Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
We've only just grown accustomed to saying "20-10" instead of "2,000-nine," so where did this "20-11" Kia Sorento EX V6 come from? For bookkeeping reasons that are beyond our pay grade, there will be no 2010 Kia Sorento, and frankly that's OK with us. The 2011 Kia Sorento is worth the trouble, because it changes the Sorento from a marginalized, truck-based midsize SUV into a truly competitive crossover thanks to a totally new unibody, engine and transmission.
We had to line up the specs to verify our suspicions, but sure enough, this all-new 2011 Kia Sorento EX V6 either matches or beats the Toyota RAV4 Limited, twice a winner in our crossover comparison tests in nearly every measure: acceleration, braking, handling, horsepower, torque, towing capacity, fuel efficiency, passenger accommodations, cargo capacity, and the list goes on.
On the surface, the all-new Kia Sorento (now being built in Kia's new assembly plant in West Point, Georgia) seems to be more affordable as well. Yet as is almost always the case (and perhaps by design), it's difficult to say so definitively, as you have to sort through exact model-specific equipment levels, work out option pricing and reconcile warranty periods — a challenge even for the most skilled spreadsheet geeks.
Suffice it to say that only $605 separates the base MSRP for a front-wheel-drive 2011 Kia Sorento EX V6 ($27,990) from a front-drive 2010 Toyota RAV4 Limited V6 ($27,385). However, this Kia's standard equipment includes a third-row seat where you'd have to hand over an extra $750 for one in the Toyota, so suddenly the Kia is ahead by $145. Like we said, you could do this quid pro quo thing all day long with these two, so let's get to the specifics.
Smooth, Powerful and Efficient
Perhaps because of the Sorento's generic exterior styling, this crossover's most conspicuous feature is its well-sorted driveline. It's an all-new package both designed and built in-house by Kia/Hyundai that's powerful, smooth and fuel-efficient.
With 276 horsepower on tap from a new DOHC 3.5-liter V6, this Sorento EX is noticeably quick. Acceleration to 60 mph from a standstill takes just 7.4 seconds (7.1 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) on the way to a quarter-mile in 15.4 seconds at 91.4 mph — essentially a tie with the RAV4. To put that performance in perspective, this lowly Sorento is slightly faster than a vaunted (and admittedly heavier, because it's built for off-roading) Land Rover LR4 with its new 375-hp 5.0-liter V8. It's also as fast as a 2010 MX-5 Miata, if Mazda's claims are correct.
The Sorento's six-speed automatic operates with seamless shifts and, unlike so many others, has the brains to know when to hold gears (uphill) and when to upshift for fuel economy. The engine and transmission are ideally paired to offer both performance and economy, returning estimated EPA ratings of 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined. We verified these claims with our own 21 mpg average over 1,000 miles of testing. In fact, the Sorento's 21 mpg average in our hands matches our results from what should have been a more miserly four-cylinder 2010 Chevrolet Equinox LT2.
Also, the V6-powered 2011 Kia Sorento is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds right out of the box once equipped with the $350 tow hitch and wiring harness.
We should also point out that the Sorento achieves this level of fuel efficiency without the numbing effects of fuel-saving electric-assist power steering as found on both the RAV4 and Equinox. The Sorento has hydraulic-assist power steering that provides true, precise and communicative steering control — a unique quantity in the crossover segment. While some criticized the effort required to park, nobody complained about the system's behavior once under normal driving conditions.
If you were to describe the Sorento's ability to corner, hold a line and ride the freeway, "direct" would be it. We also noticed how well isolated the cabin proved to be from both road and wind noise at freeway speeds. The 59.0 dBA sound measurement within the Sorento's cabin while cruising at a steady 70 mph is notably quieter than the 66 dBA performance of our long-term 2009 BMW 750i Sport. At the same time, the EX V6's standard 18-inch 60-series tires sometimes produce hiss on different surfaces and an occasional thump on pronounced seams in the pavement.
While bending the 2011 Kia Sorento EX around the slalom cones at the test track, we found that the crossover's new suspension with struts in front and a multilink setup in the rear has been tuned to land on the sporty side of the ride-versus-handling equation. A 61.8-mph slalom run and 0.79g of lateral grip put the Sorento near the top of the class in terms of dynamic capability, yet the freeway ride remains controlled, not busy and always confident.
That said, an expedition to L.A.'s pothole-ridden warehouse district with its long-abandoned railroad tracks revealed the limits of the European-style sportif suspension's ability to soak up the worst that the road has to offer. The suspension really could stand to breathe a bit better and use a bit more travel to soak up this sort of thing. We're not looking for Kia to make the Sorento into a marshmallow with a Toyota badge, but then again you wouldn't want to use this carlike crossover as a delivery van in downtown Detroit. Yet even under these extreme circumstances, our test vehicle didn't register a single rattle or buzz from the interior or the undercarriage.
