Looking like a pill bug, the squat body of the 2014 Kia Sorento hides seating for seven, an economical engine, and an easy driving character, making it the perfect mobile bunker for the modern suburban family. The Sorento fits squarely into the class of crossover vehicles replacing the minivans and SUVs that once sat in every suburban driveway.
Inside, the Sorento made me feel safe and secure with its thick sides and small windows, a seeming appeal to that strain of American paranoia leading to gated communities and an irrational fear of home invasions. A vast panorama sunroof seems to mitigate the Sorento's shielding from the outside world, but could be a means for family members to keep an eye on spy drones soaring through the skies above.
Design aside, Kia has built up quite an arsenal of tech, and the Sorento draws its fair share for the 2014 model year. Direct injection enhances the engine's efficiency, convenient telematics features link the car with smartphones, and the virtual speedometer looks as real as any analog gauge. As an added bonus, Kia gives the Sorento driver-tunable steering.
Kia builds the Sorento in four trim levels -- LX, EX, SX, and SX-L -- with front-wheel- or all-wheel-drive available in all. Most come with a 3.3-liter V-6, while a base LX model comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Kia sent CNET a front-wheel-drive SX model, and I was impressed at how many tech features came standard. Navigation, a blind spot monitor, and an Infinity audio system were all included.
The only option in this Sorento were the third-row seats.
Access to the third row isn't easy, best reserved for the small, limber limbs of children. Put grandma back there and it will take half an hour to get her out. And with the Sorento's overall length at only 15.3 feet, you have a choice between two extra passengers in the third row or cargo -- there isn't room for both.
Surprise times two
Kia's slogan, 'The power to surprise', proved true a couple of times with the 2014 Sorento. When I first saw the new model at last year's Los Angeles auto show, the LCD speedometer was an unexpected bit of tech. Similar to that in the Kia Cadenza, the center of the Sorento's instrument cluster is an LCD, flanked by a tachometer on the left and a fuel gauge on the right.
The virtual speedometer shown on the LCD looked indistinguishable from the real thing, perfectly mimicking an analog gauge. On starting the engine, Kia uses the LCD for a little welcome show, with an image of the Sorento springing to life. When it is off, the screen is, of course, dead black.
Kia uses the center of the speedometer to show useful information, selected by the driver, for trip, stereo, navigation, phone, and settings. Because the entire thing is an LCD, Kia has great flexibility in showing different screens, for example giving full color, turn-by-turn directions. But Kia could be taking greater advantage of the display, as its audio screen shows only the currently playing source, lacking track and artist names.
The second big surprise from the Sorento came when I got in and pushed an odd little button on the steering wheel. With the button's steering wheel icon, I thought it might be a heater, but instead it launched a screen in the virtual speedometer showing the tuning of the Sorento's steering gear. Pushing the button repeatedly, I could toggle through Comfort, Normal, and Sport.
Made possible by the Sorento's electric power steering system, using the Comfort setting gives the wheel a lot of play, which can be nice on long freeway cruises when you don't want twitchy steering. However, it did not seem to give the steering any extra boost then the other modes. Sport sharpened the wheel response considerably, causing an instant reaction from the smallest steering wheel movement.
I used the Sport setting while driving the Sorento along twisty mountain roads, but this bulky crossover is no sports car. The sharper steering response did not entirely counteract the inherent understeer, and the six-speed automatic transmission's manual mode didn't change gears fast enough for quick downshifts when entering a turn.
Instead of constantly changing the steering mode for different driving conditions, I rather expect drivers to find the mode most suited to their driving style. Naturally aggressive drivers will want to keep it in Sport mode, while those who regard cars merely as transportation will find Comfort or Normal more to their tastes. It is nice that Kia offers the choice.
The Sorento also offers an Eco mode, ostensibly to improve mileage. However, I could not discern much of a difference in throttle response when the green Eco icon was lit up in the instrument cluster.
Kia's 3.3-liter V-6 demonstrates the efficiency of direct injection technology. Producing 290 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque, it has higher output than many port injection 3.5-liter V-6 engines on the market. And with the six speed automatic transmission, the Sorento earns EPA fuel economy estimates of 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. Monitoring the trip computer average, I found the vehicle stayed well within that range. My final average, after a mix of highway and city driving, came in at an impressive 22.8 mpg.
And while the transmission could be slow to kick down when I jumped on the gas, the engine responded with a very satisfying growl. A little too much throttle on hill starts made the front wheels spin for a moment before letting the Sorento take off, and when I needed to pass other cars, that engine gave the Sorento the necessary pull.
I really like this engine, and it works perfectly for Kia's larger cars.
The Sorento uses a fixed suspension, offering no modes to match the steering tuning. But I found it reasonably comfortable when driving over a variety of roads, competently handling the bumps. I noticed over one rough section a recurring bass thump in the cabin, which I verified was not coming from the speakers. But the suspension handled the associated road bumps with appropriate damping.
The suspension kept the Sorento reasonably stable in the turns, but understeer kept me from pushing the car too fast.
