Review: 2011 Kia Sorento EX 4×4
By Chris Haak
Kia has completely shocked me over the past few years with the dramatic improvement in its vehicles from generation to generation. And the company’s move to hire Peter Schreyer as its chief designer was an absolute stroke of brilliance. Schreyer has brought an interesting, attractive design language to the brand where previously there had been little more than a hodgepodge of various design cliches slapped together. Take the Kia Amante, for an example of what was wrong with Kia design prior to Schreyer’s arrival.
The last Kia that I evaluated for a week was a Sportage, and I really didn’t care for it at all. As we’ve recently covered from New York, the 2011 Sportage is an all-new beast, and one that mercifully completely erases all memory of the former sub-par crossover. And as an added bonus, the Sorento is the first Kia model built in the US, in Kia’s new Georgia plant. So if you buy a Sorento, you’re not just supporting American assembly workers, but members of Kia’s US-based supplier community build interior plastics that smell like a new car’s should, unlike the odd olfactory sensations that Korean-built Kias tend to bring to the table.
But back to the Sorento: in EX trim (which is no longer the highest level – SX now carries that flag), it boasts a clean, upscale appearance. The angular headlamps blend nicely into Kia’s now-ubiquitous trapezoidal grille, and the detailing on the bottom half of the doors is reminiscent of another recent Kia model, the Forte, but dares to sweep upward more and dig deeper into the door. Upscale features such as projector headlamps and LED taillamps and a large panoramic sunroof that blacks out nearly the entire roof.
The interior continues from the same songbook as the upscale, attractive exterior. The seats are covered in decent leather and are reasonably bolstered. The gauge cluster features large, legible electroluminescent gauges with an integrated trip computer/multi-function display at the bottom of the speedometer. Moving to the center stack, my tester was equipped with optional navigation, which had a large screen with attractive graphics. Ventilation settings are adjusted via large knobs and buttons, and nearly all switches have the same kind of consistent, damped feel that Hondas and Toyotas boast.
The Sorento’s audio system is a 10-speaker affair powered by Infinity speakers. Both power output (at 550 watts) and clarity are very good, and the user interface (primarly via the navigation display’s touch screen) was easy to use and featured attractive graphics. The system accommodates Bluetooth streaming audio, USB input (which worked with an iPhone as well as an iPod), CD, AM, FM, and Sirius Satellite Radio. The only thing that takes a small adjustment period was that the tuning knob on the right side of the navigation screen does not actually change the station until you press the knob to confirm your selection. On one hand, that makes it more difficult to “surf” through various stations because of the extra button push required, but it also avoids the noise of flipping through scores of stations found on Sirius.
Moreover, the actual design of the interior is attractive. I am particularly fond of the dark fake wood on the door panels and across the middle of the dash. The only gripe about the design or materials is that there is nothing soft to the touch on the dash or upper door panels. The actual armrests are reasonably well-padded, and the front seats, though somewhat shapeless, kept my backside content for hour-long sessions behind the wheel. The wheel was leather-wrapped and had redundant controls for audio and Bluetooth phone, but the leather was overly textured.
The second row was spacious enough to hold two Graco convertible car seats, though as with most vehicles, little feet could reach the front seatbacks. Fortunately, the leatherette covering on the front seatbacks easily wipes clean with a damp cloth. The second row is finished nearly as nicely as the first row, though with a flatter seat.
Then there’s the third row; the Sorento is not a large vehicle, but Kia manages to squeeze a third row back there. And it’s more comfortable than the third row in much larger vehicles such as the Lincoln MKT. At 6’4″, I was able to sit in the third row of the Sorento with my head slightly against the ceiling, while it was practically against my shoulders in the larger Lincoln. Still, my knees were pointing skyward and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend much time back there.
Cargo room is either minuscule (behind the third row), reasonable (with the third row folded), or spacious (with the second and third rows both folded). Both rows fold flat into the floor, which helps make the most of the expanded cargo volume. The panoramic sunroof, though it has no impact upon interior space, brigtened up an otherwise-dark (all-charcoal) interior and has sunshades to keep the light out of little ones’ eyes when necessary. When the shades are open, however, the expansive glass area gives the impression of more headroom than there actually is.
The Sorento is fitted with a strong 3.5 liter V6, rated at 276 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. It’s paired with a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic that has a manual shift gate. The powertrain seemed to be a near-perfect match for the Sorento’s size and mission as a family hauler. It was able to smartly move the crossover around town and up to highway speeds with little drama. Wind out the engine to near its redline, and it’s not the smoothest-sounding V6 on the market, but there were no actual refinement issues. The transmission was quick to kick down when called upon for passing duties and shifts occurred smoothly. Really, the only downside for the powertrain was observed fuel economy; the EPA calls for 19 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, but I observed economy of18.4 mpg during a week of mostly city/rural driving, with a few short highway trips thrown into the mix.
Steering feel was slightly better than expected, and better than you’d find in a Toyota Highlander, for example. Helping matters is that it’s a traditional hydraulic-boosted unit; those generally provide more direct, natural feedback than does the electrically-assisted units that have come into favor in recent years. The ride was a bit firmer than I expected. In spite of that, I did not consider exploring the Sorento’s handling limits. Let’s just say there will be no Techshake exposé on SUV handling in the Consumer Reportsstyle. As the Sorento has now moved to a unibody crossover platform rather than a body-on-frame layout of the first-generation vehicle, ride and handling are much more car-like than before, yet the high seating position fortunately remains. Brake pedal feel was somewhat firm (which I welcomed) and progressive.
The 2011 Sorento is a good vehicle – it does many things well, and wraps those things into an attractive package. Feature content is very high, with many boxes checked, but Kia still has a perception in the marketplace as a seller of value-priced cars. The test vehicle’s $34,840 price tag (including destination) shocked most people with whom I shared the number. The MSRP of an EX AWD with no options is $29,890 including destination. My test vehicle also included the Limited Package for $2,000, which added navigation with traffic data, rear-view camera, 18 inch mirror-finish aluminum wheels, and interior accent lighting. It also included the $2,700 Premium Package 2, which adds the panoramic sunroof, leather seat trim on the first and second rows (leatherette on the third row). The electrochromic mirror with compass and homelink added the final $250 in options to get to the overall MSRP. Ambitious pricing for a Kia, to be sure, but actually about $1,500 cheaper than a comparable Chevrolet Equinox. Most of the difference comes because the Sorento has so much more equipment included.
Having sampled most of its competitors, and had I not been enamored with the notion of a minivan’s utility as a family hauler, I’d seriously consider a Sorento. It’s just the right size, has great features, smells like a new car inside, and is a reasonable value. The fuel consumption is a bit of a concern, but a four cylinder is available in lower-end models to alleviate some of that concern. Then, the only obstacle that buyers need to overcome is telling snobby neighbors that they bought a Kia – but with recent and upcoming products, that is becoming an easier conversation all the time.