The first Kia built in the United States, at West Point, Ga., is the 2011 Sorento, a unibody, car-based crossover vastly superior to the raw, unfiltered, unrefined body-on-frame, truck-based, traditional SUV, which was the 2009 Sorento.
You caught that, right? Kia never bothered with a 2010 Sorento. The truck-based Sorento was such a dud, Kia dropped the whole 2010 model entirely. Call it having the courage to say "uncle" when it became obvious that the old Sorento was a sales disaster.
The new one? It's selling well, better than Kia's big brass expected. So well, in fact, that Kia is not loading the Sorento up with rich sales sweeteners, with money in the trunk, on the hood, on the back seat and in the glovebox. Not everything in Kia's lineup enjoys that boast.
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In a segment loaded with pretty decent offerings - from the Honda Pilot to the Ford Edge, Flex and the coming car-based Explorer (on sale later this year), to the Chevrolet Equinox and Traverse, along with the GMC Terrain and Acadia, not to mention Mazda's CX-7/CX-9 tag team …
Another potential rival: the Toyota RAV4 and its bigger cousin, the Highlander. The old Sorento was smaller than the RAV, but now it's a tad bigger, allowing it to straddle the line between RAV and Highlander. Mitsubishi's Outlander comes into the mix, too.
Look, the Sorento lineup is now varied and broad enough to take on a long list of challengers. And Kia is more than holding its own.
Choice has something to do with this. Kia used to offer only a V-6 with an automatic gearbox. Now the Sorento range starts with five-seater powered by a four-cylinder with six-speed manual and front-wheel drive ($23,995). The range tops out with the $40,895 loaded SX V-6 with all-wheel drive.
Kia - the hungry, chip-on-the-shoulder little brother of Hyundai - has done up the launch plan nicely. Even the base model has power accessories and enough features to keep cash-strapped consumers from hanging their heads in embarrassment for having settled for something "affordable" rather than something pretty good.
Nothing embarrassing about the cabin, either. Nothing looks unduly cheap and some features were clearly intended to up the show-off quotient. Alas, those red instrument readouts are a problem. Pretty enough, but they are hard to see at the best of times and can become downright invisible in bright sunlight when you're wearing certain types of sunglasses.
Kia should also reconsider the hard plastic around the centre controls. Feels like Filene's Basement to me, especially given the other bits of softer, richer trim scattered about. On the plus side, the controls operate smoothly, with a tight, expensive feel about them.
Speaking of expensive, the navigation system available in pricier Sorentos is a very good piece of work. It's easy to enter addresses, the instructions are clear and well-timed and if you make a mistake driving, the recalculations happen quickly.
But what was Kia thinking when creating the seats? They are hard, not firm; if there is foam under the upholstery, it would surprise me. Kia's engineers also need to find more legroom for the back seat. It's okay, but the Equinox and RAV4 have more. The third row, well, like most crossovers, is acceptable only for small kids.
Small kids, by the way, may not like the ride. It's pretty stiff, which translates into pretty jiggly if the pavement is bad or if there is none at all. Drivers who like to drive will applaud the crisp cornering in such a big CUV, but the ride quality isn't for everyone. If you like road feel and steering feedback, you'll be okay with the Sorento. If you don't …
I can't imagine anyone disagreeing with the V-6. With 276 horsepower on tap from a new 3.5-litre V6, the Sorento is noticeably quick: 0-100 km/h in just 7.4 seconds.
The Sorento's six-speed automatic operates with seamless shifts, too. Not every auto maker can say this. This Kia gearbox has the know-how to hold gears (uphill) and when to up-shift for fuel economy (it's rated at 11.1 litres/100 km city, 7.9 highway). The 2.4-litre, 175-hp four-cylinder is okay if you're not carrying a full load.
For safety, this Kia comes with standard dual front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags, plus active headrests, antiskid control, antilock braking, electronic brake distribution, hill-start assist and downhill-descent control.
Kia is slowly pulling itself up by its bootstraps, bringing to market vehicles with a distinctive look and intent. In the Sorento, Kia has a truly competitive crossover thanks to a totally new unibody, engine, transmission, exterior design and interior.
Kia is on the right track.
2011 Kia Sorento SX V-6, seven-seat
Type: Mid-size crossover
Price: $40,895 as tested, ($1,650 freight)
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 276 hp/248 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.1 city/7.9 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Ford Flex, the coming unibody Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Mazda CX-9, Toyota RAV4, Toyota Highlander, Mitsubishi Outlander, Honda Pilot
Alternate Choice: Toyota's hybrid crossover gets a facelift but is still decidedly unsexy
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