By on March 17, 2010

Within my first mile in the original Kia Sorento I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is that a live rear axle I feel?” I stopped the vehicle, peered beneath it and, sure enough, there it was. The Sorento looked like a car-based crossover, but body-on-frame construction, a two-speed transfer case, and a live rear axle dwelled beneath the Mercedes-inspired sheetmetal. The upshot: superior off-road capability, but subpar fuel economy and ride quality. Well, the Sorento has been redesigned, and as with the Sportage before it the trucky bits have been tossed in favor of a Hyundai car-based foundation. Specifically, the 2011 Kia Sorento is now a Hyundai Santa Fe beneath the surface. Now that it’s much like all of the others, why buy the Kia?

Ironically, the second-generation car-based Kia has more angular, and so truckier, exterior styling than the original did. It looks more upscale and sophisticated than the utterly forgettable Santa Fe, but doesn’t induce double takes. Inspiration has been drawn from many other SUVs, including those from Acura, BMW, and Lexus, such that this time there’s no clear source. But there’s nothing obviously Kia here aside from the badge, either.

Interior appearance is a matter of trim level. The design itself is fairly plain, with a detail lifted here and there from the Lexus RX. In base trim the interior ambiance borders on cheap. The EX Package 2’s perforated leather does much to make the interior a place worth spending some time in. Even then the interior only seems upscale if you don’t touch anything or look at it too closely. Kia has turned out nicer interiors in the past.

One possible reason for the cheaper materials: the new Sorento is assembled in Georgia, diminishing the savings from Korean labor. Given that this is a new design assembled in a new plant, there could be some early glitches. Some fit and finish flaws were evident in all of the Sorentos I examined, and both of those I drove suffered from minor rattles and creaks. Kia’s got some tweaking to do.

Many compact SUVs have become so car-like that I was surprised to encounter the seating position of a conventional SUV in the new Sorento. You sit high relative to the instrument panel, and the windshield is upright by current standards. As a result the cabin feels narrow, even though the specs sheet asserts an impressive 59.3 inches of front shoulder room. Those seeking the character of an SUV will prefer the high, upright driving position, those essentially seeking a tall wagon won’t. Only the shortest drivers will see a point to the driver seat’s height adjustment.

One nifty trick abandoned by the Santa Fe for 2010, but adopted by the Sorento: an available third-row seat within a relatively compact 184-inch-long exterior. To fit three rows within such compact dimensions, something’s got to give, and that obvious something is legroom and cargo room. Second-row legroom looks decent in the specs, but in reality it’s just adequate for adults, and the seat is a little low to the floor. The third row is very low to the floor, as is often the case, and my 5-9 self barely fits. For transporting kids, though, there’s more than enough space. Just don’t count on putting more than a single row of grocery bags behind the third-row seat.

The EPA fuel economy ratings have certainly improved with the redesign. The 262-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 in the 2009 (there was no 2010) was rated for 15 city, 21 highway. The 276-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 in the 2011 better both numbers by five, to 20/26—outstanding numbers for such a powerful engine in a fairly tall, two-ton vehicle. Step down to the 175-horsepower four, and the EPA suggests 21/29. I didn’t observe such numbers during my suburban test drives, though. Instead, with both engines the trip computer reported an average in the 17s. With a lighter foot 20 might be possible, but anything higher seems a stretch.

As the specs suggest it should, the V6 feels much stronger than the four. Sounds much nicer, too. The four provides adequate acceleration, but its kitchen appliance impersonation lends an economy feel to the entire package. Since the four’s fuel economy isn’t substantially better than the V6’s, the choice between them seems obvious: spend the extra $1,900, plus another $700 for the then-required third-row seat.

Handling isn’t sporty, but there’s no float at speed and not much roll in turns compared to other similarly tall vehicles. The suspension feels firmer than that in the Santa Fe, such that the ride turns jittery—but not harsh—over patchy pavement. There are quieter, smoother compact SUVs to be found.

