COMPARED to Kia's earlier rugged sport utility vehicle, the all new Sportage follows a radically different design concept. It is much sportier, spacious and altogether more user friendly.

It is longer, wider and higher than most other sport utilities, but then this five-seater does provide quite a bit more when it comes to choice: for a start there are three engines (2.0-litre and 2.7-litre V6 petrol and a 2.0-litre diesel), two-wheel or four-wheel drive, five speed manual or four speed automatic and two trim and equipment levels.

Despite recent negative publicity, there is still strong customer demand for SUVs, according to research undertaken by Kia. With the Sportage, Kia is hoping to expand the budget end of the market and attract buyers with about £16,000 to spend.

This is an attractive-looking addition to the sport utility market, and one that has been well packaged. There is easily enough room for four, and a good deal more left over for their luggage.

The diesel version, however, does run over that budget price. Diesel engines cost more to build than a petrol unit, consequently Kia has had to add a premium of £1,200. However, it is still possible to break the £16,000 barrier, just; the entry-level CRDi XE with manual transmission costs £15,695. If you want the flagship model then be prepared to pay £18,195 for the higher-specification XS automatic.

The two-litre turbo diesel engine, producing 111bhp, scores well on combined fuel economy (39.8mpg) and CO2 emissions (187g/km).

The engine does work well in off-road situations. Kia devised one of these in Yorkshire and it did give a clear indication of the Sportage's capabilities, with mud and water splashes, and a few steep climbs and descents.

To get into off-road mode, it is a simple case of pressing one button to lock the transmission into four-wheel drive and another button to disable the traction control.

Back on the road, the Sportage is more impressive. Granted it is a bit slow to pick up, but once on the way it takes a lot of beating, and the ride control is very comfortable. No serious rolling even on some steep cambered roads around Leeds.

All the major controls are easy to use, and the high driving position of course helps the driver to see what is happening way ahead.

The trim levels, LX and EX, share standard equipment such as tinted windows, 60/40 seat split, centre console storage box, electric front and rear windows, twin roof bars, alloy wheels, central locking, front and side airbags, four audio speakers, and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake distribution.

The higher-specification EX has stability control, twin front fog lamps, electrically heated windscreen, body-colour door handles, rear tailgate release, dashboard passenger grab handle, luggage net, remote central locking and theft alarm, cabin air filter and courtesy lights which illuminate the road or pavement.

Updated: 11:28 Friday, March 25, 2005