2021 Kia Sorento SX First Drive - Competent Crossover Seeking Spark

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
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2021 kia sorento sx first drive competent crossover seeking spark

Kia’s slogan of the moment is “give it everything.” Problem is, the brand only gave the 2021 most of the things, not everything.

The result is a solid crossover choice that doesn’t feel quite as well finished as the company’s larger Telluride or its K5 mid-size sedan.

I was loaned a Sorento for a very short time, but I still managed to take it out on my preferred driving loop, and my quick take based on the short drive is that the overall package here is quite good, but there are more nitpicks around the margins than I’ve had with any Kia vehicle in recent times.

For example, the dashboard material atop the digital gauge cluster looks soft touch, but isn’t. There was also a bit too much wind noise during a freeway jaunt. And finally, the rear seats appeared to vibrate at speed.

I say “appeared” since it’s physically impossible to drive a car from the second-row seats, but when I looked in the rearview to make sure a lane change was clear, I saw the second-row chairs shaking like a Polaroid picture. Hey ya, indeed.

To be fair, this could be a one-off build quality issue. The sample size of one always makes it tricky to talk about build-quality problems based on a loan. Either way, quality issues are very un-Kia-like, these days. Imagine saying that two decades ago.

Odd behavior from the rear seat – I swear I was driving alone – aside, the rest of the Sorento experience is generally better. Kia has finally figured out how to dial in steering that offers nice heft and accuracy – the steering feel on offer here is quite good, and not just for a three-row crossover.

So, too, is the reasonably responsive handling, though body roll unsurprisingly shows up. A Sport mode works its magic to make the Sorento feel more responsive.

The 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder underhood promises 281 ponies and 311 lb-ft of torque, and that’s enough to give the Sorento appropriate grunt for most urban and suburban driving. The eight-speed automatic is nicely behaved.

I must admit, the Sorento perplexes me a bit. It’s a likable overall package, and it strikes the right note when it comes to ride/handling/power. I’d be happy to own one. I even appreciate that the Sorento feels like a tall wagon, despite an 8.3-inch ride height (an inch over standard in SX Prestige X-Line trim).

And yet, there’s something missing from the formula – some intangible piece of the puzzle that Kia nailed with the Telluride and the K5.

Maybe it’s the boxy design, which works for the larger Telluride but despite some sporty touches reads as a bit anonymous here? Maybe it’s just the fact the Sorento is one of the many vehicles that is highly competent yet completely unremarkable?

I don’t know. I do know the interior design is well-done. The cabin is laid out logically and everything is within easy reach, yet the aesthetics are also pleasing. The infotainment screen is well integrated into the dash and intuitive to use, and the digital gauge cluster is sharp-looking and easy to read. It also changes based on what drive mode you’ve picked.

Speaking of drive modes, if you aren’t feeling a wild hair, Smart mode is the best choice. Eco might gain you a few MPGs on a long trip, and Comfort does soften things up a tad for highway cruising, but I found Smart to give the best balance for most urban motoring. Sport was fine for the curviest roads.

Features certainly aren’t lacking, though, as per usual, I was sent an upper trim for evaluation. Allow me to detour into a pet peeve for a second – I wish OEMs would send us scribes more of the mid-level trims that people actually buy, as opposed to vehicles loaded to the gills with features. I get it – the automakers are trying to impress you, the reader, via our reviews – but this practice doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.

Stepping off the soapbox and returning to the review, the SX Prestige I was loaned, complete with X-Line appearance package, is what the brand calls its “hero model.” Translated from marketing speak, that means top-line trim. In addition to the extra inch of ride height, this trim adds all-wheel-drive with torque on demand, a center-locking differential, downhill-descent control, different bumper treatment, 20-inch wheels, and a roof rack

Other standard features include forward-collision assist/cyclist, forward-collision assist/turning, blind-spot collision avoidance assist rear, rear cross-traffic avoidance assist, safe-exit assist, smart cruise control with stop and go, lane-keep assist, lane-following assist, highway driving assist, park-distance warning (reverse), rear occupant alert, navigation, UVO infotainment, satellite radio, Bluetooth, wireless phone charger, second-row captain’s chairs, USB chargers for all rows, heated front seats, slide/fold second-row seats, keyless entry and starting, dual-zone automatic climate control, sunroof, hands-free power liftgate, LED headlights and taillights, and LED fog lights.

The X-Line package adds the 20-inch wheels, different front and rear bumper fascias, matte accents, unique roof rails, leather seats, cooled front seats, Bose audio, blind-spot monitor, digital gauges, heated steering wheel, parking collision-avoidance assist (reverse), park-distance warning (forward/reverse), and aluminum pedals.

An X-Line rust interior package ($200), carpeted floor mats ($210), and carpeted cargo mat ($115) got tacked on. All told the sticker was $44,285 with fees.

