I've had it with America's blinkered vision of our imminent automotive
future. I can't believe the extent of our addiction to hugeness, for
example. And I can't believe how complacently we settle for abysmal
fuel mileage or for a near-total denial of access to diesel-engine
efficiencies that the rest of the world takes for granted. Don't we
Yanks deserve similar economies? Don't we at least want them?
It's all about choices, of course. Once upon a time, I would have
referred to the trio of vehicles evaluated below as compact
sport/utility vehicles. No longer. I choose to see them as urban
solution vehicles. They're city-sized for easy maneuvering. They're
versatile with regard to their people-and-cargo layouts. And they armor
their compactness with safety engineering. Their combined approach to
mileage efficiency is still mired in our North American gas-fueled
doldrums, but at least the surprising Chevrolet HHR hints at the way
In some respects, the Kia Sportage is a startling success story. Its
original appearance on these shores seemed destined to typecast all
South Korean automotive efforts as pitifully substandard. As recently
at 1995, for example, the Sportage's four-wheel-drive system employed
For 2007, Kia's latest Sportage wears its maturity with self-confident
sophistication. Still a thrifty buy at $22,775, as-tested, the latest
Sportage LX boasts handsome styling, careful fit and finish and solid,
stable ride quality. An up-to-date four-wheel-drive system seamlessly
transfers engine power between front and real wheels to compensate for
Inside, Sportage is a five-seater that does a good job of maximizing
space for rear passengers. Split-folding seatbacks, moreover, make it
possible to handle cargo ranging from 23.6 to 67 cubic feet. The
payload weight limit, however, is a bit skimpy at 1,162 pounds. With
five 160-pound occupants, in other words, there's only about 350
pounds' worth of payload capacity left over.
For its Sportage LX model, Kia installs a 2.7-liter V6. The twin-cam
engine architecture sounds sophisticated, but the 173 horsepower rating
is hardly awe-inspiring. Even more disappointing, however, are the 19
mpg/city, 23 mpg/highway fuel-economy numbers, which will only be
downgraded when revised 2008 mileage calculations are implemented for
next year's model.
The Sportage will impress potential buyers with its city-friendly
maneuverability and interior versatility. It's four-wheel ABS disc
brakes and six airbags offer much reassurance concerning safety. But
until fuel-mileage breaks out of the 'teens for once and for all and
arcs towards the 30-mpg goal post, Kia's Sportage will remain stuck in
the minor leagues.
Dimensionally and in many other ways, Mazda's Tribute is remarkably
similar 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 seems
to have an edge.
If one remains obsessed with the horsepower wars in categories, like
this one, where such rivalry is largely irrelevant, the Tribute's
200-hp output (from a 3.0-liter V6) is a winner. Harder to appreciate
are the 18 mpg/city, 24 mpg/highway fuel economy numbers. Since these
are 2008-model year calculations, however, they signify that Tribute
makes more power with better economy than Kia's Sportage, barely. But it
ought to be taken as a matter of principle that any urban solution
vehicle worth its salt should deliver mid- to high-20s fuel economy at
a minimum. To do that, Tribute will have to wait until it gets access
to the hybrid powertrain (34 mpg/city, 30 mpg/highway) it will
eventually share with its corporate cousin, Ford Escape.
Meantime, there are a few other nuances that polish the Tribute's
luster. 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 is
also about 200 pounds lighter than Sportage, which contributes to a
slightly perkier overall driving personality. But with front disc/rear
drum brakes, the Mazda makes no real pretensions to genuine sportiness.
Still, as a compact, versatile city-slicker, Mazda's Tribute has much
to recommend it.
The sheer oddity of Chevrolet's HHR people pod proves that America's
apple-pie automaker is not as hidebound as many might suppose. Whereas
the Kia and Mazda models described above are urban solution vehicles
masquerading as sport/utes, Chevy's HHR is a category-buster that
doesn't seem to care what it looks like.
The HHR "Paddy Wagon" seems to have made a wrong turn out of an old
Dick Tracy comic strip, but it's appealing in a very puckish way. More
importantly, its slab-sided, low-slung design camouflages a very clever
and multi-configurable interior. In typical layout, the HHR is a
five-occupant four-door boasting cargo space expandable from 25 to 63
cubic feet. For this evaluation, however, Chevy's new Panel LT variant
dispenses with both rear seats and rear side windows in favor of what
can only be called a cargo-coach extraordinaire.
The Panel HHR is still a four-door, except the rear doors can only be
opened by reaching inside and behind the front seats. And, yes, rear
visibility is a bummer with those two massive blind spots where back
windows used to be. Yet for sheer attitude, the Panel HHR is a
head-turner on any city street, and a purpose-built delivery vehicle to
But the breakthrough is Chevy's 2.4-liter Ecotec inline-four that
produces V6-calibre power (175 hp) alongside 23 mpg/city, 30
mpg/highway fuel economy. Now that's what city driving is all about:
maneuverability, interior capacity and fuel economy. The HHR, in either
five- or two-seater variants, may not be the last word in urban
automotive solutions, but it certainly is an important conversation