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There once was a time, not too long ago, where the Kia Sorento was a bit of an also-ran in the small-SUV market. Recently, however, the Korean automaker has been doing some serious reinvention of its brand and vehicles. The 2011 Kia Sorento is the latest model to benefit from this sweeping change, getting a new look, a new crossover architecture, and a new cabin technology suite. These days, the Sorento is looking like a serious contender to its more-established Japanese rivals. We took a fully loaded EX model though its paces to see if the Hondas and Toyotas of the world have anything to worry about.
New look, new soul
New for 2011, the Kia Sorento has gone under the knife and, predictably, received the automaker's new corporate grille, affectionately known as the Tiger Nose. The general effect is that of an enlarged Kia Forte Koup. It's very angular and very aggressive, but also quite youthful. Large blacked-out lower grill openings house optional fog lamps, giving the crossover a sort of "tuner" aesthetic.
The black plastic trim that wraps the Sorento's lower edge and wheel wells is likely meant to visually reduce the vehicle's mass and further contribute to the sporty look, and on our Spicy Red example, it does just that. However, the black plastic also visually increases the negative space between the body and the wheels, making the EX trim level's 18-inch rims somehow seem too small.
However, there's more to the Sorento's changes than a simple face-lift. Underneath its skin, it has gone from the body-on-frame SUV construction of the first-generation model to a unibody crossover construction. Gone is the live rear-axle, replaced with fully independent suspension at all four corners. Standard rear-wheel drive gives way to front-wheel drive. The new Sorento is a totally new vehicle that's lighter, faster, and more efficient than it used to be.
Because the Sorento is no longer truck based, towing capacity is down, but people-hauling capability is up. The new crossover packaging makes room for a third row of seats (standard on V-6 models and optional with the I-4), boosting maximum seating from five passengers to seven.
Cabin technology and optional packages
Like all Kias of this generation, the Sorento benefits from a strong suite of standard cabin technologies. Every 2011 Sorento on the lot is equipped with standard Bluetooth wireless for hands-free calling and audio streaming with automatic phone book import and voice command. Sirius Satellite Radio and USB and analog auxiliary inputs are also standard across the board, plus iPod connectivity can be easily added with a $35 sync cable. EX models, like our tester, gain dual-zone automatic climate control and push-button start with Smart Key keyless entry.
Checking the box next to the Limited package adds a touch-screen navigation system with real-time traffic powered by Sirus NavTraffic. This is a similar 8GB solid-state-memory-based system that we've seen in the Hyundai Sonata and Hyundai Genesis Coupe, but with an attractive black-and-red Kia-appropriate color scheme. The system is quick and quite responsive when browsing the map or entering a destination; but, oddly, it features only two-dimensional maps. When reversing, the color display is also home to the rearview camera display that features distance markers, but no moving trajectory guides.
The audio system gets an upgrade to a 10-speaker Infinity-branded system that features a center-fill, a powered subwoofer, and simulated surround audio processing. Music pumped through this Infinity system benefits from clear separation, but is still a long way from audiophile quality. Bass-heavy passages exhibit noticeable distortion and the surround sound post-processing causes podcasts and talk radio to exhibit an annoying hollow quality.
Aesthetic upgrades added with the Limited package include red interior accent illumination, which adds a sci-fi edge to the cabin at night, and mirror-chrome finished wheels--a design choice that we could live without.
Picking the Limited package automatically gets you the Premium package, which upgrades the first- and second-row seating surfaces to leather trim and adds heating elements to front seats. If you've opted to skip the Limited package and its navigation system, the Premium package is also where users will add a self-dimming rearview mirror with an integrated display for the rearview camera.
As a midcycle upgrade in late 2010, the 2011 model-year Sorento will receive Kia's new UVO by Microsoft in-car infotainment system, which debuted at CES 2010. This new upgradeable system (comparable to Ford's Sync, also by Microsoft) will feature a 4.3-inch color touch screen and natural speech recognition for access to ripped music, portable media devices, and AM/FM/Sirius Satellite Radio stations.
On the road
It's not very often that we come across an SUV of the Sorento's size that is powered by a four-cylinder engine, but lifting our tester's hood revealed a rather small 2.4-liter inline-four--the same inline-four that we found under the hood of the recently tested 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe GLS. Output is the same 175-horsepower and 169 pound-feet of torque as the Santa Fe, and power flows through the same six-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic manual-shift mode before being sent to the front wheels. An optional full-time all-wheel-drive system is available with a lockable center differential, good for areas where traction is hard to come by. However, this isn't the same advanced electromagnetic clutch-type system as is on the Santa Fe--and, as a result, it's not as fuel efficient.
Despite a nearly identical curb weight and an absolutely identical drivetrain, the Kia manages to somehow feel sprightlier than its cousin from Hyundai. Perhaps the Kia's more youthful aesthetic or slightly firmer suspension tune is what made us feel more comfortable stabbing the throttle and waking up the 2.4-liter engine; or maybe it was purely psychological. Whatever the case, the Sorento was the most fun to drive of the two Korean CUVs. The Kia's steering is less floaty, with less of a dead spot around its neutral position. However, being more fun to drive than a Santa Fe is by no means a huge achievement. That slightly firmer suspension also translated into slightly increased amounts of road noise and a bouncier ride when the pavement gets uneven; and under most circumstances, the Sorento's four-banger still feels decidedly overworked and underpowered for all but the most miserly of drivers. We'd take the beefier 3.5-liter V-6 model any day.
However, the smaller displacement engine does reward the driver with increased fuel economy. The 2.4-liter Sorento finishes the EPA test cycle at 21 city and 29 highway miles per gallon versus the V-6's 20/26 mpg. Choosing an all-wheel-drive model has an even more adverse affect on fuel economy, reducing the I-4's mileage to 21/27 and the V-6's to 19/25.
Is less actually more?
Our Spicy Red EX model arrived about as loaded as a four-cylinder Sorento could be. In fact, the only options that were left unchecked--save the usual assortment of floor mats and cargo organizers--were the $700 Third Row Seating package and the $1,700 all-wheel-drive system. The I-4 EX starts at $24,795 (plus $795 destination), but even all-in with the $2,000 Limited package's navigation and audio upgrades, the $1,500 Premium package's heated leather seating upgrade, and $250 for an autodimming rearview mirror with HomeLink, our Sorento EX only tipped the scales at an as-tested price of $29,340.
Things get tricky when comparing the four-cylinder Sorento with other SUVs, as most vehicles in this size are only available with V-6 engines. However, apples-to-apples comparison with the Toyota RAV-4 Limited reveals that although the vehicles appear to be similarly equipped, the Kia's solid-state memory-based navigation, Bluetooth audio streaming, and more spacious interior make it the technically tech-superior vehicle. It's a close call that could go either way, but the Kia definitely makes a case for itself as a good value.
However, an even better value lies further up the totem pole with the V-6 model. Stepping up to the bigger engine for $2,600 more increases the Sorento's value by making the third-row seating standard and opening up the option to add either a rear-seat entertainment system or a panoramic dual-moon roof, bringing the fully loaded price to about $33,000. At this level, the Sorento draws closer comparisons with the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot. Among this sort of company, the Sorento's price and fuel economy advantage is much higher.
|Model||2011 Kia Sorento|
|Power train||2.4-liter I-4|
|EPA fuel economy||21 mpg city/29 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||23.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Solid-state with satellite traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||Single slot CD player|
|MP3 player support||USB and aux-in standard, iPod with adapter|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth audio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||10-speaker Infinity premium audio|
|Driver aids||back up camera, cruise control, park distance sensor|
|Price as tested||$29,340|