whip up a mini-ute just as modern as the successful Sorento.

Debuting last year fully redesigned, the current Kia Sportage shares nothing with its predecessor. We're not just talkin' basic parts here: The new SUV even abandons the original's petite dimensions and truck-based body-on-frame structure in favor of a larger design based on a more carlike unibody platform. Kia's goal with the Sportage is to combine the smooth ride, agile handling and refinement of a passenger car, the style and driving position of an SUV and the interior room of a wagon, all in one versatile package. And the company has succeeded. The 2006 Kia Sportage is longer, wider and taller than the average compact SUV. The stylish interior features quality materials and great ergonomics. A unique split-folding rear seat is able to fold flat to create a level cargo floor. It does this by lowering the bottom cushion into the footwell, and doesn't even require removal of the head restraints.

Power is provided by two different engines: a 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder engine with continuously variable valve timing, which makes 140 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque; and an optional 2.7-liter V6 engine that produces 173 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque. Front-wheel drive is standard, and a full-time four-wheel-drive system is optional. The system senses when one or both front wheels lose grip and automatically diverts up to 50 percent of the engine power to the rear wheels. The system can be manually set to a fixed 50/50 split when extra traction is needed for driving in the snow.

The Sportage scores highly on the safety front by including standard four-wheel antilock disc brakes, stability control, seat-mounted side-impact airbags for front occupants, and front and rear head-protecting side curtain airbags. No longer just a cute little SUV, the 2006 Kia Sportage is now a serious competitor in a class of excellent machines. Its affordably priced combination of carlike ride dynamics, roomy passenger quarters and all-weather capability make for a compelling package.

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