More often than not, people buy Korean cars to save money. So how cheap is the new Sorento? Well, it starts at $20,790. Load one up, and the sticker tops $35,000. TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool finds that a similarly loaded Chevrolet Equinox lists for $340 more—and also includes fewer features, such as no third row. Adjust for these, and the Kia’s advantage is around $1,500. Compare base four-cylinder models with no options, and the Chevrolet lists for $395 more, but includes about $600 in additional features, bringing them within a couple hundred dollars. Run similar comparisons with the RAV4, and the Toyota lists for less, but the Kia more than compensates with additional features. Adjust for these features and compare invoice prices—Toyota gives its dealers larger margins to play with—and the difference is too small to matter. Compared to other compact SUVs, the new Kia Sorento is clearly a good value, but it’s no longer the bargain Korean vehicles used to be.

The Kia is a little wider than the Equinox, and longer as well when compared to the RAV4. And Kia offers the smaller Sportage for people seeking a truly compact SUV. So perhaps Kia is hoping people will cross-shop it with intermediate SUVs like Toyota’s Highlander and Honda’s Pilot. The price difference in this case—about $4,000—is much more attractive. But the Sorento is closer to the compacts than the intermediates in size.

If the new Sorento’s driving position was more car-like, the interior a little better finished, and the chassis a bit more polished, Kia would have a clear winner. As it is, the SUV delivers no knock-out punch, so the decision comes down to the judges’ buyer’s personal scoring. Need an occasional-use third row and also want a semi-luxurious, leather-trimmed interior, but don’t want to pay Pilot/Highlander prices? Then the 2011 Kia Sorento could well be your best bet. Don’t need the third row? Then suddenly there are alternatives that are better at one thing or another, if never everything, and that also cost about the same.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of vehicle pricing and reliability data

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38 Comments on “Review: 2011 Kia Sorento...”

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    “It looks more upscale and sophisticated than the utterly forgettable Santa Fe,”

    It’s all a matter of taste , isn’t it. I’ve always considered the current Santa Fe to be the best looking vehicle in its’ class.

  • avatar

    ” Instead, with both engines the trip computer reported an average in the 17s.”

    In this day and age, that strikes me as ridiculous. I used to muster that kind of mileage in 302 powered T Bird.

    Is it the weight?

  • avatar

    I drove one twice about a month ago and I walked away very impressed. A friend is looking to buy a mid-sized SUV and this for the price looks like the best option.

  • avatar

    The Santa Fe isn’t unattractive, it’s just not distinctive or memorable.

    The Sorento is heavier and more powerful than that T-Bird was.

    With prompt quarterly updates, TrueDelta could have reliability stats on the new Sorento well ahead of any other source.

    Not yet signed up to help with the survey? Details here:

    • 0 avatar

      Mike , your comments have been very helpful. I am buying a Sorento from the European market. Are the reviews the same as the US? I read in your comments that there was not a 2010 but it is being sold as a 2010 Leather interior 7 seater. I found the interior to be as you said a bit more plastic than I would like but the leather interior softens the cheap plastic look. Anyone with info on the Sorento Righthand drive models I need feedback please..

  • avatar

    Comparison to the T-Bird might not be relevant enough. Let’s do a more relavant comparison. My wife’s Mercury Monterey has a 4.2L V6 and we can fit either 6 adults or 4 adults and 3 kids in a comfort. It’s trip computer shows 17 mpg. If I reset it before a long freeway-only/mostly roadtrip, it is not unusual for it to show 20mpg.

    • 0 avatar

      That is getting closer…at about 200hp. I suspect the 262hp Sorento would get about 21-22mpg on the highway. It isn’t uncommon for testers to get considerably worse mileage based on their driving style.

  • avatar

    “If the new Sorento’s driving position was more car-like”

    This is an SUV no? If you want a car-like driving position, buy a car. High seating position is one of the reasons people like SUVs, mainly, because it offers a better view than a car, especially in an American oversized SUV jungle.

