2003 Kia Sorento LX 4WD Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 Kia Sorento SUV

(3.5L V6 4x4 4-speed Automatic)

Raising One's Game

Just a few years ago, Kia was as anonymous as a wanna-be rock star at karaoke night. This Korean company has been importing small vehicles, such as the Sephia and Sportage, into the U.S. for almost a decade. But it had gone largely unnoticed by consumers who bought vehicles with better-known nameplates. Kia's vehicles weren't necessarily bad, but they were bland in terms of styling and performance. We can almost envision Simon Cowell, the British host of American Idol, saying sternly to the Kia folks: "The problem is that you're simply mediocre. Raise your game." Kia did just that last year with the introduction of the Sedona, a minivan that packs a lot of features into a roomy, well-built vehicle that costs thousands less than the competition.

Following on the heels of the successful Sedona is the Sorento. Essentially a midsize 'ute, the Sorento has a crisp, upscale look (especially in two-tone EX trim) that belies its mini-SUV pricing. Standard color-keyed bumpers (in contrast to the homely, unfinished gray units used on some SUVs) add to this impression, as do the chrome grille surround and darkly tinted "privacy" glass.

Making it easy for the production process and consumers alike, Kia doesn't bother offering a stripper version of the Sorento — does anybody really buy an SUV without power windows and air conditioning nowadays? Didn't think so, and neither does Kia. The "base" Sorento LX comes with those mandatory luxuries in addition to power locks and mirrors, AM/FM/CD stereo with eight speakers, cruise control, a rear-seat center armrest, four-wheel disc brakes, eight-way (manually) adjustable driver seat, dual-compartment center console, illuminated vanity mirrors, four power points, skid plates and a 24-valve V6 for the mere sum of $19,995 for the two-wheel-drive version. The four-wheel-drive LX lists for just $21,795. Need more luxury? The EX has your name on it and, for $2,800 more than the LX, sports alloy wheels, foglights, two-tone paint, keyless entry, a power driver seat, power sunroof, auto-dimming rearview mirror, HomeLink, a premium CD/cassette sound system with steering wheel-mounted controls, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, fancy metal and fake wood interior accents, stainless-steel scuff plates and a cargo net. A Luxury Package for the EX adds leather seating, heated front seats, automatic climate control, six-disc CD changer and automatic four-wheel drive.

Like the EX, the LX has a cabin whose overall quality seems out of proportion to its low sticker price. Attractive soft-touch materials are found everywhere and the thick-rimmed steering wheel has tasteful metallic accents. Work some of the switches, such as the turn signal lever or climate control knobs, and the feeling of polished quality continues. Even the center stack compartment doors glide open, as they would in a Lexus. More than a few carmakers could learn a thing or two from Kia about impressing potential buyers. Additionally, a number of open cubbies of various shapes prove handy for garage door openers, cell phones and other necessities of modern life.

With all the available seat adjustments, such as front- and rear-cushion tilt, it's a breeze for short and tall drivers alike to get comfortable behind the wheel. Firm, well-shaped seats offer long-haul comfort, as this editor can attest. The rear seat drew mixed comments; most passengers found it comfortable, finding adequate under-thigh support and legroom, though one taller staffer would've liked more room to stretch out and pointed out that under-seat toe room is tight. Maximum cargo space, at 66 cubic feet, is about the same as the Ford Escape /Mazda Tribute twins.

As far as safety, the Sorento continues the high-value theme by providing a few high-end features such as front and rear side curtain airbags and head restraints for all occupants in addition to the expected items like LATCH child safety-seat anchors. Although the Sorento has yet to be crash tested, Kia is confident that its latest pride and joy will score highly.

Standard on all Sorentos is a 3.5-liter, 24-valve V6 that puts out 192 horsepower and 217 pound-feet of torque. Unlike many of its competitors, there is no four-cylinder version of the Sorento — a good thing considering this SUV's portly weight of 4,255 pounds. To put that into perspective, the Sorento weighs nearly the same as a V8 Ford Explorer, a seven-passenger SUV that straddles the line between midsize and full-size status. The lone transmission is a four-speed automatic. This power team does a very respectable job of moving the pudgy Sorento around. About the town, the Sorento feels almost sprightly. Though acceleration at freeway speeds tapers off to just adequate, the Sorento will cruise happily at 75 mph all day long. The V6 is smooth and gladly gives its all, and the tranny is never caught flat-footed, furnishing quick downshifts and smooth changes up through the gears even when the gas is pinned to the carpet.

As far as hard numbers, at the test track the Sorento ran to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds and took 17.1 ticks to run down the quarter-mile. These figures actually place the Kia near the front of the pack when compared to rivals such as the Ford Escape V6, Jeep Liberty and Hyundai Santa Fe. One figure that didn't impress us was fuel consumption; we averaged just 15 mpg in our mix of city and freeway driving, about 2 or 3 mpg less than we would have expected. In retrospect, the dismal fuel economy is not surprising, considering the vehicle's hefty weight.

The brakes were simply impressive, especially when one considers the fact that our Sorento lacked the optional ABS. The binders were easy to modulate, and at the track we got three identical stopping distances of 131 feet from 60 mph. Not only is that number pretty good (more like that of an ABS-equipped vehicle), but the consistency is reassuring as it shows that the brakes are progressive, well balanced and resistant to fade. Our test-driver even complimented the Hankook tires as tire grip is an oft-forgotten factor in a given vehicle's braking performance.