For the fuel-conscious buyer, the EPA rating for mpg is 21/28/24.

Kia’s cooked up a pretty good package here. The Sorento is a tall wagon that’s relatively fun to drive, quick enough for the urban cut-and-thrust, and well-equipped. It offers plenty of utility and a user-friendly cabin. Outside of the some materials that feel cheaper than they look and the vibration issue, which is possibly a one-off (as an FYI, my tester was a regular production unit, not pre-production), it’s hard to find much fault with this vehicle.

Yet both myself and contributor Chris, who coincidentally was tramping around Ohio in a Sorento at the same time I was bouncing around Chicagoland in one, felt a bit left cold by the Sorento.

Maybe we’re spoiled auto journalists who spend too much time in cars with more personality. I did swap out of an AMG Mercedes before the Kia arrived, so that could be the case. Certainly the average buyer, the one who is going to making payments on this thing for 3-5 years, probably doesn’t care about some intangible pizazz factor.

The Sorento is a solid crossover choice, and should you sign on the dotted line, you’ll likely be happier than not. Just don’t expect to stand out.

[Images © 2021 Tim Healey/TTAC]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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3 of 33 comments
  • Dave M. Dave M. on Mar 09, 2021

    The great thing about Hyundai and Kia pricing is that once the dust settles and the vehicle has been out for a while, you can easily score a 10-15% discount off MSRP. The exception continues to be the Palisade/Telluride, still selling hotly after 16-18 months. The neighbor bought a new Palisade. Had it one whole day before some electrical component went haywire and there was burning involved (these things happen; everyone else I know with a H/K product has had no unusual vehicle defects). Hyundai promised a replacement vehicle, but after 6 weeks could not secure the exact replacement. They gave him a helluva deal on a GV-80 at the dealership. Cost more than his price on the Palisade, but not by much.

  • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Mar 10, 2021

    I was eagerly anticipating this vehicle as I liked the previous version but just wished for a bit more power and a bit more pizzaz. Well this new Sorento mostly delivers with added power and improved mileage on certain models and configurations but falls short in my eyes on 4 keys things. I checked out no less than a row of 20 of these things at my Kia dealer and was left underwhelmed. Every model was represented with base, S, EX and both SX versions. The majority of them were all had dull grey or black wheels, loads of black plastic everywhere even the exterior mirrors and grilles and the overall look didn't stand out at all. The base and EX had silver alloy wheels which helped a little but were still plagued with too much black plastic everywhere. At least give the EX version some chrome belt-line moldings and make the wheel flares body colored. issue two was the obviously fake exhaust that just look cheap, especially on the top trim 44k versions. Issue 3 was the bizarre was they package these vehicles and color restrictions. Base models only get certain colors, you can't get an interior color other than black with certain exterior colors and speaking of the exterior paint options they need to be expanded with more flexibility on interior options. The last issue is the MPG. The volume engine on the lots was the base 2.5 with AWD. That is listed as only 25 highway despite a new lighter weight vehicle, a newer designed 2.5 engine that gets better MPG in the K5 and Sonata and it's even tied to a newer 8 speed transmission. So why is the mileage so poor and worst in class with this volume setup? Even the much higher performing turbo 2.5 is listed for 28 highway with AWD. Kia did a decent job with this vehicle but it's obvious they need to do some refining and better packaging giving the consumer more choice. The fact that the majority of the models has dull dirty looking grey or black finish wheels is not a good idea as the consumer wants choices. The interior on the higher trim levels needs to be tightened up with some added warmth and more flexible color choices and the volume 2.5 should be getting closer to 30 highway.

    • Mark Savino Mark Savino on Mar 12, 2021

      Sounds like you're a perfect fit for the Sorento Hybrid: no black exterior trim (it's satin chrome) and 37 MPG combined!

  • Dukeisduke Eh, still a Nissan. Nope.
  • Kosmo "And, indeed, there remains a big screen atop the dash in the 2023 Nissan Z"Not the best look, but far safer while driving, when compared to lower in-dash units.Nissan blew it on so many levels with this, but I'd still enjoy one (though I'd certainly buy the Mustang instead).
  • Dukeisduke I wonder what the yellow one that was on here last spring went for? They were asking $50k.
  • Dukeisduke It's on BaT, up to $3,900 now. If it goes for anything close to this price, it's a screaming deal, assuming all the work was done right. No pictures of the rear suspension, but the front has tubular control arms and coilovers. A Currie rear end isn't cheap (neither is the Tremec 5-speed), so I'll bet the rear is upgraded with tubular control arms and coilovers, too. The 350 is a ZZ4 (Vortec), so better than the old SBC.
  • Kosmo "Revenue is estimated to yield roughly $1 billion annually for the city".That's really all you need to know. As to the comment that the B&B live and work in Manhattan, that hardly applies in today's connected world.