Is a four-cylinder engine enough for an SUV? Kia thinks so, offering not one, but two four-cylinder engine options for its 2016 Sorento model. To make an engine usually associated with compact cars practical for Kia's largest SUV, the Korean automaker applies direct injection, a technology that achieves more precise and efficient combustion.
The base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine manages 185 horsepower, but I drove a 2016 Kia Sorento Limited trim model, its smaller 2-liter four-cylinder engine using direct injection and a turbocharger to make 240 horsepower. Not once while driving the Sorento did I feel a need for more power.
Kia gave its largest SUV, or crossover utility vehicle in Kia parlance, a major update for the 2016 model year, incorporating new styling, similar to what I saw on the, new drivetrain options and interesting connected cabin tech. This new Sorento comes in five trim levels: L, LX, EX, SX and Limited. The three engines available are the 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder, turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder and a 3.3-liter V-6. You can also get front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
In the US, the Sorento L will only set you back $24,900. Step up to the Limited model with standard navigation and its turbocharged 2-liter engine, and you're looking at $39,900. The model I looked at included the Technology package and all-wheel drive, pumping up the price to $45,095 total. UK buyers are looking at £28,795 for the base model, and that comes with a 2.2-liter diesel engine. Australian pricing isn't yet available for this new generation of Sorento, but it should be in the ballpark of the previous model, at AU$39,990 base.
The three gasoline engine options can make for a difficult decision with the Sorento, especially as you can get the all-wheel-drive option with each. The 2.4-liter has the lowest output but the best fuel economy, posting an EPA average of 23 mpg in the all-wheel-drive model. The 3.3-liter V-6 makes 290 horsepower, but its average fuel economy comes in at 19 mpg. The turbocharged 2-liter is the sweet spot, making 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, and hitting 21 mpg for average fuel economy. Front-wheel-drive versions average 1 or 2 mpg better.
What may be the deciding factor is that you can get three-row seating in the V-6 Sorento, good for seven passengers, but only two rows in either four-cylinder version.
I was roundly impressed with the turbocharged four cylinder in the Sorento I drove. Half-throttle from a stop was enough to launch ahead of other traffic, and the acceleration was surprisingly linear. Any turbo lag was likely mitigated by the six-speed automatic transmission, the all-wheel-drive system and the Sorento's 4,303-pound curb weight. Full-throttle starts were strong and controlled, even when facing up a hill. While the front-wheel-drive version would likely squeal the front tires, this all-wheel-drive version offered no drama.
Rolling acceleration was tepid due to the automatic transmission, which was slow to shift down.
Eco, Normal and Sport drive modes didn't change the Sorento's feel substantially. In Sport, the steering felt a little tighter and the throttle was slightly more responsive. Throttle difference between Eco and Normal modes was almost negligible.
Mostly, I found the Sorento an easy and comfortable driver, not requiring a whole lot of thought when taking off for the daily commute or running weekend errands. Drivers looking for this type of SUV aren't likely to pay much attention to the drive modes or the transmission's manual shift mode. As a modern family vehicle, the Sorento emphasizes ease of use and a nice, pliant ride.
There were no surprises as to handling. The Sorento felt a little top-heavy in the turns and tended to understeer, as you would expect an SUV of this size. The all-wheel-drive system didn't seem to positively affect the handling, and seemed more designed to handle slippery road conditions. Unlike many all-wheel-drive systems, Kia lets you lock the differential, ensuring a 50:50 torque split between front and rear wheels. That feature will come in handy if you get stuck in mud or snow.
Further contributing to stress-free driving, this Sorento came with the same driver assistance features as I saw on the Sedona minivan. The adaptive cruise control system successfully took over braking and acceleration when I got onto the highway, and even brought the Sorento to a complete stop when traffic stopped ahead. Kia opts for a relatively conservative program here, so that the Sorento came to a stop when a car in front of me slowed for a right turn, then got out of my way. It takes driver intervention to get the Sorento moving when the system brings it to a halt.
