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The idea of a three-row SUV has been pushed by some automakers to mean a ginormous Taj Mahal on wheels, but the 2012 Kia Sorento manages to remain compact while offering a seven-passenger cabin. To keep its length at a quarter over 15 feet, that final row of passengers takes up all the cargo area, limiting the utility somewhat and requiring gymnastic ability to get into the rear seats.
The Sorento also lacks the white marble and lapidary of the Taj Mahal, not to mention the wood trim and big, comfortable captain's chairs of the more massive SUVs. The cabin definitely shows an economy character, the steering wheel in particular having a thin feel. But at its price most people will be pleased with the Sorento's interior.
Choosing a specific Sorento trim level requires a little data mining, as the car can be had in three trim levels each featuring a mix of all-wheel drive versus front-wheel drive and four-cylinder versus six-cylinder engines. Adding to that conundrum, CNET's Sorento came with a new engine option, a direct-injection 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Currently, this engine only seems to be available in the midlevel EX trim.
The addition of a direct-injection system to the engine brings the horsepower up by 16 over the standard, port-injected 2.4-liter engine available for the Sorento, to 191. Likewise, torque is up to 181 pound-feet from 169. Further demonstrating the benefits of direct injection, the Sorento's fuel economy rates at 22 mpg city and 32 mpg highway in EPA testing, an increase of about 2 mpg over the port-injected engine.
Putting the pedal down from a stop, those horsepower and torque figures proved enough to chirp the front wheels when I stepped off with enthusiasm, CNET's car being the front-wheel-drive model. In all driving situations I put the Sorento through, I never felt a want of power. It did equally well in high-speed freeway merges as when climbing steep grades. Kia offers the Sorento with a 3.5-liter V-6, but I expect the extra power afforded by that engine would only be necessary when pulling trailers.
In keeping with the Sorento's economy character, the ride quality tended to be a bit hard. On rougher roads that harshness became apparent. Kia seems to have opted for a stiffer ride to improve the handling, rather than letting the Sorento get soft and wallowy in the turns. Obviously an economy SUV like the Sorento is not going to be a pro in the corners, but the vehicle acquitted itself well. Up one long mountain road beset with switchbacks, the Sorento felt perfectly capable. Kia uses hydraulic steering boost, giving the steering wheel a responsive, engaged feeling.
The six-speed automatic transmission offers a manual gear selection mode, useful for hill descents. All Sorento trims also come with a hill descent mode that selectively controls the brakes, preventing slewing. In most driving, the transmission did its job quietly, generally seeking higher gears to maintain good fuel economy. While climbing hills, the transmission had a tendency to hunt, showing a little trouble settling into a good power gear based on the ascent.