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It's been a little over a decade since Kia doubled-down on design, hiring TT-designer Peter Schreyer away from Audi and making him the company's chief design officer. While Kia has produced plenty of attractive machines since then, it's only in the past few years that the brand's true ambitions have surfaced. With Stinger, Kia introduced a world-class sports sedan that needed few caveats when compared to far pricier metal from Germany.
Now, the brand is looking to bring that same sort of reinvention to the three-row SUV game. It's the $31,690 2020 Kia Telluride, the company's biggest vehicle ever. With no template to build from or prior vehicle to evolve, the Telluride is totally fresh and remarkably good.
There are so many bland SUVs on the road today that I tend to celebrate anything different, and while different isn't always good, the Telluride is. It brings a lot of freshness to a typically boring segment without flaunting any risky, overly unconventional styling cues. At first glance, it just looks like a clean, modern SUV with strong, purposeful lines. A friend called it "trucky," which I'd take as a compliment. From certain angles it has a bit of a Range Rover vibe going, but its design is never derivative.
The sweeping taillights at the rear are large but well-proportioned, and while there's plenty of chrome to be found from front to back, the thing never looks gaudy. OK, the massive "TELLURIDE" badging on both the nose and the tailgate is perhaps a bit much, and the inset, vertically stacked headlights prove not to everyone's liking among those I've casually polled, but overall this is a machine that looks like it ought to cost far more than that $31,690 starting price.
That continues on the interior, where the clean, bright mix of visual materials creates a space with the air of something far more premium -- especially given the seven separate interior color schemes to choose from. That's helped by the panoramic glass roof and the Nappa leather trim on the SX Prestige Telluride I tested, part of a $2,000 package over the $41,490 SX. That also includes a premium headliner that's quite nice-feeling, but I must say it didn't take long for my hands to find some decidedly cheaper materials. The "wood" trim on the dash looks nice until you touch it, while the hard plastics on the door cards presented some sharp, ugly gaps between panels.
So the details are lacking, but the functionality is there on the SX Prestige, including heated and cooled seats up front and even in the middle row. Those middle seats even have remote, power folding controls in the rear hatch. The third row makes do with a set of easy straps to drop them into the floor or raise them back up. Adults will definitely feel cramped in the way back, though honestly there's a serviceable amount of room for short trips, and the split middle seats make entry easy. (Buyers needing seating for eight can opt for a middle bench instead.) Middle row comfort is excellent, while your average NBA superstar will not be lacking for head nor shoulder room in either of the front seats.
Infotainment duties are handled by Kia's somewhat dated Uvo system that, while basic, at least offers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Lower trims offer an 8-inch display, while my tester had the upgraded, extra-wide 10.25-inch unit. Despite that size, Kia didn't try to jam all the rig's functionality on the touchscreen. The Telluride still offers a suite of physical controls for everything from temperature to drive modes. There's even an old-school PRNDL shifter flanked by a pair of beefy grab rails.
Inside and out the Telluride looks good, very good. It's at this point you might be worried that the whole thing would fall to pieces once put into motion. I'm very happy to report that's not the case. The Telluride's drive lives up to its design. All flavors get the same 3.8-liter V6, free-breathing without turbos to deliver 291 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. That puts it well ahead of the 260 horsepower our long-term Subaru Ascent puts down, also topping the 280-horsepower Honda Pilot.
Acceleration is quite good and the eight-speed automatic is quick to engage the right cog at the right time. In exchange for that performance, my all-wheel-drive SX is EPA-rated rated for 19 miles per gallon in the city, 24 on the highway and 21 combined. In my testing, a mixture of highway and back roads, I scored 22. The front-wheel-drive Telluride bumps each of those figures by one or two, offering 20 in the city, 26 on the highway and 23 combined.
So fuel economy isn't the Telluride's strong suit, but then few are buying three-row SUVs for frugality at the pump. Much more important is ride quality, and while the Telluride doesn't offer the cosseting compliance of Honda's Pilot, it does a commendable job of controlling its 4,354-pound curb weight. The Telluride proved soft enough to lull my passengers asleep on an extended highway stretch, yet still engaging enough to be enjoyable on some twistier roads.
In terms of sheer capability and performance, you're honestly not giving up a lot if you go with the base Telluride LX, which starts at $31,690. For that you get the same 3.8-liter V6 and 5,000-pound towing capacity as the rest, plus the family-friendly, eight-seat layout. However, given the value here, I'd live it up and step up to the top-shelf SX trim, like the model I tested.
$41,490 gets you in the door, plus another $2,000 for AWD. I'd add $795 for the towing package with self-leveling rear suspension, necessary to get the boat to the lake, but probably skip the $2,000 SX Prestige package unless my second-row passengers really needed heated and cooled seats. And that's it. The SX includes access to Kia's Uvo telematics, which means remote preconditioning, plus the full suite of adaptive safety systems, including automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection and an advanced adaptive cruise system that can not only handle stop-and-go traffic, but automatically adjust speed based on the current posted limit.
That's a lot of car for the $45,330 total price, which includes the $1,045 destination fee.
As far as competition goes, as mentioned above the Telluride offers more power than either the Subaru Ascent or Honda pilot, though in AWD trim its combined EPA figure is falls short of the 23 mpg Ascent and the 22 mpg Pilot. Its towing is greater than the Pilot, however and, if you're not too picky about materials, its interior is miles ahead of either.
Finally, there's the upcoming Hyundai Palisade, which under the skin is much the same as the Telluride. Choosing between those two will likely come down to whichever strikes your visual fancy.
Kia's first three-row SUV is a knockout. Though literally a little rough around the edges on some of the interior bits, its look, its performance and its value are truly top-notch. The rise of Kia continues, and with vehicles like this it's hard to know where it might stop.