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