Monday, May 27, 2013

Kia Sorento - Clever Crossover Edges Closer to Audi

I recently spent a week with the heavily updated Kia Sorento crossover. Kia, one of the automotive success stories in the last several years, has given its five-passenger people and cargo hauler a thorough update.

The side body panels of the tall hauler look about the same as before, but the front and rear are updated. Kia is taking full advantage of the fact that its leader, Peter Schreyer, is the former head of Audi design. These cars, which not long ago looked like weak copies of mainstream Toyotas and Hondas, now have their own sophisticated look and feel. Up front, the tiger-nose grille (squeezed in the middle) has taken on a new smilier appearance as part of a sweep that includes the light pods. The lower panel shows another air intake and vertical fog lamps (if so equipped). The taillamps use LEDs so they glow prettily at night.

The interior is reshaped to accommodate a large eight-inch (diagonal) information screen. It displays a wealth of information, as expected in today's information-rich mobile environment. Kia calls it UVO, a "new generation of infotainment and telematics." Yes, you can talk to it and connect your devices at will.

Materials look substantial, despite some implausible wood trim. The convex curves on the dash give it a substantial feel, and the matte surfaces and satin silver trim convey poshness. There is subtle illumination along the door trim that is a surprise.

As before, there are three ascending levels -- LX, EX and SX -- names that sound the same as those for many other brands. The new SX Limited model is just coming out. It offers upscale amenities hardly imaginable in Kias of yore--such things as 19-inch chrome alloy wheels with jaunty red brake calipers outside and Nappa leather seats and a wood-trimmed steering wheel inside. Unlike Toyota, Nissan or Honda, Kia (and sister brand Hyundai) are not creating a a separate upscale brand, but are giving buyers a chance to acquire a super-fully-loaded version of an existing vehicle.

My Wave Blue test car was a mid-range EX model, with all-wheel drive. This system, like most on the market, is not for offroading but for safer on-roading, and works completely automatically. In the warm, dry week of my test it was not called to duty, as far as I could tell.

You can select two engines, depending on model, for the Sorento. There's a 2.4-liter. 191-horsepower inline four-cylinder or a new 3.3-liter direct injection V6. My tester had the V6, and with 290 horsepower and 252 lb.-ft. of torque on tap, it propelled the Sorento along seemingly effortlessly. The new electrically-powered steering is lighter and more efficient than the old hydraulic unit, and provides plenty of road feel.

Of course, when you boost engine size and power you step away a bit from fuel economy. My tester was rated at 20 mpg combined by the EPA (18 City, 24 Highway). I averaged 21.5 mpg on my commute traffic-heavy week of driving. The environmental ratings are 5 for Greenhouse Gas and Smog--dead center.

This Korean vehicle is manufactured in West Point, Georgia, alongside the Optima sedan. It's got 50 percent American parts, and the plant and its suppliers supply about 10,000 jobs. This continues to blur the line between American and "foreign" companies.

Having tested many Kias, including three recently, I continue to be amazed at the quality and driving enjoyment they provide, regardless of whether it's the compact Rio sedan or this five-passenger shuttle. The four colleagues I took to lunch in the Sorento had no complaints, and the road feel, steering response, and supple suspension made driving the car alone a very satisfying experience.

Kias are not cheap anymore. This one had a base price of $31,700, and on top of that, the $4,000 Touring Package added a host of desirable features, including a huge panoramic sunnroof, navigation system, Infinity audio system, blind-spot detection, power folding mirrors and liftgate. They even enhanced the driver's seat with ventilation in addition to the heat. Bottom line: $36,550. These cars are becoming Audis in more than just their design!

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