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The 2021 Kia Sorento.

Emily Atkins/The Globe and Mail

Kia has brought its fourth-generation Sorento SUV to market with a roar. The lumpy old housecat has evolved into a feisty, muscular beast that Kia likens to a tiger.

It will need to earn its stripes, however, as competition from Kia’s new, smaller Seltos compact SUV, has knocked the Sorento off its perch as the brand’s most popular SUV in 2020. Canadians bought 13,271 of the new Seltos model last year, and only 11,043 Sorentos.

Like many other manufacturers, Kia is maximizing its exposure in the SUV market. This all-new Sorento, with its three rows of seating, fits into the lineup close to the slightly larger and more expensive Telluride, and just above the Seltos. Kia says it competes with both larger and medium-sized SUVs on the market.

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The manufacturer says the mid-size SUV is aimed at mature couples with or without kids and active empty nesters. While that puts the Sorento in competition with most SUVs on the market, the Sorento offers a package that will satisfy many of those buyers.

The 2021 Sorento is powered by a choice of two new four-cylinder engines, replacing the outgoing V6. Three lower trim models will have a 2.5-litre powerplant that provides 191 horsepower and 182 lb-ft of torque. The three newly introduced X-Line upscale models get a 2.5-litre turbocharged engine that makes 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque.

Kia provided a top-of-the-line SX model as a tester. Along with its fellow X-Line models, it is equipped with an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission.

This engine and transmission combination, along with intelligent all-wheel drive (standard on all models), make the SUV a very compliant ride. You can use paddle shifters or let the drive mode determine shift points, but either way, the Sorento is mannerly and responsive.

Travelling a long, winding, snow-covered two-lane highway, it responded best in Sport mode, which shifts 35 per cent of the power to the rear wheels. Passing was stress-free with quick acceleration, and precise turn-in on tricky corners generated a sense of trust in the vehicle. A test of emergency braking on a slick, snowy road yielded a straight, smooth stop – no doubt partly thanks to brand new performance winter tires.

Part of its excellent performance is down to a new, lighter, stiffer platform. With better rigidity, Kia says the vehicle is both safer and delivers a more comfortable ride. Fuel economy is said to be 10 per cent better than the previous generation. However, in our 1,700-kilometre test drive, the best we achieved was 10.4 litres per 100 kilometres in an almost exclusively highway trip, while Kiaʼs specs say combined fuel economy is 9.9 litres per 100 kilometres.

Beyond driving dynamics, the Sorento is loaded with advanced safety technology and communications options. But this is where the vehicle may have a weakness. The proprietary UVO Intelligence app – which is free for three years – is designed to provide remote access to various functions such as starting and stopping the engine and locking doors. It was tremendously slow to respond, when it worked at all.

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Likewise, some basic functions in the vehicle were overly complicated or glitchy. With just one touch, the control for the panoramic sunroof opened both its interior liner and the glass, nearly dumping kilos of ice and snow on the driver and passenger. The automatic memory seat didnʼt always move into position, and the interior courtesy lighting did not come on, nor could a reference to it be found in the manual. While these arenʼt major concerns, they do point to the possibility of technical issues that still need to be worked out in this new model.

On balance, the 2021 Sorento is an excellent driving machine, combining performance with great visibility and safety. It offers comfort and space for passengers and gear, and can even tow toys like boats and campers.

Tech specs

2021 Kia Sorento SX

The 2021 Sorento has a choice of two new engines, including a 2.5-litre turbocharged unit that makes 281 hp.

Handout

  • Base price/as tested: $33,995/$47,495
  • Engine: 2.5-litre turbocharged inline four-cylinder
  • Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic/all-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres): 9.9 combined
  • Alternatives: Toyota Highlander, Ford Escape, Subaru Forester

Looks

Sorento’s new design uses Kia’s 'tiger face' front end.

Emily Atkins/The Globe and Mail

The fourth-generation Sorento looks dramatically different from its predecessor, with a completely new face, flatter hood and more streamlined stern. It presents a rugged personality, but its boxiness makes it resemble most other mid-size SUVs on the market.

Interior

The luxurious interior of the SX model makes use of quilted upholstery and accents.

Handout

The top-of-the-line Sorento tested is equipped with leather seating, panoramic sunroof and spacious second-row captainʼs chair seating. It is luxurious – with quilted upholstery – and loaded with Canadian-winter-friendly conveniences such as heated seats (in the first and second rows) and steering wheel. Even so, it maintains practicality with a fold-flat third row, easy-folding second row and generous door openings all round for easy access.

Performance

The Sorento easily handled snowdrifts and icy roads.

Emily Atkins/The Globe and Mail

With drive modes that range from Eco to Sport, and terrain settings like snow and dirt, Kia has made a vehicle that is a pleasure to drive in all conditions. It easily powered through 10 inches of fresh snow and deep, messy snowplow windrows at the end of the driveway without the slightest feeling of wheel slip. On the highway it cruises along quietly, especially when taking advantage of the Highway Driving Assist safety system that maintains following distance and keeps the Kia in its lane. The Sorento can also deliver a quick shot of passing power when needed.

Technology

The Sorento is loaded with technology, including this 10.5-inch infotainment touchscreen.

Handout

Loaded with automation, the 2021 Sorento offers safety features like the Blind-Spot View Monitor that projects a live view of the adjacent lane onto the speedometer or tachometer in the digital instrument cluster when the turn signal is activated. The UVO app allows remote start, locking and other features, including walking directions to your final destination for those times when you donʼt get rock star parking at the door.

Cargo

For a mid-size SUV, the Sorento provides plenty of cargo capacity. With the third row folded flat, there are 1,274 litres of space, and with the second row folded down that expands to 2,139 litres. Access through the rear door is excellent, and the near vertical opening makes it easy to manage bulky items.

The verdict

The Sorento is punching above its price point. Even the top-of-the-line model is an affordable, luxurious and capable family hauler.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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