  • avatar

    The price comparisons are interesting but I assume the Kia will have a lower resale value than many, if not all, the vehicles you compared it to.

  • avatar

    We test drove both this in basic 4 cylinder trim and the new Equinox. Neither set our hearts on fire for exterior styling and both were rather plain looking. The Nox however seemed the better bargain to us with it’s quicker Direct injected 2.4, better highway mileage(the Nox was showing 2 better combined MPG on the same hour long test drive route comapared to the Kia)and the sliding fore/aft rear seat made more sense to us. The Nox had a bit nicer interior furnishings too and a lovely to look at dash. The tables would be turned somewhat if these were V6 models however. The Kia V6 outputs 12 more ponies with the bonus of better fuel economy and the higher trim levels offer a comparable interior making the trick rear seat in the Nox the deciding factor.

  • avatar

    The styling looks most to me like a stretched Grand Vitara.

    I’d like to have seen more information about the drivetrain. Transmission? AWD/4wd setup? Off-road capability? Optional skid plates?

  • avatar

    Dosen’t anybody make a compact SUV with a four, stick, and low range anymore?

  • avatar

    Too similar to the Santa Fe. Kia really needs to differentiate itself from Hyundai, not pull a GM.

    • 0 avatar

      It does make one wonder…with so many sister models, between the two, but I think the Hyundai marriage has been good for Kia. It has gotten better cars as a result.

      Kia looks to be marketed as a younger…possibly sportier brand, while Hyundai is trying to go more upscale…with models like the Genesis sedan and upcoming Equus.

      The Kia Forte, is better looking, IMHO, than the Elantra it is based on. Similarly, the soon to be released, Optima, has a sportier, younger look than the new Sonata.

    • 0 avatar

      If I were to compare this to GM it would seem *almost* like Kia is supposed to be like Chevy, Hyundai seems like Buick and the Genesis is their tentative stab toward a Cadillac (though the Genesis coupe skews that last assumption a bit). Kia’s models are gaining their own personality and style further apart from Hyundai. Sure, they’ve still got work to do, but each iteration seems substantially better than the last. I also have to admit liking the Kia styling over Hyundai’s.

  • avatar

    I test drove the ’10 Santa Fe and the new Sorento and both my wife and I found the Sorento to be a lot more fun to drive. I realize “fun to drive” is a bit generous, but the Hyundai felt sort of stately and mellow while the Kia was more eager and snappier. We got the EX V6 model and we really like the interior – the leather package makes it feel a lot more upscale, I’m getting to appreciate the backup camera more each time I use it, and the panoramic sunroof really opens the car up and makes it feel extra spacious. The 3rd row seats, while low, are quite comfortable for us (we’re 5’5″ – 5’8″) and it has dedicated A/C for each of the 2nd and 3rd row. Definitely good for hauling 7 people across town or taking the kids’ friends along for a longer ride.

    The V6 is massively better than the I4, not just power but smoothness, sound, and overall feel of the entire car as well.

    We bought the car to replace a ’95 BMW convertible as we are expecting twins this summer and really feel we got a lot of car for our money, and couldn’t be happier. Huge cargo space, roomy inside, lots of power to haul up the streets of San Francisco with a full load, easy to install car seats, lots of high-end features (I love streaming music from my Blackberry over Bluetooth), and much better looking in person than the Hyundai, Rav4, or CR-V. Only negative so far is fuel economy is averaging 22 on the freeway and 19 in town, but it only has 200 miles on it so expect an improvement over time.

  • avatar

    “The Patriot has a low range only with the CVT.”

    I think it’s more accurate to say the CVT Patriot has one low gear. I don’t think it has a transfer case with low range, nor a low “range” in the CVT.

  • avatar

    I am keenly interested in knowing how the new generation of Hyundais and Kias will age over the long run, as that’s far more important to me than initial quality B.S. put forth by J.D. Powers or even one or two year dependability studies.

    Past Hyundais and Kias did okay for a couple of years after new purchase, as did most cars, and then saw their problem rates go vertical in about the 4th year and forward.