Interior, Seating and Cargo
While our EX V6's all-black interior lacks visual interest, there are a number of interesting features worth pointing out. For example, keyless ignition/entry is standard. A cleverly designed (yet not overdesigned) tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel features integrated controls for audio/cruise and Bluetooth, all standard. Also standard is dual-zone climate control with flow-control vents built into the B-pillars for the second-row passengers, as is an auxiliary/USB/iPod jack at the base of the center stack.
While rear-mounted sonar parking aids are standard, our pre-production Sorento EX V6 sneaked into the press fleet with a mishmash of optional items, some of which are part of larger packages. Things like our heated front seats and rearview camera integrated into the mirror only come within the $2,700 PK2 Premium pack that should also include roof rails and a sunroof. Because of this mongrel status, our $30,690 as-tested price for this 2011 Kia Sorento EX V6 is not entirely accurate.
We've already mentioned the EX V6's standard third-row seat, but we failed to tell you that it really is a kid-only exercise, with somewhat difficult ingress/egress and compromised space for adult-scale limbs. The seats themselves aren't as pathetic as those in a Mitsubishi Outlander, but just like most midsize crossovers, this is no Toyota Sienna (or Ford Flex, for that matter).
A comfortable eight-way power driver seat is standard, but leather upholstery will cost extra. We also found the second-row seats more than generously proportioned, and a rear-entertainment DVD system with headphones is optional. We wish we could've sampled the optional navigation system with real-time traffic and 550-watt 12-speaker Infinity premium surround system.
With all three rows occupied, the Sorento's luggage space is a mere 9 cubic feet, although you'll find a generous 37 cubic feet available behind the second-row seat, while total cargo capacity of 72.5 cubic feet behind the front seats nearly leads the class. In comparison, the RAV4 offers a maximum of 73 cubic feet, while the Equinox has just 63.7 cubic feet.
Neither the NHTSA nor IIHS tests have been published, but with standard dual front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags, plus active headrests, ESP, ABS, EBD and hill-start assist and downhill-descent control, the 2011 Kia Sorento promises to be well regarded by those who rate safety systems. We can tell you the standard ventilated front disc brakes and solid rear disc brakes work very well, bringing the Sorento to a halt from 60 mph in just 120 feet. Of the six stops we performed, the longest was 123 feet and the brake pedal remained trustworthy.
We can also vouch for the stability control system, which effectively reins in shenanigans without being a nuisance. There's only a 1.5-mph difference in slalom speeds between when the stability control is engaged and when it's disengaged, which tells you the hardware and software were developed in concert with one another rather than by chassis engineers and liability lawyers in conflict with one another.
Without much fanfare or marketing (yet), Kia appears to have produced a truly class-leading midsize crossover. For the time being, the 2011 Kia Sorento EX V6 is nipping at the heels of one of the best in the world, the Toyota RAV4 V6. And, yes, were this a true comparison of midsize crossovers, we'd likely toss into the crowded pool (61 models by our last estimate) a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2010 Chevrolet Equinox, both all-new and full of promise.
We're impressed with the polish, poise and performance of the all-new 2011 Kia Sorento. It continues to prove that Kia and Hyundai have earned the right to be considered a big-time car company.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Senior Editor Erin Riches says:
I don't like to give Kia too much credit for building cars that drive like Toyotas and Hondas of the recent past. But this 2011 Kia Sorento reminds me of the first-generation Toyota Highlander. And I sort of miss that vehicle, even though it had the personality of cottage cheese.
Both the 2011 Sorento and the 2001-'05 Highlander are the right size. You can easily see out of them and park them without the help of a camera (though our Kia has one with a useful rearview-mirror display). Inside, they epitomize the midsize classification by offering exactly enough room for five. Sure, you can have a "plus-two" third-row seat, but it's an afterthought. Materials are solid but hardly extravagant in either crossover, and you can use the controls without thinking too much. The Sorento has stark black decor with red lighting, as if it's trying to persuade you it's sportier and more interesting than a Toyota. I'll take beige, thanks.
Same goes for the heavier steering in the Kia Sorento. It doesn't detract much from parking-lot ease, but it feels a little out of character in a crossover SUV that's mostly about getting to work with minimal hassle. The Sorento's handling is tidy, though, and brake pedal feel is good — just as they were in that first, right-sized Highlander. And the ride is Toyota-quiet, too.
Only over rough pavement does the comparison begin to fall apart. Here the Sorento's ride is too busy. And I'm sure it has nothing to do with our EX tester's unnecessarily aggressive 18-inch wheels.
Otherwise the 2011 Kia Sorento does a fine job of plugging a vacancy in the current Toyota lineup. It's compact in a way that the un-small Venza and second-generation Highlander will never be. And with a V6, it's well-mannered in a way that the hyperactive RAV4 will never be, yet it's just as quick. Nice. I've always liked cottage cheese.
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