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.
With a base price in the mid-20s, the Sorento upholds Kia's value proposition very well. However, the overall price comes up to just over $30K with one essential option package. The Premium Plus package combines disparate features such as the third-row seat, an autodimming rearview mirror, and a navigation system. Annoyingly, the inclusion of navigation deletes Kia's new UVO feature, which gives advanced voice control over connected MP3 players. At some point in the future, Kia should have UVO integrated with its navigation system.
The navigation system is a worthwhile option, and ultimately more useful than UVO. It is not particularly advanced, merely offering 2D maps. However, with the maps stored in flash memory, the refresh rate was good, and the system integrated traffic data, using this information to avoid traffic jams and warn of incidents on the road ahead.
Under route guidance, it provided good instructions for upcoming turns. Entering an address manually proved very easy, and I was particularly impressed with the system's points-of-interest database. For example, it quickly found a state park from just a few characters entered. Advanced features such as connected search are missing from this system.
This integrated head unit also gives touch-screen access to the Bluetooth phone system and the stereo. The interface has a nice aesthetic, as if Kia actually hired a graphic designer to work on it, something not every automaker can boast. The phone interface makes it easy to look up recent calls or browse the contact list, which gets copied over from a paired phone.
The stereo interface is similarly easy to use, with hard buttons along the bezel for choosing radio or different local sources. The system includes Bluetooth audio streaming, and a combined USB port/auxiliary input cable supports iPod integration. Although the system shows full music library information for an attached iPod, such as album and artist categories, it only shows the file and folder structure for USB drives plugged into the system.
The Premium Plus package also brings in a 10-speaker Infinity audio system, an improvement over the base six-speaker system. The sound from this system was decent, but not particularly moving. It broadcast well into the car, giving the cabin good coverage, but sounded hollow. A stronger amp might have given the audio a richer undertone.
Looking at the 2012 Kia Sorento's technology, it comes off as a good, but not spectacular, vehicle. The navigation, stereo, and phone systems are all very useful, but do not push any advanced features. The best part of the head unit is the cohesive and nicely designed interface, something with which many automakers struggle. Direct injection is a nice piece of advanced technology for the engine, and it shows in the efficiency gains over the Sorento's port-injected engine options. Value is the Sorento's best proposition, as it comes in at a low price for a substantial amount of vehicle.
|Model||2012 Kia Sorento|
|Power train||Direct-injection 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||22 mpg city/32 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash memory-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, Bluetooth audio streaming, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Infinity 10-speaker audio system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$30,950|