The seven-seat Sorento has traditionally been a sensible buy; now, with a thorough make-over for 2014, Kia is attempting to push it into the realm of entry-level luxury -- but without the luxury price. Will we continue to recommend the Sorento, or has it gotten too big for its bargain-priced britches? Let's drive it and find out.
Before sending me off to review the 2014 Kia Sorento, Jason Fogelson, our Guide to SUVs, advised me that this is one of the crossovers he recommends the most.
"Any time someone asks me about mid-size SUVs, no matter which one they're interested in, I tell them to test drive a Sorento," he told me. And after just a few minutes behind the Sorento's leather-clad wheel, I understood exactly why Jason talks it up so much. The Sorento handily covers all the basics -- and with an extensive update for 2014, it covers them better than ever.
Kia first introduced the current Sorento in 2010 as a big three-row crossover with a low-ish price tag. This was at a time when the South Korean automaker was gearing up to transform themselves into a style leader with slick-looking cars like the Optima and Soul. Styling-wise, the Sorento was a half-hearted effort, with one foot (tire?) firmly planted in Kia's functional, value-laden past. For 2014, the Sorento has embraced Kia's new reality, with slicker integration of Kia's wasp-wasted grille up front, slicker-looking taillights out back, and a more upscale look over all, while changes to the platform underneath provide extra rear-seat room. My biggest complaint is that at a quick glance, the new Sorento looks too much like its sister ship, the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. (Kia is a subdivision of Hyundai.)
That said, the Sorento does owe a lot to the Santa Fe. Technically, the 2014 Sorento is a "mid-cycle refresh" -- a simple styling update that most automakers give their cars every three years or so. But Kia took advantage of the timing to fit the updated mechanical bits from the Santa Fe, including new suspension mounting points that improve ride and handling, a modified platform that increases rear seat room, and a vastly improved interior.
In the Driver's Seat
If you associate Kia with cheap cars, you need to take a turn behind the wheel of the Sorento. My top-of-the-line SX tester was built with lavish materials and high-quality switchgear, and trimmed with a thickly-padded dash and rich-looking dark-wood trim that was almost Audi-esque in its quality. The big centrally located speedometer is actually a crisp 7" TFT (thin film transistor) screen that blends seamlessly with the analog gauges on either side. In fact, the integration is nicer than the similar setup in the Mercedes S-Class -- which, I need not remind you, costs four times as much as the Sorento. Best yet, elegance has not trumped simplicity; the Sorento's climate, stereo and navigation systems are simply designed and easy to operate while driving. New this year is the updated UVO eServices system, which uses the driver's smart phone to provide data connectivity for Internet radio, location services, and 911 assistance; unfortunately it only works with the iPhone; the Android app is still in development.
Jason's biggest complaint about the previous Sorento was the hard seats, and while the coverings have changed, the seats are still very firm. The second row seats feel much the same, though they offer lots of room and stretch-out space. Sorento offers an optional third row, priced between $800 and $1000 depending on trim level; as with most of its competitors, the seat is difficult to access and sized for children, and it cuts cargo space to just 9.1 cubic feet, barely enough for a row of grocery bags. Luckily, the seat is easy to fold down, leaving a generous 36.9 cubic foot cargo bay that will accommodate a baby stroller and enough luggage space for a family of five. New this year is an optional power tailgate that can be set to open to less than full height, a boon for low garages or short drivers.
On the Road
The 2014 Sorento offers two engine choices. The Sorento LX comes with a 191 hp 2.4 liter four-cylinder, while a 290 hp 3.3 liter V6 is optional on the EX and standard on the SX. Both engines feature direct fuel injection, a high-tech feature that improves fuel economy and lowers exhaust emissions, plus a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode and front- or all-wheel-drive.
My SX came with the V6, a sweet-sounding and smooth-revving engine that provides adequate, if not stunning, acceleration. Freeway merges were easy, but passing on a two-lane road took a bit more time; I'd be hesitant to try it with the four-cylinder engine. EPA fuel economy estimates for my V6 AWD model are 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, but I only scored 20-21 mpg in gentle city and freeway driving. Fuel economy estimates go as high as 20/26 for the four-cylinder front-wheel-drive model, but given the Sorento's 3,800 lb. curb weight, I expect most owners will see low 20s at best.
The Sorento's ride is commendably quiet and comfortable, with an underlying tautness that eliminates the floaty feel common to big SUVs. Turn the wheel suddenly, though, and it goes to pieces; the Sorento leans enthusiastically, though it does grip the road well, and the hair-trigger stability control system keeps it from getting into any real trouble. EX and SX models get Kia's "Flex Steer" system, which lets you set the weight of the steering effort (Comfort, Normal and Sport). Unfortunately, the steering system itself provides little natural road feel and requires near-constant correction on long straights.
We haven't yet talked about value, a traditional Kia strong suit that is not absent from the new Sorento. Prices start at $24,100 for the front-drive Sorento LX, which includes Bluetooth, a USB compatible stereo and alloy wheels, and ranges up to $41,550 for a seven-seat SX-L AWD with Nappa leather, UVO voice-activated stereo, panoramic sunroof, and heated seats all around (cooled in front, too). Those are attractive prices for a mass-market CUV, and a real bargain when you consider the comfort and elegance of the Sorento's interior. If you're worried about resale value, know that Kia's residuals have risen about 10% in the past three years, to the point that they now rival Honda and Toyota. And if you are keep to support the American auto industry, you'll be pleased to learn that the Sorento is assembled in Georgia. (Our Georgia, not the one in Eastern Europe.)
The market is awash with seven seaters; the Toyota Highlander is one of the best and best known, though it's a lot more expensive than the Sorento. The Honda Pilot and Chevrolet Traverse offer a lot more space; the Traverse's third row is better than most, but both can be are ungaily to park. Mazda's CX-9 is a sports car among seven seaters, although its interior is as cheap as an old-school Kia. And I must mention Ford -- the six-seat Flex is one of my favorites, especially with the fast EcoBoost V6, though it gets rather expensive. The Ford Flex is a better rival, especially with its EcoBoost four-cylinder which offers strong power and good fuel economy.
Still, the Kia Sorento holds its own unique spot in this group, thanks to its value price and high-lux interior. The trade off comes in driving dynamics, but how important is a sporty ride when you're just taking the kids to school? I can't say the Kia Sorento stands out as my favorite, but like Jason, I think every mid-size SUV shopper should put it on their test-drive list. -- Aaron Gold