With some truck owners contemplating a whole-system change away from big-engine brutes, another possibility has emerged: Find a cheap, reliable, decent used mini 'ute for day-to-day driving. From a vast selection of such vehicles, the first-generation Kia Sportage bubbles to the surface. It went on sale January 1995 and was kept alive for the next seven seasons as the Korean manufacturer tried to gain a toehold in the American landscape. With a little hunting, finding a Sportage for a reasonable price shouldn't be difficult. It was half of Kia's fledgling 1995 model lineup (alongside the Sephia), and brand-new models could be had for a touch below $15,000.

Powertrain choices are few. Originally, if you had four-wheel drive, you got the DOHC 2.0-liter four with 130 horsepower; 2WD versions came with a SOHC 2.0-liter packing a paltry 94 horsepower. Five speeds come in the manual gearbox, four in the automatic--but it's only offered with the 4WD drivetrain. Online reviews of the 2WD Sportage by owners routinely mention that model's lackluster acceleration--in fact, even buyers of the 130-horse Sportage say the same.

Modest yearly changes reflected Kia's diminutive stature in the U.S. A driver's airbag was installed in 1996. The next year saw the SOHC engine ditched, and the automatic available for 2WD and 4WD models. In 1998, alongside a slight freshening of the styling, a two-door convertible model--a la the Suzuki Sidekick--joined the four-door, featuring a shorter wheelbase and one fewer seat (four versus the hardtop's five). By 2001, Kia had watched Hyundai's success in offering long factory warranties and upped the Sportage's to five years/60,000 miles and, more germane to this discussion, the powertrain coverage to 10 years/100,000 miles. A good portion of the used Sportage fleet may still be under some form of warranty. Fuel economy with a manual is in the low 20s--20 city/24 highway under the old scoring system, now 18/22--and two ticks worse with the automatic.

Based on customer experience, you might need that warranty. The Sportage line has eight NHTSA recalls, ranging from sticking accelerator pedals to chafing brake lines. And consumers cite a litany of problems, big and small, including door locks that fall into the door cavity, short brake life, transmission woes (leaks, hard shifting, failures), and glitchy electrical systems. It's worth noting that Kia was struggling to get up to speed with the U.S. market and, in the early days, you could say its engineering hadn't yet caught up with its manufacturing.

The Sportage carries the benefit of being simple and easy to work on--which is good as you're likely to be exercising that option. A Sportage can be purchased inexpensively enough: at just over $2000 for a first-year base model, putting some sweat equity into the vehicle isn't out of the question. However, replacing or repairing the big items, like an out-of-warranty transmission, could easily crowd the total value of the Sportage.

Consider the whole picture. A 1997 Honda CR-V, similar in size and a much better performer, is valued at around $7000, according to IntelliChoice. For $1000 less, you could buy 2002 4WD Sportage and, possibly, put up with the niggles. (Then again, there are also reports from thoroughly satisfied customers.) For the intrepid DIY mechanic, the latest, cleanest Sportage that fits the budget might be a useful alternative to $4/gallon gas.


1995-2002 Kia Sportage
Body type 4-door SUV
Drivetrain Front engine, RWD/4WD
Airbags Driver, passenger
Engine 2.0L/94-hp SOHC I-4; 2.0L/130-hp DOHC I-4
Brakes, f/r Disc/drum, ABS
Price range, whlsl/ret (IntelliChoice) $863/$2156 (1995 2WD); $3528/$6039 (2002 4WD)
Recalls Too many to list; see www.intellichoice.com
NHTSA frontal impact rating, driver/pass Not rated