In a down year for the auto industry, Kia is up. Up in market share, up in sales, up in quality. And now, here comes the 2011 Kia Sorento, a complete retooling of the company's mid-size SUV, now the first Kia built in the USA. Base prices for the 2011 Kia Sorento have not yet been announced, but will probably land in the mid-$20,000 range with a 5 year/60,000 mile basic warranty, a 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates of 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway (FWD V6). Let's drive.
I quite liked the first generation (2003 - 2009) of Kia Sorento. It was an unassuming, practical and very well-equipped traditional body-on-frame SUV. The new Sorento shares little with the old one other than a name and its general size. Sorento is now a true crossover vehicle, with car-like construction and utility-like size and configuration. Gone is the frame, the hallmark of a traditional SUV, replaced by a unibody. Body-on-frame construction is generally more robust, which is great for off-roading, cargo-hauling and towing, with the tradeoff being a more truck-like ride and more weight. Lose the frame, and you've got a crossover vehicle, embracing the advantages of car-like performance and retaining some of the utility of an SUV. It's a tradeoff that makes a lot of sense in the mid-size segment.
Another way that the crossover tradeoff makes sense is in terms of styling. Once you cast off the idea that you're building a work vehicle, you're free to make design choices that are more current, even trendy. Sorento doesn't break any new ground with its looks. It does fit right in with the latest crop of crossovers. Take off the badges, put it in a room with the new Chevy Equinox and Ford Edge, and you'd be hard pressed to put the right badge on the right crossover. Kia would like to make their design director Peter Schreyer and LA design chief Tom Kearns into household names, but Sorento is not their masterpiece. It is a very attractive, unassuming crossover -- just like the old Sorento.
In the Driver’s Seat
One thing that Kia has in common with corporate overlords Hyundai is the propensity to load up their vehicles with standard equipment and available options. Sorento is no exception -- even the base level Sorento S comes with standard BlueTooth, auxiliary and USB audio input jacks, tilt and telescope steering wheel, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, AM/FM/CD/MP3 with satellite radio capability, a trip computer, air conditioning and more. Step up to the LX, and you can add roof rails, rear sonar, a backup camera with a monitor in the rear-view mirror, heated front seats and fog lamps. The top-of-the-line EX can approach luxury levels of appointment, including nav, heated leather seats, and a panoramic sunroof. You can even get mood lighting and a DVD system for the second row. Oh, and you can order a third row seating package for the LX and for the four-cylinder EX, and increase your seating capacity to seven (as long as two of the seven are very limber and short of leg).
Available equipment is great, as long as it is layered on top of a good foundation. Sorento is a pretty good base, with a few caveats. Sorento's front seats are way too hard. After a few hours behind the wheel, I was looking for a cushion, a jacket -- anything to put under my tush to soften the ride. Though I liked the look of the dash and center stack, I was a little disappointed in the quality of some of the surfaces and materials. I did like how simply and intuitively the standard BlueTooth connection was, and how great the iPod interface worked. So it was a mixed bag.
On the Road
Sorento gets two engine choices. S, LX and EX I4 come with a 2.4 liter inline 4-cylinder engine that's good for 172 hp and 166 lb-ft of torque, while the EX V6 gets (you guessed it) a V6 that produces 273 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque. Both engines get hooked up to a new 6-speed automatic transmission with Sportmatic, which allows you to step through the gears without a clutch. The base Sorento can be ordered with a manual 6-speed. Both engines can be ordered with 4x4 or 4x2 (front wheel drive) drivetrains. Curb weight is between 3,605 lbs for the base Sorento up to 3,935 lbs for the loaded 4x4 EX V6. I drove several Sorento samples with different configurations, and my favorite was the V6 with all-wheel drive, no big surprise there. But the I4 was perfectly adequate, able to keep up on the highway, and nice and light on city streets. Four-wheel independent suspension with stabilizer bars front and rear keeps things on the level. Sorento's car roots definitely show here -- the ride is comfortable, predictable and smooth.
If you need to tow, the V6 is really your best option with a 3,500 lb towing capacity. The I4 is only rated to tow 2,000 lbs. Sorento's cargo compartment is voluminous. With the second row up, there's 37.0 cubic feet of luggage space available; with the second row down, there's 72.5 cubic feet of cargo room. With the optional third row up, there's just 9.1 cubic feet of luggage space, and you lose a very handy underfloor concealed cargo space.
Kia did a very smart thing when they revealed the new Sorento to the press -- they took us out to West Point, Georgia to tour the new Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia (KMMG) plant, where Sorento will be built. It's a brand spanking new factory built by Kia (with a lot of incentive from the state of Georgia), representing billions of dollars of investment. The factory is amazing, high-tech, clean and beautiful, full of a happy, enthusiastic, passionate workforce. It's impossible to tour KMMG and not take away a great feeling for Kia, and for its positive effect on the West Point community.
It's also impossible to ignore the discordant notes struck by a South Korean company operating in the heart of America. The factory canteen embodies the disconnect, with separate stations serving pizza, deli sandwiches, salads and Korean food. The Sorento is a little like that canteen, with elements dragged in from the American market, adapted from the world market, and held over from the vehicle's Korean roots. It doesn't always blend all that well. But when it does work, it works really well.
The competition is very stiff in the crossover field. Sorento has to deal with the likes of the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, as well as newcomers like the Chevy Equinox, Mazda CX-7, Ford Edge and others.
I'm rooting for Sorento. It's a really good crossover, built in the USA. Not the prettiest, not the fastest, not the best or the cheapest, but certainly the vehicle with the best story of any crossover, at a time when a good story counts.