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There are two engine choices in the 2011 Sorento. (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)
There are two engine choices in the 2011 Sorento. (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)

Kia Sorento

Kia no longer just a purveyor of cheap cars Add to ...

As much as anything else, Kia wants some respect.

While most other manufacturers are struggling, the South Korean car maker's sales are up some 23 per cent in Canada, and it has been steadily increasing its market share - in a depressed economy - over the past few years. It has also gone from 35th to 12th place, worldwide, in market researcher J.D. Power's initial quality survey.

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No longer just a purveyor of cheap cars, Kia sees itself being on equal footing with Honda, Toyota and anyone else that builds cars and puts bums in seats.

To that end, it has overhauled its Sorento compact SUV and, as is often the case, the new version is longer and wider than its predecessor, but with a lower body profile and wider track.

As well, there will be two engine choices: a 2.4 litre, four-cylinder and 3.5-litre V-6. These two have been used elsewhere; the V-6 is found in the Sedona minivan and the Borrego SUV, while the four-cylinder is the so-called "world engine" also used by Mitsubishi, Hyundai and Chrysler.

Two trim levels are offered with both powerplants: LX and EX, with a Luxury model also available with the V-6. Power outputs are 175 and 276 horsepower, respectively, and the four-cylinder is available with a six-speed manual transmission. The other choice is a six-speed automatic with Kia/Hyundai's Steptronic manual shift feature.

Brakes are four-wheel disc with ABS, and it has MacPherson strut suspension up front and a multi-link arrangement in back.

2011 Kia Sorento

You can also choose from front-drive or all-wheel-drive, with a locking differential for the rough stuff. The locking diff kicks in automatically and redirects power when things start to slip, and the system features a 50/50 torque split between the front and rear wheels. After 30 km/h, it reverts back to AWD.

One interesting little gas-saving feature: when you come to a stop, the automatic transmission will imperceptibly put itself into neutral and then go back into gear when you get moving again. Clever. And good for a 12 per cent increase in fuel economy compared to the previous version.

Unlike its predecessor, this iteration of Sorento features unibody construction and, according to the company, conveys a "more modern image." That means it's more car-like, and less suitable for off-road excursions.

It also has more high tensile steel in it than the last one - 70 per cent compared to 30 per cent, according to Kia - and more corporate DNA in the body style, including a "tiger-nose" front grille treatment similar to that found on the Soul. The overall effect is a tad on the banal side, but pretty much right on target for this market.

Inside, it can be had with seating for five or seven, which is rare in the compact SUV market and, depending upon the model, will come with a full complement of conveniences features and modcons.

Leather interior, a massive sunroof, iPod connectivity, a navi system, dual-zone climate control and all the usual goodies will be available. The second-row seats also tilt forward for easier access and, with all the seats folded flat, there's 2,052 litres of cargo capacity.

Like its little brother, the Soul, the Sorento has nifty interior "mood lighting" - bound to appeal to those who like that sort of thing.

Although the V-6 model is pretty lively, with a 1,588-kilogram towing capacity, the four-cylinder version is the most noteworthy. I have experienced this engine before, in various sedans and SUVs, and it's always struck me as being a little on the rambunctious side. Not here; Kia has managed to tame it nicely and it feels almost as smooth as its V6 stable-mate.

Performance is suitably less, but it will return better fuel economy - 6.9 L/100 km in town, compared to 7.7 for the front-drive version - and also has a lower price tag.

Speaking of which, the base price is $23,995 for the four-cylinder, front-drive LX with a manual transmission and the "grade walk" will take you right up to $39,195 if you get an EX V-6 with seating for seven, navi and all the goodies. The LX V-6 five-seater, which is likely to be the most popular, will go out the door for $29,095, and all models are available at dealerships right about now.

2011 KIA SORENTO

Type: Compact SUV

Price Range: $23,995- $39,195

Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder/3.5-litre V-6

Transmission: Six-speed manual/automatic

Drive: Front-wheel-drive/all-wheel-drive

Horsepower/Torque:

175 hp/169 lb-ft for four-cylinder

276 hp/248 lb-ft for V-6

Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 11.1 city/7.9 highway (V-6 with AWD); regular gas

Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Subaru Forester, Nissan Rogue.

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