  • avatar

    Based on what I saw at the auto show, I like the Sorento a lot. I would like to drive one. I find it interesting that its four cylinder makes more horsepower than the six in my old Montero Sport, and overall, is a lighter package. I used to tow up to 5000 pounds with the Mitsubishi, which easily managed pulling my C4 Corvette through the hills of PA. Being car based, I doubt I could expect anything close to that with the Sorento, nor could I expect to throw it into the deep mud pits to which I used to subject my Montero Sport.

    All that being said, I find the Sorento to be a very appealing package, and I look forward to taking one out for a spin. Thanks for the review!

  • avatar

    “One possible reason for the cheaper materials: the new Sorento is assembled in Georgia, diminishing the savings from Korean labor”

    This is incorrect.

    Labor price in Korea is much more expensive, which is why Kia and Hyundai built plants in the U.S.

    The reason why this car has cheaper interior probably has to do with the fact that the car itself is substantially better engineered than the previous model, so it costs a lot more to produce. But they’re trying to make it profitable at $20k base price, so they gotta cut corners somewhere. It’s a shame because like you said, some of the older Kias do have nicer interior materials.

  • avatar

    “There are quieter, smoother compact SUVs to be found.”

    Michael – Id be interested to hear which you would point to. I am really trying to find something with a quiet cabin and have struggled. I tried the Forester, which I found the noisiest. Honda’s traditionally suffer from road noise (I have the Odyssey and thats the case) and the Rav4 was OK. Is the Sorento out of line with these? Id be interested to hear your thoughts on that…

  • avatar

    Mike , your comments have been very helpful. I am buying a Sorento from the European market. Are the reviews the same as the US? I read in your comments that there was not a 2010 but it is being sold as a 2010 Leather interior 7 seater. I found the interior to be as you said a bit more plastic than I would like but the leather interior softens the cheap plastic look. Anyone with info on the Sorento Righthand drive models I need feedback please..

  • avatar

    I have a 2004 Sorento it is the typical Mom car. I literally drive kids to and from school. I only have 35,000 miles on it so far. I like the body changes in the 2011, how do the two compare? My only complaint about my car is I get about 14 miles to the gallon. My interior is a lot better than the Santa Fe of the same year. So I am wondering if I got the 2011 would it be a trade up or down?

  • avatar

    It would definitely be a trade up, since it is a more refined, carlike vehicle. It should get somewhat better gas mileage as well, based on Michael Karesh’s review. And, it’s an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety “Top Safety Pick.”

  • avatar

    I still love almost everything about my 2011 Sorento EX V6. What I don’t love is that after 2100 miles my city gas mileage is now hovering around 11-12mpg… If I average just my freeway driving it’s mid-20’s, right where it should be, but driving in San Francisco – driving very gently I might add – our fuel economy plummets. I’ve already complained to Kia and had the shop take a look at it, so far nothing. I would wholeheartedly recommend the car if it weren’t for this issue.

  • avatar

    I’d say you probably can’t do much better than 11-12 mpg in San Francisco considering the steep hills and congestion. Your highway mileage confirms that it must not be the vehicle, but the city conditions.

  • avatar

    Purchased my 2011 KIA Sorento LX on October 9th, 2010.

    Noticed oil drips on my parking stall the following week. Took it in the dealer for inspection on October 16th, they found that the engine gasket needed replacement. None available locally, had to order it in. They provided a rental at their cost. Had my Sorento back 3-4 days later.

    Noticed oil drips on November 6th, 2010. Took back to KIA. Service guy said the rear main seal needed replacement but it wasn’t dripping enough that I couldn’t drive it for the weekend. He ordered the replacement part.

    Dropped off November 8th, 2010, got a rental back.

    Service called on November 10th, 2010. Sorento ready for pick up. It wasn’t the rear main seal after all, but the seal they replaced in October that was “pinched” (re-assembly quality issue).