The surround-view camera system was also quite nice, considering the size of the Sorento. With it, I could see a top-down view of the vehicle stitched together from its four cameras, along with rear and front views to help me snuggle up next to other cars parked at the curb, without actually making contact.
All about the apps
Kia fits the upper trim levels of the Sorento with an 8-inch touchscreen showing audio, navigation, phone and data from satellite radio and the Internet. Lining either side of this screen are buttons for major features of the cabin tech system, but there are also onscreen buttons giving access to a home screen and a menu screen showing every feature in the system. Finding your way around this system can get a little confusing. In particular, some menu screens filled with icons require you to scroll down to see more, unlike systems from other manufacturers where you can swipe to the side to see more features.
The navigation system shows high-resolution, clean-looking maps, and I particularly like that the live traffic coverage is extensive, showing flow information for surface streets and highways. And while the maps show some landmark buildings, there is no perspective view, merely a 2D, top-down view. Google search appears along with the destination options, but it won't work unless the Sorento is logged in to a Wi-Fi hotspot. I was able to use my iPhone's Personal Hotspot feature, although it's a little fussy. I believe this is more of an iPhone problem, but I had to reactivate the hotspot every time I got in the car. Other mobile hotspots might work better.
Kia builds in the option for more apps in the Sorento, with a Download Center available onscreen. The only other apps available when I drove the Sorento were Yelp and SoundHound. Yelp integrates with navigation and gave me useful listings of local businesses, complete with photos and user ratings.
SoundHound integrates with the audio system. From any audio playback screen, radio and onboard media, I could press the SoundHound icon, initiating sound analysis that returned the artist and track name. It's a convenient system when you want to know what's playing on the radio, but it also requires the car be logged into a Wi-Fi hotspot.
For audio sources, I had HD and satellite radio, a USB port for drives and iOS integration and Bluetooth streaming. The interfaces for these sources were fairly typical, for example showing a full music library for the USB port but only offering pause and skip controls for Bluetooth sources.
In this high-trim model, the Sorento features an impressively specced audio system from Infinity, using 12 speakers and a 630-watt amp. However, the better your audio system, the worse highly compressed music tracks sound. Kia's antidote for this phenomenon comes from Infinity brand owner Harman, with a technology called Clari-Fi. Incorporated into the Sorento's stereo, Clari-Fi processes compressed audio from the likes of iTunes and Amazon and attempts to restore at least some of the lost sound details. To my ear, I heard much better audio quality when I plugged my iPhone into the car's USB port compared to streaming music over Bluetooth to the car's stereo.
Every major automaker offers a crossover/SUV, inundating the market. You can either consider it a wealth of choice or a confusing morass. Many buyers will be making the choice based on seating capacity. The 2016 Kia Sorento comes with two or three rows, letting it straddle that decision point. However, to get the 2-liter turbocharged engine you'll have to settle for a five-passenger vehicle.
And although I liked the power output and response of the turbocharged Sorento, the fuel economy gain over the V-6 is small. Kia should also be looking at transmission technology as a means of increasing fuel economy, as many makers are going beyond six speeds. That said, this Sorento offered the kind of easy driving character essential to its segment.
The Sorento's cabin tech came with many useful features, and I like how quickly the system responds to inputs. The interface is a little confusing, but not that hard to get used to. Navigation, phone and the stereo systems are all solid, but app integration seems like a first effort on Kia's part. There should certainly be an easier means of tethering the system to a smartphone hotspot. Toyota's Entune system is an example of how to do it right.
Where Kia sets itself apart from the crowd are its driver assist features, which comprise a very good suite that only a few competitors match. The surround-view camera is a particular boon when maneuvering through tight spaces, and adaptive cruise control is a great help on lengthy road trips.
|Model||2016 Kia Sorento|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 2-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||19 mpg city/25 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||21.8 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet-based streaming, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, HD radio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Infinity 630-watt 12-speaker system|
|Driver assistance||Surround-view cameras, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind-spot monitor|
|Price as tested||$45,095|