2011 Kia Sorento: First Drive

Reinvented as a crossover for 2011, the Kia Sorento delivers more of what people really want

2011 Kia Sorento: First Drive
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Automakers spend big money to market a particular model, so a model name usually sticks no matter how much a vehicle strays from its original look and core attributes. When the Kia Sorento debuted in 2003, the SUV was a body-on-frame competitor. But this next-generation Sorento abandons the truck-based platform, re-shapes the exterior presentation, adds interior space, and sets out to re-establish its name in the crossover utility segment.

FAST FACTS

1. The 2011 Sorento has traded in its off-road capable SUV platform to become a car-based crossover.

2. For 2011 the Sorento offers two new engines, a 175-hp 2.4L 4-cylinder and a 276-hp 3.5L V6.

3. Fuel economy is much improved rating from 21/29 mpg (city/hwy) for front-drive 4-cylinder models to 19/25 mpg for AWD V6 models.

4. Pricing for the 2011 Sorento starts at $19,995 and tops out at $29,095.

As the first vehicle built at Kia’s West Point, Georgia manufacturing plant, the Sorento enters the marketplace in early 2010 as a 2011 model featuring a grille and wraparound headlights that eventually will be seen on all Kia models. In its unibody platform incarnation, the Sorento gains three-inches in overall length and drops a bit in overall height.

Other than the $19,995 base model, trims are the LX and the top-of-the-line EX with a suggested price of $29,095. The base model packs on plenty of standards, including 17-inch alloy wheels, an AM/FM/CD/MP3/satellite audio system, hill start assist control and downhill brake control.

The LX trim can be uploaded with a Convenience Package that provides roof rails, heated front seats, fog lamps, a rear sonar back-up warning system and rearview mirror with backup display, while the EX trim’s Premium Package adds roof rails, leather seats, heated front seats, reverse gear backup camera and a panoramic sunroof (V6 model only). A 50/50 split-folding third row seat is optional on LX and the 4-cylinder powered EX, but is standard on the EX V6.

NEW ENGINES, TRANSMISSION DELIVER BIG FUEL ECONOMY SAVINGS

A 3.3-liter and 3.8-liter V6 engine were the past power choices, but a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder or a 3.5-liter V6 push the speedometer needle now. The 4-cylinder dishes up 175-hp and 169 ft-lbs of torque, while the V6 serves up 276-hp and 248 ft-lbs of torque. Both engines mate to an all-new 6-speed automatic transmission, replacing a 5-speed automatic transmission. The Sorento’s move to a 6-speed transmission mirrors an industry shift among crossover utilities—including the Mazda CX-7, Chevrolet Equinox and Ford Edge—to 6-speed gearboxes.

The V6 engines that powered the last generation Sorento fall short of the horsepower and fuel economy attached to the V6 for 2011—whether powering the front- or the all-wheel-drive set-up. Sorento’s estimated mpg for the new V6 and automatic transmission pairing is 20-mpg city, 26-mpg highway (4x2) and 19-mpg city, 25-mpg highway (4x4).

With the 4-cylinder and automatic transmission, the estimated fuel economy is 21-mpg city, 29-mpg highway (4x2) and 21-mpg city, 27-mpg highway (4x4). A 6-speed manual transmission, standard on the base model, collects estimated mpg of 20 city, 27 highway.

In its body-on-frame SUV days, Sorento's compact and mid-size rivals included Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Dodge Nitro. As a crossover, the Sorento still wants to brush paint with former competitors as well as square up against vehicles, like the Ford Edge, Chevrolet Traverse, and Mazda CX-7. While much lighter than the predecessor (current V6 model drops 586 pounds vs. the former 3.8-liter V6 4x4), the Sorento takes an ambiguous approach to segment boundaries. Simply put: this crossover is not-so-easy to pigeonhole.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

Sirius radio became standard on Kia vehicles in 2009, except for the outgoing Sorento and Spectra models. So during a test drive of the 2011 model, it was a chance to hear satellite radio from the Sorento’s speakers. Because the EX test model came equipped with the Premium Package and the Limited Package, selecting and saving a station from 100-plus channels by using the touch screen was straightforward. But a decision to store a channel favorite using the traditional tuning dial required a specific sequence: press-in the turn-dial, then store via the touch screen. Since this pre-production vehicle lacked an owner’s manual, trial and error sufficed.

The Sorento’s touch screen is also the interface point for phone and navigation. And like satellite radio, navigation previously hasn’t been offered on a Sorento. The navigation system is exceptionally easy-to-use. A truly nifty feature is the destination search screen that provides touch buttons labeled as address, previous destination, intersection, point-of-interest search, address book and emergency.

And just what happens when the emergency button is touched? A screen with police station, hospital and dealership buttons appears. Touch the hospital button and a list appears showing nearby hospital names and each hospital’s distance from current position. Route guidance to a chosen hospital is provided after pressing the ‘set as destination’ button. It’s the same process for police and dealerships.

Not having an owner’s manual would border on insanity in a vehicle with a mouse/joystick interior, but simplicity defines Sorento’s cabin right down to the clearly marked, thumb-sized buttons to activate rear wipers, driver’s heated seat, front passenger heated seat, climate and other controls.

Interior space in the two-row, five-passenger Sorento is very comfortable for short and tall adults with ample room for groceries and luggage. Cargo volume (37 cubic feet with second row down and 72.5 cubic feet with all rows down) is quite vast.

From a driving perspective, the new Sorento is more akin to maneuvering a car than an SUV, so S-curves, lane changes and cornering feel are considerably more fluid versus the occasional up/down bounce of the SUV-based predecessor. While the former Sorento wasn't bashful about tackling tough roads, the new Sorento is a bit more meek – and that's

fine for a crossover. Ride and handling of the 2011 Sorento is neither firm nor soft, but rather an appropriate mix of the two. In a nutshell, the crossover's nimbleness is a nice departure from the former vehicle's rather deliberate driving dynamics.

EXTERIOR AND INTERIOR STYLE POINTS

Thawing out the predecessor’s ice block body shape lets the Sorento distance itself from its muscle-bound past. The interior assumes a new look with numerous changes, like chucking the clunky-looking parking brake handle between the front seats and trimming the skyscraper tall center stack. On the inside, the EX vehicle puts a spotlight on push button engine start/stop; deep-dish, chromed instrument cluster gauges; and door inserts with molded beverage holders that don’t pinch or eject large-sized cups or plastic bottles.

THE VERDICT

With a new platform, completely altered exterior and interior, new engine choices and a new automatic transmission, the Sorento breaks from the SUV mold. As an official member of the crossover club, being one in a crowd requires more than a few stand out attributes. The Sorento measures up exceedingly well with its spacious and intuitive interior. Straddling the line between a compact and mid-size crossover, the Sorento scores well in the fuel economy standings when compared to larger competitors, but can’t compete against the smaller compacts. Even though the name stays the same, everything else changes on the 2011 Sorento. And the makeover equals a mighty fine crossover utility.

LOVE IT
  • Much improved interior and exterior design
  • New 6-speed transmission and engines really help with fuel economy
  • Smoother, more direct crossover driving characteristics
LEAVE IT
  • Base model not offered with third row seating

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