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2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid first drive review: An efficient, affordable, stylish SUV

It's all that's great about the standard Sorento with the added benefit of hybrid power.

2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid
The new Sorento can now be had with a hybrid powertrain.
Emme Hall/Roadshow

Kia's trusty Sorento SUV has been around since 2002, but hot diggity, it's a real peach now. The 2021 Sorento offers sleek styling and tons of innovative tech, plus there's a new hybrid powertrain, too.

The Sorento Hybrid pairs a 1.6-liter turbo I4 engine with a 44-kilowatt electric motor. Total power output is rated at 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, which is more than what you get in a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, but less than what's offered in the Ford Explorer Hybrid with its 3.3-liter V6. Front-wheel drive is standard and all-wheel drive isn't available, and a six-speed automatic transmission handles shifting duties.

This powertrain combination offers plenty of get-up-and-go and I never feel like I'm lacking power when piloting the Sorento up steep hills or merging onto the highway. On top of that, the Sorento Hybrid is actually at its best when driven in Eco mode, because it doesn't mute the throttle or alter the transmission programming enough so as to be annoying. Switching to Comfort, Smart or Sport modes doesn't seem to provide a noticeable change to the Sorento's demeanor, either.

Aside from an occasional delay when a downshift is required, the six-speed automatic does its job smoothly and admirably, largely fading into the background. The ride is perfectly compliant, able to soak up the blemishes on the broken pavement of the mean streets of Oakland, California. The steering, while light, is still very accurate.

There is, however, a slight learning curve when it comes to the brakes. Sometimes they're smooth and linear. Sometimes they're super grabby as they capture regenerative energy and send it back into the 1.5-kWh battery. Not a total deal-breaker, but not great, either.

The big reason to opt for the hybrid powertrain is fuel economy. The EPA rates the 2021 Sorento Hybrid at 39 miles per gallon in the city, 35 mpg highway and 37 mpg combined, though I'll admit, after a couple days of driving, I'm only seeing 34.3 mpg. Even so, that's better than the 27.2 mpg my colleague Craig Cole averaged in the gas-only Sorento with its 2.5-liter turbo engine.

The hybrid engine produces 228 horsepower.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

Compared to a 2.5T Sorento, the Hybrid is about one second slower in the 0-to-60-mph dash, at a relatively pokey 8.6 seconds. The front-drive-only Sorento Hybrid can also tow half as much as its gas-only sibling: 1,654 pounds, compared to 3,500. You also lose a little bit of legroom in the second row.

The second row is still comfortable, though. At 5 feet, 9 inches tall, I have plenty of room to move around in the captain's chairs and can even cram myself into the third row. Problem is, the way-back bench seats are pretty much on the floor, so my knees are up to my ears. Not fun.

My Sorento Hybrid EX tester has leather seats with diamond-shaped perforation, as well as some brushed-aluminum trim with a little bit of texture. There are lots of little cubbies for storage and the electronic gear selector frees up space in the center console, too. I really like the stacked, trapezoidal air vents, although the lower ones are so small that they're practically useless.

The interior is snazzy, but all the good tech is missing.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

One big demerit to the Hybrid is a lack of multimedia tech. You can't get the 10.2-inch touchscreen infotainment system from the standard Sorento; only the smaller 8-inch setup is offered. That means there's no native navigation system, though wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard. You also can't get the Hybrid with the Sorento's 12.3-inch reconfigurable digital gauge cluster, which is reserved for the upper-crust, gas-only SX Prestige X-Line trim.

A total of eight USB ports are available throughout the Sorento's cabin, though they're all the Type A style, as opposed to the increasingly popular USB-C. Three 12-volt plugs are standard too and a wireless charging pad is optional.

The Sorento gets a few new driver-assistance features for 2021, many of which are standard on the Hybrid. Lane-keeping assist and lane-departure warning are on deck, as is a new blind-spot collision-avoidance system that works when pulling out of a parallel parking space. A new safe-exit feature does the same thing, warning people of oncoming traffic if they try to open the door. The higher Hybrid EX trim gets adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability as well as front and rear parking sensors. The Sorento can detect and mitigate forward collisions with cars, pedestrians and cyclists. Heck, it can even mitigate head-on or t-bone collisions with its Junction Assist technology.

The Sorento sure looks sharp.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

The Sorento Hybrid looks just as good as its gas-only counterpart, which is to say it's absolutely superb. The jewel LED headlamps are framed by a jaunty daytime running-lamp signature, set off by my EX tester's gloss black grille. There are some strong character lines running the length of the Sorento's profile, but I really like the rear with its dual taillights, the outermost of which flicks into the rear fender just a bit. The Sorento doesn't exactly look like a baby Telluride, but the family resemblance is clear.

Packaging and trim level structure for the Sorento Hybrid is pretty much what-you-see-is-what-you-get. There aren't any special options packages or one-off additions, save for premium paint colors or port-installed options like floor mats and cargo nets. The base Hybrid S starts at $34,760 including $1,170 for destination, while the EX comes in at $37,760. Meanwhile, a 2021 Sorento S with the gas engine starts at $30,560 and tops out at a whopping $43,760.

If you want to dive deeper into the electrification pool, Kia will offer a plug-in hybrid Sorento next year, offering 261 hp and roughly 30 miles of all-electric range. That one sounds super compelling to me, especially with the ability to run errands on electric power alone. But for those who want a set-it-and-forget-it hybrid experience, the standard Sorento Hybrid offers a whole lot to like.