  • avatar

    I’m the first (I think) to post that actually owns a 2011 KIA Sorento SX (bought in Feb. 2011)! Since I actually have one, I’ll tell you that I’m a big Ford fan, and we lookedat the Ford Flex, Ford Edge and 2011 Ford Explorer…as well as most of the competition including the Acura MDX and Lexus RX 350, Equinox, Highlander, Honda Pilot, etc.

    The KIA was the last thing we looked at, and it almost escaped our radar completely. But after we read up on it, compared features, test drove a couple of them, and talked to owners…we bought a SX. First of all, it’s Made in the USA…important to us. Secondly it is packed to the brim with true value!

    We got the SX top of the line, with all the options except the “window washer heater”. There are a lot of added stuff in the SX package, and lowered dual stage shock absorbers take handling to a new level with none of the former jittery ride that occured on the earlier 2011 models.

    It is absolutely unbelievable how KIA can pack more standard stuff into this Sorento, many items are not even available on even the higher end SUV’s. The entire glass roof sunroof for example. And the standard navigation system, blue tooth and vaice enabled, 550 watt infinity 10 speaker stereo, chrome alloy wheels, most powerful 276 hp all aluminum twin cam V6 mated to a supurb adaptive 6 speed automatic, big LED rear tail lights, nice touches of chrome..not garish or overdone like a pimpmobile!  And the real icing on the cake is the 100,000 mile, 10 year powertrain warranty.

    And a real added value is the pride with which the American workers at the KIA factory put into the build quality, we were unable to find a single flaw or poorly installed panel…even the engine compartment was well designed and well done.

    We are extremely satisfied and consider us KIA fans now!

  • avatar

    My wife and I are KIA converts. We had a lemon of a 2000 Plymouth SE Voyager. Engine and transmission problems. In May ’06 we bought the KIA Sedona LX. Loved that van. We just traded it in Feb ’11 for the Sorento LX, I4, FWD. Not sure what some folks are looking for with the interior trim. Maybe our standards are lower but I really don’t see a problem at this price point.

    The trip computer shows 21.6 average for my commute to and from work here in Milwaukee. Round trip is 20 miles. To work I take side streets and coming home I use the expressway. My first highway trip with about 800 miles on the car was averaging 25 or so. Getting close to 2000 and have a trip coming up in a few weeks and definitely interested in what the mileage will show.

    The ride is a little different than the van. I actually like the little firmer suspension and steering. The I4 is not a V6 but I find the acceleration adequate and on the highway at 70mph and 2500RPM the ride is smooth and quiet.

    Gotta say we love our truck.

  • avatar

    As far as the way my base model Sorento drives, its great! I love it. I like having the inside room of an suv but the drive like a car. I also like the safety features. That was very important with two small kids. However, the seats are AWFUL!! They are cheaply made and stain from even a drop of water! My infants carseat can sweat andt leaves a stain, and I paidfor scotch guard! Over all it is a good car for the price!!

  • avatar

    So have a question?
    I’m looking at the Kia Sorento SX V6 AWD and the Hyundai Santa Fe Limited V6 AWD. Why does the Hyundai Santa Fe V6 Limited AWD have better EPA mileage than the Kia Sorento V6 SX AWD?
    Both vehicles use the same engine and the same transmission.
    Santa Fe lists city/highway of 20 – 26
    Sorento lists city/highway of 18 – 24
    Can someone explain why there is a difference? I would suspect they should have the same EPA mileage….

  • avatar

    I had this car and just recently I got into an accident with it. A car ran a red light. My light was green from a good distance back so i was already travelling at a speed of 70 km/hr, so I T-Boned the car that ran the red light instantly at 70 km/hr.

    Imagine driving into a brick wall at 70 km/hr, thats what it was like.

    The air bags came out and i’m 4’11 so i move the seat up all the way. the car was a total write off. i must say this car held up very well in the crash. i think this car saved my life, everyone was shocked that i could even walk out of the this car after. i would definately buy it again.

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