Viewed through the lens of the past, modern SUVs are simply station wagons in drag. And it turns out that station wagons serve the majority of the modern driving public's needs better than the original, old-school truck-based SUVs.
Kia has been paying attention. While the Kia Sorento is currently a trucky body-on-frame SUV with a low-range transfer case, the Sorento's trajectory as we know it today changes for 2011. It finds itself trading in the rough-and-tumble credentials for a more carlike experience.
According to Kia, the only thing carried over in the 2011 Kia Sorento is the name.
A New Mission
That's because the 2011 Kia Sorento is not only all-new but also underpinned by a unibody platform, suggesting that Kia is taking aim at the meat of the crowded compact SUV segment, including the Chevy Equinox, Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-7 and Toyota RAV4.
The 2011 Kia Sorento — which will occupy showrooms in early January 2010 — is the first vehicle that will roll out of Kia's brand-new manufacturing plant in West Point, Georgia. Called Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia (KMMG), the plant lies on a sprawling 2,200-acre plot in the rural rolling hills near the Alabama border, and it has been built to support the production of up to 300,000 vehicles per year.
KMMG takes the concept of "just in time" manufacturing one step further. Some 90 percent of the Sorento's parts suppliers are situated within 20 miles, and its Kia-designed six-speed automatic transmission is assembled on-site. In other words, it isn't your ordinary $1-billion auto plant.
Longer and Leaner
Riding on a new platform that will be shared with the next Hyundai Santa Fe, the 2011 Kia Sorento's height, wheelbase and ground clearance are fractionally smaller than the outgoing Sorento.
However, the 2011 Sorento is a full 3.7 inches longer and about an inch wider. This hasn't paid dividends in interior space for front- and middle-seat occupants, but it has allowed the inclusion of an optional third row of seating for seven-passenger capability (the outgoing Sorento was strictly a five-place affair). A 2-inch drop in the center of gravity compared to the outgoing Sorento further enhances carlike dynamics.
The 2011 Kia Sorento is still sized like a compact SUV, and the switch to a unibody has exorcised a couple hundred pounds from the curb weight. Interior space is satisfactory, and although the stowable third row is more of a jump seat, it isn't a complete joke like the one in, say, the Mitsubishi Outlander. Opting for the five-passenger variant nets you a large bin in the cargo area where the third row would reside.
Cues from the KND-4 Concept shown at the 2007 L.A. Auto Show appear on the 2011 Kia Sorento, which now sports the familial "Schreyer Line" grille and handsomely chiseled sheet metal. Though vaguely reminiscent of the Mitsubishi Outlander, it's nonetheless a creased, well-proportioned and confident step away from the anonymity of the outgoing Sorento. The new shape's 0.38 drag coefficient cheats the wind better, too — 11 percent better, to be exact.
Pricing hasn't been announced, but Kia representatives tell us that the 2011 Kia Sorento will be priced "within $100-$200 of the current model, and with more content."
A Smorgasbord of Choices
You'll have a broader selection of powertrains from which to choose in the new Sorento. A new 3.5-liter V6 that turns out 273 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque replaces the current Sorento's 3.3- and 3.6-liter V6s. Said to be up to 30 percent more efficient than the old V6 in certain driving circumstances, the new V6 will be offered only with a six-speed automatic transmission.
A new 172-hp 2.4-liter inline-4 is also available, and it can be married to said autobox or a six-speed manual. Both engine choices are available in front wheel- or all-wheel-drive configurations.
The four-cylinder base version brings the 2011 Sorento's base price under $20,000, but doesn't produce fuel economy that's hugely superior to the V6 models. At 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway, the FWD four-cylinder with the automatic — the most fuel-efficient pairing — beats out the AWD V6 automatic — by just 2 mpg.
Behind the Wheel
We didn't drive the four-cylinder version, but you can expect that pushing more than 3,600 pounds of tall Kia through the atmosphere with 173 hp will undoubtedly involve a degree of patience similar to that required when piloting the Honda CR-V.
With the V6, though, the Sorento feels punchy enough, and the new autobox summons gearchanges readily if you dip into the throttle. Gears are changed with a slickness that delivers minimal shock to occupants, even if the gear-swapping process itself isn't particularly hurried.
Four trim levels will be available for the Sorento, and the range-topping EX V6 model we drove — albeit only on the freeway and in the worst traffic in that region's history thanks to 20 inches of rainfall — was amply equipped. Standard equipment for the EX includes hill start assist and hill descent control, Bluetooth, keyless ignition and back-up alerts, and you can opt for navigation, a back-up camera, leather upholstery, heated seats and a gigantic panoramic sunroof.
Cutting and thrusting through hordes of dumbstruck Georgia drivers (many of whom are apparently always dumbstruck), we found that the new Sorento lives up to its promise of more carlike driving dynamics. The preproduction example we drove steered crisply, rode well and transmitted little road noise to the cabin. Cabin controls are laid out logically and outward visibility is reasonably good despite a thick D-pillar. The drive-by-wire throttle isn't the best example of its kind, but the delay in its action is not offensive.
The Right Stuff
Abandoning the truck-based SUV has proven a logical move for any automaker seeking sales volume. There's more competition than ever, but the potential for success is much greater.
Kia is doing more than simply moving in the right direction with the 2011 Kia Sorento. The sheer variety of available configurations alone — I4 or V6, FWD or AWD, five-passenger or seven-passenger, plus various trim levels — represents a full frontal assault on the compact SUV class. Refinement, styling and equipment are all there, too.
The Sorento has stepped up its game in a big way for 2011, but so have many of its peers. We're looking forward to testing the Sorento's mettle against the stalwarts of the class.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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