Marc K. Stengel, Sun, 30 Sep 2007 08:00:00 PDT
I've had it with America's blinkered vision of our imminent automotivefuture. I can't believe the extent of our addiction to hugeness, forexample. And I can't believe how complacently we settle for abysmalfuel mileage or for a near-total denial of access to diesel-engineefficiencies that the rest of the world takes for granted. Don't weYanks deserve similar economies? Don't we at least want them?
It's all about choices, of course. Once upon a time, I would havereferred to the trio of vehicles evaluated below as compactsport/utility vehicles. No longer. I choose to see them as urbansolution vehicles. They're city-sized for easy maneuvering. They'reversatile with regard to their people-and-cargo layouts. And they armortheir compactness with safety engineering. Their combined approach tomileage efficiency is still mired in our North American gas-fueleddoldrums, but at least the surprising Chevrolet HHR hints at the wayforward.
In some respects, the Kia Sportage is a startling success story. Itsoriginal appearance on these shores seemed destined to typecast allSouth Korean automotive efforts as pitifully substandard. As recentlyat 1995, for example, the Sportage's four-wheel-drive system employedchain-drive.
For 2007, Kia's latest Sportage wears its maturity with self-confidentsophistication. Still a thrifty buy at $22,775, as-tested, the latestSportage LX boasts handsome styling, careful fit and finish and solid,stable ride quality. An up-to-date four-wheel-drive system seamlesslytransfers engine power between front and real wheels to compensate forslipping traction.
Inside, Sportage is a five-seater that does a good job of maximizingspace for rear passengers. Split-folding seatbacks, moreover, make itpossible to handle cargo ranging from 23.6 to 67 cubic feet. Thepayload weight limit, however, is a bit skimpy at 1,162 pounds. Withfive 160-pound occupants, in other words, there's only about 350pounds' worth of payload capacity left over.
For its Sportage LX model, Kia installs a 2.7-liter V6. The twin-camengine architecture sounds sophisticated, but the 173 horsepower ratingis hardly awe-inspiring. Even more disappointing, however, are the 19mpg/city, 23 mpg/highway fuel-economy numbers, which will only bedowngraded when revised 2008 mileage calculations are implemented fornext year's model.
The Sportage will impress potential buyers with its city-friendlymaneuverability and interior versatility. It's four-wheel ABS discbrakes and six airbags offer much reassurance concerning safety. Butuntil fuel-mileage breaks out of the 'teens for once and for all andarcs towards the 30-mpg goal post, Kia's Sportage will remain stuck inthe minor leagues.
Dimensionally and in many other ways, Mazda's Tribute is remarkablysimilar to the new Kia Sportage. For this review, a front-wheel-drive"S Touring" model is featured; and it's in the details that Mazda seemsto have an edge.
If one remains obsessed with the horsepower wars in categories, likethis one, where such rivalry is largely irrelevant, the Tribute's200-hp output (from a 3.0-liter V6) is a winner. Harder to appreciateare the 18 mpg/city, 24 mpg/highway fuel economy numbers. Since theseare 2008-model year calculations, however, they signify that Tributemakes more power with better economy than Kia's Sportage, barely. But itought to be taken as a matter of principle that any urban solutionvehicle worth its salt should deliver mid- to high-20s fuel economy ata minimum. To do that, Tribute will have to wait until it gets accessto the hybrid powertrain (34 mpg/city, 30 mpg/highway) it willeventually share with its corporate cousin, Ford Escape.
Meantime, there are a few other nuances that polish the Tribute'sluster. Although payload is comparable to Kia's at 1,145 pounds,Tribute's towing capacity is 3,500 pounds (versus 2,000 for Sportage).Cargo space behind the back seats is also larger (29.2 cubic feet),whereas maximum cargo of 66 cubes is virtually identical. Tribute isalso about 200 pounds lighter than Sportage, which contributes to aslightly perkier overall driving personality. But with front disc/reardrum brakes, the Mazda makes no real pretensions to genuine sportiness.Still, as a compact, versatile city-slicker, Mazda's Tribute has muchto recommend it.
The sheer oddity of Chevrolet's HHR people pod proves that America'sapple-pie automaker is not as hidebound as many might suppose. Whereasthe Kia and Mazda models described above are urban solution vehiclesmasquerading as sport/utes, Chevy's HHR is a category-buster thatdoesn't seem to care what it looks like.
The HHR "Paddy Wagon" seems to have made a wrong turn out of an oldDick Tracy comic strip, but it's appealing in a very puckish way. Moreimportantly, its slab-sided, low-slung design camouflages a very cleverand multi-configurable interior. In typical layout, the HHR is afive-occupant four-door boasting cargo space expandable from 25 to 63cubic feet. For this evaluation, however, Chevy's new Panel LT variantdispenses with both rear seats and rear side windows in favor of whatcan only be called a cargo-coach extraordinaire.
The Panel HHR is still a four-door, except the rear doors can only beopened by reaching inside and behind the front seats. And, yes, rearvisibility is a bummer with those two massive blind spots where backwindows used to be. Yet for sheer attitude, the Panel HHR is ahead-turner on any city street, and a purpose-built delivery vehicle toboot.
But the breakthrough is Chevy's 2.4-liter Ecotec inline-four thatproduces V6-calibre power (175 hp) alongside 23 mpg/city, 30mpg/highway fuel economy. Now that's what city driving is all about:maneuverability, interior capacity and fuel economy. The HHR, in eitherfive- or two-seater variants, may not be the last word in urbanautomotive solutions, but it certainly is an important conversationstarter.