2021 Kia Sorento first drive review: Another home run

Kia knocks it out of the park with the redesigned Sorento SUV.

Craig Cole Former reviews editor
Craig brought 15 years of automotive journalism experience to the Cars team. A lifelong resident of Michigan, he's as happy with a wrench or welding gun in hand as he is in front of the camera or behind a keyboard. When not hosting videos or cranking out features and reviews, he's probably out in the garage working on one of his project cars. He's fully restored a 1936 Ford V8 sedan and then turned to resurrecting another flathead-powered relic, a '51 Ford Crestliner. Craig has been a proud member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).
Craig Cole
6 min read

Kia builds great vehicles these days, something I was reminded of by the Telluride I reviewed not long ago. That three-row SUV is one of the best in its segment, though it might be more vehicle than some people need. If this sounds like you, I have good news: You can drive home in a three-row utility vehicle that's a little smaller and a bit more affordable than the Telluride, all without ever leaving your local Kia dealer. The 2021 SUV distills much of its big brother's goodness down into a trimmer, and some might say even more stylish, package.

A handsome hauler

The fourth-generation Sorento is much more rugged-looking than its rounded predecessor, resembling a cross between the pint-sized Seltos and much larger Telluride. Standard LED headlights punctuate its front end, while the coarsely textured grille is more sculptural than what you'll find on other Kias. This vehicle's front and sides are beautifully done, though its rear is a bit busy, with too many creases and some Audi-inspired faux exhaust outlets in the bumper. At least this Sorento's Sapphire Blue paint is stunning, even on a drab Michigan day.

The Sorento is offered in five different trim levels, with either front- or all-wheel drive available across the range. Accentuating this SUV's flanks, six separate wheel designs are available, ranging between 17 and 20 inches in diameter. The model seen here is fitted with the largest rollers offered, which also have a gloss-black finish.

The 2021 Kia Sorento is pleasant and practical

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A spacious, thoughtfully designed cabin

In keeping with its attractive body, the Sorento's interior is quite excellent, at least in high-end SX  Prestige  trim. There's plenty of soft plastic, the quilted leather seating surfaces look great, and its textured trim pieces add some visual interest without being overly busy. Lots of Telluride influence is apparent as well, from the position of the seat-heater switches to the design of the door pulls to the slick-feeling mechanical shifter. Overall, this interior is comfortable, spacious and well built, but it's not quite perfect.

Unusually, Kia decided to go with both physical switches and touch-sensitive buttons for the climate-control system. All of these are clearly labeled and easy to use, being mounted relatively high on the dashboard, but it's strange having both kinds of controls right next to each other. Just pick one style and go with that (preferably the physical ones, OK?).

2021 Kia Sorento SX Prestige FWD - SUV
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2021 Kia Sorento SX Prestige FWD - SUV

Aside from a few minor quibbles, this interior is extremely nice.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Another strange element in this Kia's cabin is the arrangement of its air vents. The trapezoid-shaped primary HVAC outlets are large and easy to adjust for flow and direction, but there's a tiny supplemental vent below each of those that's of questionable usefulness. They swivel slightly from side to side, but don't provide much air and are not in a particularly useful location.

Similarly, there's something odd about the dashboard layout. Like so many vehicles these days, the Sorento is available with a digital instrument cluster, one spanning 12.3 inches. Attractive and highly legible, this panel makes it a cinch to keep track of vital stats like speed, mileage and fuel consumption. The issue, however, is the housing that surrounds this display. Off to the left, there's a tab-like section that extends beyond the meter-cluster housing. It looks totally out of place, like it's supposed to have buttons or something on it. Instead, it's just a vacant extension of glossy black plastic, seemingly with no purpose.

Speaking of displays, two sizes are offered in the new Sorento. Lesser models feature an 8-inch touchscreen, but higher-end variants come with a bright and colorful 10.2-incher. This panel is home to an excellent infotainment system that's snappy and intuitive. For added flexibility, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard across the model lineup.

Unlike some of its rivals, including the Nissan Murano, Honda Passport and Jeep Cherokee, this new Sorento offers three rows of seats, in both six- and seven-passenger configurations. As for comfort, you might be surprised just how accommodating this Kia is. Its front buckets are excellent, and so are the second-row chairs, being plenty spacious for adult passengers. This SUV's rear-most bench is hospitable, too, even if the bottom cushion is basically on the floor, which puts your knees at chin-level when seated. Still, there's enough headroom and legroom for grownup passengers to survive.

2021 Kia Sorento SX Prestige FWD - turbo
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2021 Kia Sorento SX Prestige FWD - turbo

If you like torque, you'll love this 2.5-liter turbocharged engine.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Powertrain possibilities

The new Sorento will be available with a whopping four different powertrains. This includes a base, naturally aspirated engine, a conventional hybrid drivetrain, a plug-in hybrid powertrain (which will be available sometime next year) and the offering in my tester: a 2.5-liter turbo-four, delivering 281 horsepower and 311 pound-feet of torque. That twist, which is available throughout a broad range, hits with Blitzkrieg speed, shooting the Sorento forward when you give it the spurs. Such antics can result in a bit of torque steer, occasionally causing my front-drive tester's tiller to squirm. That engine, despite pulling like a mule, is impressively smooth and quiet, if a touch grumbly when working hard.

An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard with that 2.5-liter turbocharged engine. Rather than having a conventional torque converter, it features a dual wet-clutch design. While this configuration delivers blazingly quick gear changes, its swiftness comes at the expense of refinement. Unfortunately, this transmission doesn't respond naturally at low speeds, feeling disconnected as you apply throttle to start accelerating from a stop. It also judders faintly when taking off. I'm not sure why Kia engineers decided to go this route since many conventional automatics are plenty quick, but the vehicle would have probably been better served by something with a torque converter.

The real-world fuel economy this Sorento deliveries is quite impressive, especially when you consider its strong performance. In my hands, it averaged 27.2 miles per gallon according to the onboard computer. That's better than its advertised combined score of 25 mpg. In city driving, this vehicle is rated at 22 mpg, and on the highway it should return 29 mpg.

2021 Kia Sorento SX Prestige FWD - style
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2021 Kia Sorento SX Prestige FWD - style

The Sorento feels more expensive than it is.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Dynamically decent

The Sorento's powertrain is a bit of a mixed bag, but the driving dynamics are solid. Its steering is smooth but unremarkable, like just about any other crossover available these days. The ride quality, however, is excellent -- supple yet well controlled at the same time.

Of course, a range of different driving modes is offered, with Sport changing the vehicle's feel most dramatically. It sharpens the throttle response, almost to the point it becomes jumpy, quickens the shifts, holds onto lower gears and alters the digital instrument cluster's appearance.

A number of advanced driver aids are standard, including things like automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection. Available goodies include blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-keeping assist, which helps the Sorento track like a locomotive. This feature is seriously effective, never sawing at the steering wheel or wigging out when lane markers disappear. In fact, the Sorento's lane-centering system is superior to the one in the Telluride I reviewed not long ago. My Sorento tester also features adaptive cruise control with stop-and-co capability and a crisp surround-view camera system that makes parking in tight spaces a breeze.

An excellent choice

Aside from a few questionable design choices and a less-than-ideal transmission, the 2021 Kia Sorento SX Prestige is an excellent all-around SUV. Sweetening the deal, this vehicle is also a strong value. Including $1,170 in destination charges, a front-wheel-drive LX model starts at $30,560. That's $1,300 more than its entry-level predecessor, but additional standard equipment should help offset that price hike. Of course, if you need all-wheel drive, plan on budgeting $1,800 more. In comparison, the nearly top-of-the-line version tested here checks out for a still-reasonable $42,205. But honestly, the Sorento feels like it should cost at least a few grand more than that thanks to its comfortable and spacious interior, pleasant dynamics and attractive design.