It really is hip to be square — at least if you're an SUV. The all-new 2020 Kia Telluride is the company's largest crossover to date, and it's a big block of a machine. With its wide stance, tall roof and sharp edges, it seemed almost as towering as the Colorado scenery we drove it through. But even though it looked like a motorized mountain, the Telluride rolled through canyon roads and the narrow streets of the ski town for which it was named with ease and precision.
2020 Kia Telluride SX First Drive
Big SUV, Big Value
Automakers have been trying to solve the puzzle of how to make a crossover look as rugged as a truck, be as family-friendly as a minivan, and offer the comfort of a luxury sedan while still being affordable. Who would have expected that Kia would be the one to crack it?
You Tell 'Em
The 2020 Telluride is wider, longer and taller than Kia's other big-ish SUV, the Sorento. That means it can fit seven or eight passengers and give those passengers enough room for their legs and their heads, even in the back row. Yeah, that sounds like a joke, but any of you who've been crammed in the third row of a typical midsize SUV know it's often more of a suggestion of seating than a usable space. Not so in the Telluride. The comfort of the front seats carries through to the second and third row. Even the middle seat in the back isn't a total punishment.
It's also much easier to access that third row thanks to a one-button press that folds and slides the second-row seats up in one smooth motion. Kia says it tested the Telluride with child seats installed in the second row, and third-row passengers still have plenty of entrance and exit room. As you move forward in the cabin, it gets even better. The second row offers multiple phone charging options, including a household-style 110-volt plug. The optional second-row captain's chairs can even be ordered with heating and ventilation.
All that comfort isn't just reserved for passengers. The driver's seat is well-designed and has just the right mix of firm and squish for a long drive. It's adjustable enough that both short and tall drivers will be able to find a comfortable driving position, although those who are height-challenged may find that reaching for certain dashboard controls requires a stretch.
The front seats are roomy. The low center console provides plenty of elbow room, but it still offers cupholders, a phone charging pad, USB ports and the controls for the driving modes and AWD lock for enhanced traction. Base Tellurides get leatherette upholstery, and top-trim SX buyers can get quilted leather in a variety of colors, including the gorgeous, but totally impractical for a family vehicle, white premium leather that was in our test car.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, even on base trims. And if you step up to the EX and SX levels, Kia swaps out the standard 8-inch display for a 10.3-inch touchscreen. SX buyers get a 10-speaker Harman Kardon sound system, which can be taken full advantage of because the Telluride's engineers must have been working overtime on eliminating road noise.
Go Tell It (Quietly) on the Mountain
Choosing the high altitude and twisty mountain roads of Colorado for the vehicle launch was a bold move from Kia, as nothing highlights a drivetrain's inadequacies like thin air and steep grades. Yet we were surprised by the Telluride's capabilities on such a challenging test ground. It's not that we wouldn't like just a smidge more passing power from the 291-horsepower 3.8-liter V6, but the few times we did need to get around a slowpoke, the Telluride was capable, even on the uphill sections. The eight-speed transmission seems well-matched to the engine. It only noticeably hunted for gears once or twice on our journey, and even then, quite subtly.
Subtle seems to be the key word for the Telluride's powerplant — it's quiet enough to go full throttle in a library without prompting even one "shush" from an angry librarian. There's also very little wind and tire noise. But don't think that means the Telluride is a numb, dead ride. Steering, braking and throttle are balanced and predictable. There's nothing grabby or delayed in any of the controls, and the Telluride feels like a much smaller vehicle from the driver's seat.
The turning radius is impressively tight, and we got a good test of tight-quarter maneuvering when we arrived at the tiny ski town of Telluride, Colorado. Parking is a breeze, as the square-body design makes it easy to see the edges of the hood. And even if it didn't, sensors, a rearview camera and a 360-degree parking camera system help you avoid plowing into snowy curbs or snow-blind skiers.
Tell It to Me Straight
The Telluride is available in four different trim levels: LX (starting at $32,735, including destination), S, EX and SX (starting at $42,535). All come with the same engine and eight-speed transmission, and all can be outfitted with all-wheel drive (AWD), which is a $2,000 option. The EPA estimates the Telluride returns 23 mpg in combined city/highway driving from the front-wheel-drive versions and 21 mpg with AWD. Both figures are above-average for the three-row crossover SUV class.
One thing you don't need to pay more for is safety. Many of Kia's Drive Wise safety features come standard, even on the base LX trim. And it's not just expected safe-driving tech such as airbags and stability management, but also selectable drive modes, pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane keeping assist, and reverse parking sensors. Forward parking sensors are an option, but as mentioned, it's pretty easy to see out of the Telluride, so even LX buyers who don't step up to the optional safety add-ons won't miss them.
Kia also has some family-specific safety including warnings if people or pets are left in the back seat, and Safe Exit Assist, which can detect when a car or bike is coming up behind a parked Telluride and automatically lock the rear door so passengers don't step out into oncoming traffic. An option for higher trim levels with the 10.3-inch display is Quiet Mode, which mutes the speakers in the second and third row so phone calls and death metal don't wake the kids sleeping in the back. That's sort of the vibe of the Telluride: rockin' out in the front, sleeping baby in the back.
Everybody Has a Tell
During our time with the Telluride, we kept trying to find something to dislike about it. In the end, all that we had was a mild complaint about shorter drivers' ability to access all the controls, the minimal noticeable difference between the normal and Sport driving modes, and a dearth of interesting exterior paint colors. Hope you like 50 shades of gray (actually three shades of gray, black, white and gray-green).
Kia clearly took a look at the competition and said: "We can make something with plenty of interior cargo space and adult-worthy passenger room plus all the safety features without looking like a blob." And then the carmaker did it. The Telluride we drove was a fully loaded SX AWD model, with an MSRP of $46,860. While it was delightful, buyers who choose the less-swank versions can outfit up a heck of a good family vehicle for a heck of a good price. Tell your friends.