In the hypercompetitive compact SUV market, a serious matter when looking for a great small SUV buy is the combination of quality and price. Although great finds such as the Nissan X-Trail, the Hyundai Tucson and the Ford mechanical twins (the Ford Escape and the Mazda Tribute) still make their mark locally, the Kia Sportage has quietly made itself more common.

An oft-repeated mantra is that beauty comes from within, and is certainly true with the Sportage. The lines are soft and inoffensive with a decidedly organic look, and the short rear end lends itself to space efficiency, making it easier for parallel parking.

But it's the Sportage's interior that really shines, with a cabin that is downright large, with 40.7 inches of front headroom and 42.1 inches of front legroom. Rear seat legroom and headroom aren't quite as plentiful, but very acceptable for a compact SUV. The rear can swallow two balikbayan boxes and three to four large duffel bags with the rear bench folded flat. Also, the rear hatch has separate partitions (and handles) for the windshield and tailgate, a big help for the short family homo sapiens constantly lugging two armloads of groceries or office stuff.

Even the interior ergonomics are very much attractive. The black colorway gives it a touch of class, the grippy leatherette seats (with moquette inserts) are comfy, there are child seat tether hooks behind the rear backrest, and lots of cupholders (eight!) and storage for small spaces. Probably the only knocks against the insides are the lack of a second row electric outlet, a weak airconditioning system and the incomprehensible Clarion head unit.

Due to its portly 1,696kg curb weight, the common rail diesel injection engine of the P1.12 million Sportage is merely adequate enough to go from point A to point B. The result is a steep power curve, making powerband entry (3,000 rpm) and partial boost from the turbo (3,500 rpm) high and choking top speed (160kph) and consumption (8.7 km/l, five days mixed driving). The need for an extra 500 cc of displacement or a variable geometry turbo is obvious for this SUV.

The transmission is also just enough to get by, as second gear is short and third gear is WAY tall. The four-speed a/t's manual mode doesn't help much either, as the ECU stubbornly refuses to let the rev counter get even remotely close to its 5,000 rpm redline. The shift-on-the-fly four wheel drive is great, but is more suited to hard earth and pebbly roads.

Based on a modified Kia Spectra/Hyundai Elantra unibody passenger car platform, the Sportage is tighter and more responsive than the old body-on-frame version. Hard cornering certainly isn't the Sportage's forte (traction from the Hankook Optimo K406 235/60R16 100H tires break loudly at 60 kph), but it's composed on both turn-in and exit. The steering isn't very precise, but there's enough resistance to prevent that twitchy oversensitive sensation common in many SUVs. Nevertheless the ride is comfortable, whether on tarmac or dirt.

It is in the safety features that the Sportage discerns itself. Braking is exemplary thanks to standard four-wheel disc brakes, and the ABS comes alive when you need it. Ditto for the exterior lighting; the foglights' beams can replace the headlights due to their brightness. About the only negatives when it comes to Sportage safety are the weak parking brake grip and the small dashboard gauges.

Kia has come a long way from its roots as a bargain-basement alternative to the Japanese brands. Its cars and SUVs just keep getting better, but prices have remained relatively low. With its diesel version, the Sportage would be a great pick for any small SUV shopper who holds value in higher regard than nameplate recognition.
  • Make:Kia
  • Model:Sportage CRDi
  • Engine:2.0L four cylinder diesel, with CRDi Turbo Intercooler
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  • Max Torque:[email protected]
  • Transmission:4-Speed A/T with manual mode
  • Price as Tested: