Heavy frost blanketed Broken Bow Lake, Oklahoma, where my sons and I bade farewell to 2007. Thirty hearty souls braved the sub-freezing night for a fly fishing adventure. Predawn light revealed our trucks standing sentinel over the smoldering remains of the previous night’s campfires. Through my billowing breath, I examined ice crystals forming a thousand little shrines on the SUVs’ sheet metal. A thought occurred to me: everyone that made the journey to our pine needle-carpeted glade did so in a heavy-bodied American SUV or pickup. In that early morning chill I wondered, is the Kia Sorento ready to join the club?
The Sorento’s wildly inoffensive design remains unchanged since 2003 (and will do until 2010). Given the temper of the times, it’s no bad thing for an Old School solid rear axle trucklet to maintain relatively diminutive proportions and ape a cute ute (albeit one that doesn’t look like a badly packed linen suit). As an off-road appliance, the Sorento doesn’t put a foot wrong, from its handsome, functional lower-body cladding to its deeply generic jewelry.
Even with the EX' $2500 Luxury Package, the Korean cabin doesn’t hold a candle to its more modern competitors. On paper, the option group looks great: leather upholstery, upgraded audio, dual zone A/C, heated front seats and alloy wheels. In practice, the skins pulled tight over Sorento’s seats must be sourced from malnourished thin-skinned North Korean cows. The audio is what it should be and no more. And the rest doesn’t pass the “Hey Martha, get a load of this” test.
Furthermore, there’s no dressing-up the Kia’s drab, downmarket dash. Panels fit together as closely as Dan Aykroyd’s Norge refrigerator repairman character’s buttocks. The retractable rear cargo cover is fabricated from the same tacky and tenuous vinyl used for old white window shades. The Sorento’s Spartan layout works by bargain basement economy car standards, but this $30k Korean has moved up a league. How you gonna keep ‘em in the showroom once they’ve been to Toyondissan, or, for that matter, Detroit?
On the plus side, the Sorento’s seating positions are excellent and the head room’s adequate for occupants up to 6’3” tall. Rear knee room and bench seat bests the comfort of the similarly-sized ’08 Jeep Liberty.
Fortunately for the Sorento, backwoods fly fishermen care little for luxury–– as long as everything works as advertised and can be cleaned without much fuss. To service the “genuine truck” market to which the Sorento (by necessity) aspires, the Kia must reliably transport lifestylers and their gear to their favorite recreation areas. Excluding worrying reports of long-term mechanical reliability, this is where the Sorento shines.
The EX gets a free-breathing 3.8-liter DOHC 24-valve aluminum block six cylinder engine that revs with all the carefree abandon of a Honda. When your foot reaches into the revolutionary penthouse, the mill cranks out 262hp and 260 ft.-lbs. of torque. The Sorento’s five-speed automatic slushbox lacks the quick wit to satisfy anyone with leaden feet. Its virtue is its ability to delicately swap gears with nary a tremor. BUT– there’s enough twist to foil the rear wheel electronic traction control and induce massive oversteer (file under ‘Fun’).
Equally important, Kia found the middle ground (that eluded Jeep Liberty engineers) between harsh and uncontrollably soft rides. The Sorento manages a comfortable and refined ride without completely losing its composure during abrupt maneuvering. It leans predictably in corners but recovers with little rebound.
Kia claims the little mill is sufficient to tow 5000 lbs. While I highly doubt Sorento owners will attempt to pull trailers of that magnitude, it’s enough juice to easily motivate a full load of camping equipment, fishing tackle and humanity over highways and onto the roads less traveled.
Speaking of which, the Sorento is a REAL SUV in a relatively compact package. The Kia’s solid rear axle provides sufficient articulation for seriously uneven trails. The company claims 8.2” minimum ground clearance and rock friendly approach and departure angles (28.4 degrees / 25.8 degrees). This dog will hunt. Also archetypal: this pot bellied pig tips the scales at 4,277 lbs. and feasts on dead dino juice at the rate of 15/21 mpg.
And speaking of expensive, my 2008 Sorento EX 4×2 test rig rang-in at a healthy $28,395. Opt for 4×4, and KIA’s deeply generic SUV tops $30K. Never mind all the cute ute competition that rears their coiffed heads at that price point (CR-V, RAV-4, Escape, Equinox), but that amount of wedge can make you a Ford Explorer, which is, it must be said, a damn fine rig.
The Sorento EX is a competent driver with a zesty engine and off-road cred that’s seriously hampered by a budget car interior and over-ambitious pricing. The cheaper models– staring in the low 20's with a choice of a smaller engine and driven wheels options– make a LOT more sense. But the Sorento EX is not ready to play with the big boys.