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car review

2011 Kia Sportage

Sometimes it's hard to tell an SUV from a crossover vehicle. Sometimes it's impossible.

But, for the record, an SUV is usually light-truck derived and designed primarily to handle off-road conditions, with the emphasis on versatility and practicality. Of course, it can be driven around town (and usually is), but it'll likely have a reasonably durable 4WD system of some sort and is essentially a truck-based wagon.

A crossover vehicle, so the theory goes, is a car-based wagon that features the drivability and manners of a sedan or station wagon, while providing a measure of off-road ability and practicality. It will probably have AWD in one form or another and, while you can venture off-road once in a while, it's mainly intended for in-town duty.

With that out of the way, Kia has re-done its compact Sportage SUV/crossover and, according to the company, it is now more of the latter and less of the former. It can still be had with AWD, but a base FWD-only model is available too.

Based on the "Kue" concept car introduced by Kia at the Detroit Auto Show in 2007, the new 2011 Sportage is built in South Korea and is longer and wider but not taller than its predecessor. It sports all-new sheet metal and a new front-end treatment that will be used by the Korean company on most of its future models.

"The grille has the Kia family signature styling found on some of our other products," explained Kia's training manager, Reg Furoy, at the launch of the 2011 Sportage in Whitehorse. "All Kia models will be featuring this new face."

The Sportage also utilizes some components from the newest generation of its bigger brother, the Sorento. The six-speed manual and automatic transmissions, for example, and there is a definite family resemblance.

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Power is provided by a 2.4-litre Theta II four-cylinder that develops 176 horsepower and 168 lb-ft of torque with two six-speed transmission choices: automatic with driver shift mode or manual. A turbocharged 2.0-litre engine will be available later, likely next January. Although both FWD and AWD versions of the new Sportage can be had with the automatic gearbox, the manual tranny comes with FWD models only.

Speaking of AWD systems, the new Sportage utilizes a full-time setup similar to that found in some BMW products. It's designed and manufactured by Magna and features a 50/50 torque split between the front and rear driving wheels and an electronic locking differential that automatically disengages itself at speeds above 30 km/h, while engaging at speeds below that. This is meant to extricate the vehicle from deep snow and sand, while disengaging to maintain good fuel economy. "It eliminates the 'hop' that a lot of these systems have during parking or low-speed turns," adds Furoy.

Suspension is a multi-link arrangement in back, and redesigned MacPherson struts up front. The new Sportage also gets four-wheel disc brakes with ABS as standard equipment and all models will come with an electronic stability control system that features hill-start assist and a downhill brake control system.

As ever, this particular Kia product comes well-equipped right out of the gate. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, tilt steering, power windows and door locks, keyless entry, cruise control, Bluetooth capability, USB ports and heated front seats.

Options include roof rails, back-up warning sensor, dual-zone climate control, power driver's seat, leather interior and a navi system. Two trim levels will be offered initially: LX and EX and either one will be available with AWD or FWD. Kia's "gradewalk" pricing structure has the LX front-drive models starting at just less than $22,000, with the top of the line Ex with navi going out the door for more than $35,000 before extras.

After a two-day, spirited drive through some of the most spectacular scenery North America has to offer, a few observations about this, the third generation of the Sportage. For starters, it's a tightly-built crossover/SUV, with little in the way of wind or road noise, good highway stability and sensible ergonomics. With modest amounts of cargo, it has adequate power, but a V-6 wouldn't go amiss here.

On the down side, the rear turn signal lights, which are located just above the back bumper and below the main taillight cluster, are misplaced. When the vehicle gets muddy, you can't see them clearly, and if you're in another car, right up behind the vehicle, they just disappear from view. This is an easily remedied glitch. Also, the back window is smaller than on the previous version and the rear tailgate is now a one-piece affair that opens upward. Again, a small thing that Kia could deal with easily - an optional two-piece rear tailgate, perhaps?

On the other hand, with its more than reasonable base price, you're getting a lot of, er, crossover vehicle for the money.

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2011 Kia Sportage

Type: Compact crossover/SUV

Price Range: $21,995-$35,195

Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 176 hp/168 lb-ft

Transmissions: Six-speed manual/automatic

Drive: Front-wheel and all-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/ 100 km): 10.0 city/6.9 highway (FWD with manual transmission); regular gas

Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Hyundai Tucson, Nissan Rogue, Chevrolet Equinox