Kia cites some offroad specifications for the Sorento, but with ground clearance of 7.3 inches, this crossover is clearly designed for pavement. Our front-wheel-drive model was certainly more suited to the Costco parking lot than Jeep trails.
The easy drivability of the Sorento was complemented by the simple and responsive standard cabin electronics in this SX model. Kia has never seemed to overreach when it comes to navigation and other infotainment features in the cabin, avoiding strained interfaces and features that are not quite ready for prime time. That usually means you won't find cutting edge features from Kia, but at least everything will work very well.
The navigation unit, with maps stored on an easily accessed SD card, shows up on an 8-inch touch screen. There is no home screen showing all the functions, but hard buttons along the bottom launch navigation, phone, and audio source screens.
The maps display only in plan view, either direction of travel or north-up, with no perspective or 3D view. The aesthetics, with a beige background and sometimes jaggy street labels, are not quite as nice as what I saw in the Kia Cadenza, but the maps are functional. They showed traffic flow and incidents, and I could read them quickly at a glance.
Route guidance included voice prompts that gave street names along with lane guidance and large graphics for freeway junctions. However, I found it very annoying that the system brought up a confirmation screen every time it had to recalculate the route. If I missed a turn, it covered the map with a screen showing my route options. When traffic problems appeared on the route, it brought up a dialog screen asking if I wanted a detour, then brought up the confirmation screen again.
I initially kept hitting the OK buttons on the screens, until I found they would close of their own accord if I left them long enough.
I would prefer the system to recalculate my routes without quite so much drama. Especially if I'm in a strange city, looking for a destination, and miss a turn, I don't want the system covering the map for the crucial time immediately afterward, when what I most need is updated directions. And the traffic thing will make that feature useless in cities like Los Angeles, where every route is bound to have at least 10 traffic issues. The system should work out the new routes in the background, so as not to disturb the driver with unnecessary confirmation screens.
Enhancing destination input, Kia offers its UVO telematics system in the Sorento. This system, accessed on the car's LCD or from the UVO smartphone app, has a roadside assistance and vehicle maintenance features. More useful on an everyday basis are the parking location and online destination features. You can tell the car to remember where you parked it, then find it again with the phone app.
You can also use Google's Send-to-car feature with the Web implementation of Google Maps. Look up multiple destinations online, then choose Send to car. Once in the Sorento, when you select the My POIs (places of interest) option from the UVO menu, it will add the destinations to the navigation system.
Missing, however, is an online local search feature in the car.
Likewise, the stereo does not offer any online music app integration, something competitors are picking up on rapidly. While driving the Sorento, I made do with Bluetooth streaming and the USB port, using it for both a USB drive and my iPhone. The music interface works like most these days, with a full music library for an iOS device cabled to the car. The interface merely shows a file and folder structure for USB drives, but also lets you select image files from the drive to display on the LCD.
The Bluetooth streaming interface showed artist and track names, but only had Pause and Play buttons. I found that the Track Skip button on the steering wheel worked when streaming music from a portable device.
Music played through an Infinity audio system, Kia's premium audio partner. I was very pleased with the clarity and balance of this system. The opening chords of "Reflections of the Marionette," by Two Gallants, played with chilling distinction. At the system's default levels, bass came through with a satisfying thump, and the amp had some headroom when I wanted to bump the levels. I would rate the sound from this system as just below true audiophile quality, and therefore a pretty good bargain.
The phone system showed the usual features, downloading my phone's contact list and letting me select names from the screen. Through voice command I could also say the name of a contact to make a call. Voice command was limited for audio playback control, but when entering destinations, it let me say the entire address string.
The Sorento offered only a few features to aid driving, although it was nice that they came standard. The blind-spot monitor lit up alerts in the side mirrors when cars were in the adjoining lanes. A rear-view camera with distance lines made up for the poor rearward visibility. And when I put the Sorento in reverse, the side mirrors dipped down, letting me see the curb when parallel parking.
Adaptive cruise control would have been a nice additional feature, especially since the Sorento would make a good road trip vehicle.
Most of the tech features I found in the 2014 Kia Sorento were pretty run-of-the-mill, but they generally worked very well. The big drawback from the navigation system was its frequent confirmation screens. The stereo sounded very good, and it offered a typical array of audio sources. The fact that these tech features came standard in the SX model was an added bonus.
The steering settings and the LCD speedometer were nice high-tech touches, showing that Kia has some ambition for the future.
The direct injection engine puts the Sorento ahead of at least some of the competition. I liked its fuel economy and ready power. The automatic transmission and ride quality were about what I would expect in this class of vehicle.
The third-row option exhibits a few faults, most notably difficult access. I recently reviewed the Nissan Pathfinder, which had much better third-row entry. Likewise, the Pathfinder does not sacrifice all of its cargo space for the third row, as the Sorento does.
|Model||2014 Kia Sorento|
|Powertrain||Direct injection 3.3-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/25 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||22.8 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard flash memory-based with real-time traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio |
|Bluetooth audio streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio, auxiliary input|
|Audio system||Infinity 10-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Blind-spot monitor, rear-view camera|
|Price as tested||$36,900|