Kia's meteoric rise to genuine respectability over the past few years has been something to behold. While GM and Chrysler were going bankrupt, this Korean upstart was busy transforming its value-centric reputation by churning out a series of all-around impressive cars. First came the likable Rondo family vehicle, and then the funky Soul hatchback, and more recently the jaw-droppingly competitive Forte economy sedan. Now Kia has turned its attention to its venerable family SUV, and at this point no one should be surprised to hear that the 2011 Kia Sorento is one of the best affordable crossovers on the planet.
Ostensibly a follow-up to Kia's outgoing body-on-frame SUV of the same name, the new Sorento is really an entirely different product, from its carlike unibody construction to its on-road-biased available all-wheel drive (the old Sorento had off-road-ready 4WD with low-range gearing). It competes in the affordable crossover segment, which has been dominated for years by two models: the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4. Kia has clearly studied these icons closely, because the Sorento shares some of their most notable virtues. To wit, the Sorento's elegantly simple dashboard layout is a nod to the CR-V, and the Sorento's strong V6, third-row seat (standard on EX V6) and ample dimensions are all pages out of the RAV4's playbook.
Indeed, our initial impressions of the Sorento leave us struggling to come up with things that need improvement. There are no obvious foibles here, none of the beginner's mistakes that we'd expect from a company that only started selling cars in the U.S. in 1994. The base four-cylinder engine isn't as impressive as the rest of the vehicle, but even so, its underwhelming performance likely won't be a deal-breaker for those on a tighter budget. Kia is really making moves these days; the 2011 Kia Sorento is just the latest example.
The 2011 Kia Sorento EX V6 is powered by a new 3.5-liter V6 that pumps out 273 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed automatic is the only available transmission. Our seat-of-the-pants impression is that the RAV4's V6 is still the standard-bearer in this class, but the Sorento's V6 is certainly closer to the Toyota's than to the torque-deprived Chevrolet Equinox's (223 lb-ft). This is an impressive engine, as well it should be given that it will soon be powering all manner of Kia and Hyundai products. EPA fuel-economy estimates are solid as well: 20 mpg city/26 mpg highway for the front-wheel-drive EX V6, and 19/25 with the optional all-wheel-drive system.
On the road, the Sorento rarely calls attention to itself, which is a recipe for success in this segment. The hydraulic power steering (thank you, Kia, for resisting the electric revolution) feels trusty and accurate, and overall handling is just fine for a family-oriented crossover — uninspiring, but safe and secure. One particularly notable element of the Sorento driving experience is its classic elevated driving position. This is a big reason why people are drawn to crossovers, and the Sorento delivers, providing a commanding view of the road ahead. All the major boxes are checked here; the Sorento is a wholly competent crossover from behind the wheel.
On the highway, the 2011 Kia Sorento EX V6's cabin remains laudably quiet. The suspension is neither floaty nor firm, striking a pleasant balance of controlled comfort at speed. The door armrests could use more padding, a complaint we've aimed at other Kia products. The front seats are above average, though, providing consistent support even after a couple hours of driving.
The second-row seat is also praiseworthy thanks to its relatively high cushion, which is a boon for longer-legged passengers. And the EX V6's standard third-row seat (it's optional on most other trims) turns out to be a useful addition — normal-size adults can fit back there for short trips, though their knees may be in their chests, and kids should have no problem. Given the ample second-row room and the usable third-row seat, we wonder whether most families really need anything bigger than the Sorento. It's an intriguing way to save some serious money over larger, more expensive crossovers.
The Sorento EX V6's gauges are easy to read, and Kia's signature red illumination adds some visual interest, though the center-stack readout won't agree with all polarized sunglasses. The standard dual-zone automatic climate control system is as simple as it gets — two big knobs, clearly marked buttons and a sensible display. Our test car lacked extra-cost options like the navigation system and Infinity stereo, but the base stereo delivers adequate sound, and inexpensive, portable navigation systems are good enough these days that we'd hesitate to pony up the extra cash for a factory setup. Standard high-tech niceties like Bluetooth and a USB port further sweeten the deal.
In real-world functionality, the 2011 Kia Sorento shines. Its 73 cubic feet of maximum cargo space is good for this class (and a whopping 9 cubes more than the Equinox has to offer), and both the second- and third-row seatbacks fold down with minimal fuss. Notably, though, there's little cargo space available with the third-row seatback in place, so owners will likely keep it folded when not in use.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Sorento's exterior styling delivers the tough SUV look that crossover shoppers seem to appreciate, though in reality the Sorento is, of course, a "soft-roader." One thing it's not is a "cute ute," even though it's priced like one. This should make it even more appealing to those who might otherwise be tempted to buy a bigger rig. Inside, the Sorento's dashboard is simple but sleek, and the subtle faux-wood trim piece that bisects it is a welcome upscale touch. The plastics are all hard, but they look good and are certainly class-competitive. Our test car was a pre-production model, yet fit and finish impressions were positive.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Kia Sorento EX V6 merits consideration from all shoppers looking for an affordable crossover SUV. It drives well, can seat up to seven, gets good fuel economy and comes with plenty of standard features.
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