Let’s get one thing out of the way right from the start: the Kia Borrego might list for a couple grand less than a 2008 Explorer, but the larger rebate on the Ford eliminates this advantage. The story is similar with other established SUVs. Since the Kia won’t cost significantly less than its highly evolved competitors— at least until Kia tosses some similarly serious cash on the hood—the late-to-the-party truck better have another major selling point. So…
“Kia: the Power to Surprise.” As far as the exterior’s concerned, the Korean automaker better hope that the best surprise is no surprise. OK, it’s not ugly. Or odd. That’s a fairly low bar, to be sure, but one that not every SUV manages to clear (need I mention any Hondas?). The flip side: the Borrego’s thoroughly conventional exterior styling is thoroughly forgettable, in a vanilla never goes into fashion kinda way. In fact, the Borrego’s sheetmetal is hardly more current– or desirable– than a circa-2002 domestic.
Leaving the Tribeca-esque grill aside, the Borrego’s interior is similarly “retro;” it could have been fashioned by a Japanese design studio five years ago, during the period before Honda and Toyota decided to get “creative.” Gauge-wise, hockey sticks for the tach and fuel level flank a circular speedo. Otherwise, it’s been there, done that; Ford’s got twenty of them on the lot. One high point: the armrests on the Borrego’s doors are comfortably padded.
Kia pitches the Borrego as a luxury SUV. But unlike Kia’s Sorento, no one will perceive a bargain basement Lexus vibe. Well, maybe one detail: the Borrego’s second row armrest is a dead ringer for the RX 350’s– except the upholstery doesn’t fit the complex shape precisely. Available toys (power tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, heated second row) better support the model’s intended positioning than the interior ambiance.
The two-row Sorento is a [nearly] midsize conventional SUV. So Kia might have made the three-row Borrego a [nearly] full-size SUV– at a time when the U.S. market hungers for full-size SUVs like a film star’s child pines for anonymity. Kia dodged that bullet. Dimensionally, the Borrego is close to Ford’s Explorer. Technically average adults will find sufficient legroom in all three rows. But, as in the Ford, you’ll find the second row a bit low to the floor and the difficult-to-access third row pretty much on the floor.
Like Ford, Kia pairs an independent rear suspension (IRS) with body-on-frame construction. IRS alone does not a corner carver make; the Borrego isn’t going to force anyone to reconsider their perception of conventional SUV dynamics. The steering is lifeless, while the rear end isn’t, never quite settling down except on glass-smooth pavement. In one of the auto world’s greatest unsolved mysteries, live-axle dinosaurs from GM and Chrysler ride more smoothly and quietly than their IRS’d competitors, including this one.
Kia sells the Borrego with either a 3.8-liter V6 or a 4.6-liter V8. The eight’s good for 337 horsepower. You can’t buy more shove in this segment without ponying-up for an SS or Hemi badge. Only the V8 Borrego hasn’t yet arrived at Kia dealers.
No matter: the V6 is no slouch, kicking out a second-to-GM 278 horsepower. The six moves the Borrego more than adequately. If anything, the V6’s lack of a sixth transmission ratio is a more serious omission than the Borrego’s “missing” fourth pair of cylinders. The automatic’s five ratios are widely spaced; drivers face a choice between too little forward thrust and an unseemly amount of engine roar. For acceleration that places less strain on the eardrums— or for heavy towing— the three-grand-extra V8 is the better way to go.
While American SUV buyers avoid V8s like the proverbial plague these days, the Borrego holds a new-to-the-brand innoculation: best-in-class fuel economy. Whereas the EPA rates a four wheel-drive Ford Explorer at 13/19 (with either the V6 or the V8), and most other midsize SUVs guzzle even more, the Borrego’s V6 manages 16/21, while the V8 clocks-in at 15/20.
Problem is, a thoroughly, utterly conventional midsize SUV with best-in-class fuel economy in today’s market is like a beauty contest winner in a leper colony. Twenty-one on the highway only looks good compared to numbers in the high teens. GM’s large crossovers with roomier, more versatile interiors and superior handling manage 23. Meanwhile, those with a boat to tow tend to prefer the longer wheelbase of a full-size SUV.
It’s hard to know what Kia was thinking when it decided to carve out a slice of a shrinking not to say anorexic vehicle genre. Place holder? Small bet on the formerly high-profit American SUV market’s resurrection? Or just bad timing, given the average model’s four-year development cycle.
One thing’s for sure: even at $27k, the powerful Kia Borrego is heading nowhere fast. The problem isn’t that the Borrego isn’t a decent vehicle. Just that it’s a safe, conventional play in a dying segment.