With separate body-on-frame architecture, a low range in its transfer case and meaty 245/70R16 tires with a fairly aggressive tread, the Sorento seems ready to rock when it's asked to hit the trail. We had a chance to take one on an off-road course where it scrambled up rock- and dirt-strewn hills with ease — keeping up with SUVs that had price tags that were nearly double its own. This writer also put the four-wheel-drive system (it's a part-time system, meaning it should not be engaged while driving on dry pavement) to the test during a few snowstorms back East. Even when driven while one of the storms was at its peak (we native New Englanders are crazy like that), the Sorento trundled along at a slow but steady pace, inspiring confidence as it shared the road only with snowplows and a handful of other 4WD trucks.

Driven under more normal conditions, the Sorento's independent front and solid axle rear suspension design provided a firm, mostly agreeable ride, though sharp impacts can intrude into the cabin. Accurate and well-weighted steering and a minimum of body roll (stabilizer bars are standard front and rear) make the Sorento well planted and composed on a winding road. The Hankooks were quiet and provided decent grip when pushed within reason, showing us that even lesser-known Korean tire suppliers are getting their act together.

We all agreed that the Sorento is a well-rounded effort that, apart from its thirst for fuel, has a lot going for it. Perhaps the greatest compliment we can give a particular vehicle is stating that we'd seriously consider buying one if we were shopping in that market segment. The Sorento has earned that accolade.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 6.0

Components: The Sorento comes standard with a single CD player mounted high in the front console (an in-dash CD changer is available on the EX model). This simple head unit includes a handy mute button and powers six speakers (the EX comes with 10). A full-range speaker is mounted low in each door panel, and a couple of tweeters are mounted near the side mirrors to accentuate the high notes.

Performance: The tweeters are a nice touch that helps separate the left and right channels, but the performance is average, at best. Cymbals are crisp, but distort at moderate volumes. Vocals and bass tones are punchy, but seem to be trapped near the floor thanks to the placement of the drivers in the doors. These speakers also suffer when taxed with heavy guitars or complicated recordings, because the result is a mushy homogenized sound.

Best Feature: Satellite tweets.

Worst Feature: Mediocre sound at modest volumes.

Conclusion: Average all around. — Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
This is a top-notch effort on Kia's part. The Sorento is surprisingly quiet and refined on the road, and offers a decent interior — but really this should come as no surprise at all as the Sedona and Optima are both great cars.

The Sportage has always been one of the main reasons I could never take Kia too seriously — thank goodness for the Sorento. Right out of the gate, the Sorento has more to offer in terms of civility and value than the awful Xterra and somewhat pricey RAV4.

The one drawback to this otherwise capable SUV is its weight. At over two tons, the Sorento feels much less nimble than other mini-utes. Small SUVs such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 feel sportier. In terms of ride, style, performance and value, the Sorento reminds me of the Mazda Tribute — one of my favorite SUVs. Both the Tribute and Sorento offer excellent value for the money. The lynchpin in all this is long-term reliability; if Kia can keep the Sorento out of the shop, it should sell well and make lots of new Kia converts. Even so, I would have no problem recommending this car given Kia's exceptional warranty.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
With or without its Kia branding, the Sorento is an impressive vehicle. As I walked around our LX model, I noted that its exterior body panels fit together as tightly as a BMW X5's. Inside, everything was tightly assembled, and there was soft-touch material in all the right places on the door panels, dash and center console. The front seats were well shaped and supportive, and with two kinds of manual tilt adjustment for the bottom cushion of the driver seat, I was able to find a much more comfortable driving position than I would have expected in a bargain-priced SUV. Unfortunately, the rear-seat accommodations aren't as good, as the seat bottom is low and toe room under the front chairs is tight — still fine for kids but not so great for adults.

Out on the road, the Sorento drives like a truck-based vehicle but not a sloppy one — I don't think it's quite as well-mannered as the '03 Toyota 4Runner or even the aged Nissan Pathfinder, but it behaves as well as any Jeep Grand Cherokee. Of course, with the Kia's 15 city/18 highway fuel economy rating, this wouldn't be my top choice for commuting. But if I needed a real SUV to handle occasional off-roading jaunts, the Sorento would likely be my top choice. Why? It's as tough as the 4Runner on off-road trails and comes well equipped for $22K, so I couldn't justify spending thousands more on the 4Runner, Grand Cherokee, Pathfinder or Dodge Durango, all of which start around $30,000.

Consumer Commentary

"A good buying experience ended in a good purchase. Good quality SUV. I did all the research possible before buying. I would finish the salesperson's sentences; I could probably sell them myself. I was very confident going into this buy with all the knowledge possible. It is a great-looking SUV. I get a lot of looks driving it and love all the special features. Mine is loaded with leather interior and the wood grain package. Window visors and bug-deflector finish off the look. Strong points include steering wheel radio controls, good quality CD/radio, spacious interior and comfortable rear seats. Good looks overall. On the downside is fuel mileage, but get real…it is an SUV after all. I would like a release button for the fuel tank. The gas tank is pretty much available to anyone who would want to get to it." — JayneM, Feb. 10, 2003

"I looked at many SUVs…owned two Jeep Grand Cherokees…this is by far the best valued SUV on the market. It has great exterior styling and many interior extras. Very quiet motor…very impressive SUV. I love the heated front seats. It could use a lighted door lock button and a remote release for the rear glass. Be sure and check out the Sorento before you purchase your next SUV." — LCB, Dec. 22, 2002

"My hubby is 6 feet 2 inches tall and I'm 5 feet tall. This is to be my vehicle but we needed something that we both could drive comfortably and also have legroom in the backseat. We were so surprised by the roominess in the cabin. The drive is great and the price was fantastic. Love the exterior also. It drives really smoothly and has plenty of power for both of us. After we purchased it, my 'macho' husband said, 'I can't believe I bought a Kia.' We thought it would be cheaply designed but were very pleasantly surprised by the amenities included. Sales experience was also great." — Domestic Engineer, Nov. 23, 2002

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