Kia Sorento — Getting it right

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It’s not often that we drive an all-new vehicle at any price in any segment that sufficiently answers all the questions. While the 2011 Kia Sorento isn’t perfect it comes as close as anything we've driven in recent times in the small crossover segment to get most things right.

The Sorento is a relatively inexpensive crossover that should suit the needs of a couple, or just an individual who values space and a high-riding experience with available all-wheel drive.

What makes the new Sorento — which is a 180-degree departure from the first iteration that ended with the 2009 model year — such a big story is that Kia has been building cars for the U.S. market for just 15 years. To get things so close to right in such a short time is astounding.

The new Sorento features car-like unibody construction departing from the traditional body-on-frame SUV configuration. This lends to a more car-like ride, better handling, and less weight leading to better fuel economy.

The Sorento, which can be ordered with three rows of seats, is positioned to not only compete with the compact segment led by the Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CR-V, but the smaller end of the mid-sized segment facing off with the Chevrolet Equinox and Nissan Murano.

The Sorento features crisp, pleasing styling that shouts SUV. The front end makes a statement with the new Kia grille design and flared back headlights that form a continuous arch. The rounded rear end with large LED taillights that extend into the lift gate and curving rear glass is well executed. And the slightly bulging wheel wells and slopping roof give the Kia an athletic profile.

The new crossover comes with either a frugal 4-cylinder engine or an energetic V-6.

The 4-cylinder making 175 horsepower is one of the not-quite-perfect aspects of the Kia. After 300 miles behind the wheel of the 2.4-liter we determined that we could live with it, but we really didn’t want to. While the four-banger got the job done for us with lighter loads and with a very economical fuel rating of 21 city and 29 highway in front-wheel drive mode, we had to dig into the accelerator more than once to quickly merge with freeway traffic.

The engine is tasked with pulling nearly two tons of vehicle (unloaded) and it struggles to reach 60 mph from a standing start, accomplishing the feat in pedal-to-the-metal time of around 10 seconds. Hampering more instantaneous power is the tuning of the six-speed automatic, which seems to be designed more for economy and less for optimum performance.

If you are less than satisfied with the smaller engine, Kia has a very satisfactory answer. Drive off the lot in the 276-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6. You will pay a higher sticker price (base 4-cylinder with automatic is $23,190, base V-6 is $26,190) and gas mileage is less (20/26 FWD and 19/25 AWD), but you will get rewarding performance and a 3,500-pound towing capacity.

Zero to 60 in the V-6 model has been measured at 7.8 seconds, which tells us that it should handle all daily driving chores — loaded or unloaded — with reasonable results.

The Sorento has more traits of a well-planted sedan than a sport utility on the back road twists and turns. Its suspension is tuned toward the extra firm side and the result is one of the best handling compact crossovers on the road. While we may be happy with the suspension because of the way we throw the car around, and the need for exceptional handling Sorento’s lack of compliance may discourage others. We understand that Kia has made a mid-year change to soften up the ride a bit making it more comfortable for those not as aggressive in how they approach the road.

What everyone will agree with is the Sorento’s cabin isolation. Road noise and especially wind noise are impressively muted for a vehicle in this price range.

Inside the Sorento is spacious for both front and second-row passengers. The third-row seat, as you might suspect, is tailored more for children than adults. And when in use it gobbles up much of the 37 cubic feet available behind the second row. With all seats folded, cargo capacity is a competitive 72.5 cubic feet.

We found the front seats wide and somewhat firm, but comfortable. With power seat controls and tilt and telescoping steering wheel it was not hard to find a good driving position. The view of the road is commanding, especially with the driver’s seat raised. Rear-seat legroom is good for the segment and to make long distances tolerable the rear seats recline.

We found that he interior is a pleasant place. The faux wood trim looks pretty good all things considered. The dashboard design is first rate and controls felt smooth and upscale. The navigation with backup camera is also on a par with competitors if you elect to spend the bucks.

If you are on a tight budget, but like the Sorento, the base models come well equipped and may include everything you want and certainly everything you need for the chores of daily living. The FWD model with six-speed manual transmission carries a base price of $20,790 including destination charge. The model that will interest most people looking for a good measure of standard equipment at the best price is the front-wheel drive version of the LX with six-speed automatic coming in at $23,190.

Standard features include full power accessories, air conditioning, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth connectivity, an audio system with satellite radio, cruise control, and outside mirrors with integrated LED turn signals. Standard safety includes antilock disc brakes, stability control, hill-start assist, hill descent control and a full range of airbags.

Of course, the Sorento can be loaded up with all the modern goodies topping out in the low 30-grand range. Our well-equipped four-cylinder EX test vehicle carried a bottom line of $29,340.

Built at a new plant in West Point, Georgia the Sorento is an excellent example of Kia’s determination to lift design, quality and utility to please its mass market customer target.

Base price: $20,790; as driven, $29,340
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 175 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 169 foot-pounds @ 3,750 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 183.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,929 pounds
Luggage capacity: 37 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 72.5 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 29 mpg highway, 21 mpg city
0-60: 10 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Equinox

The Good:
• Attractive standard features
• Potent V-6 engine
• Quiet
• Excellent handling

The Bad:
• Stiffer ride than most crossovers

The Ugly:
• 4-cylinder – only if you must