2019 Kia Sorento Review and First Drive

When the Kia Sorento made the move from body-on-frame SUV to more comfort-friendly unibody people-mover almost 10 years ago, it signaled a major shift for the Korean brand in terms of quality and capability.

The 2019 edition of the Sorento is a much less radical reinterpretation of the three-row hauler, but that’s OK — it’s a worthy refresh for a vehicle that had evolved into one of the best family values on the modern sport-utility market.

Whither Turbo?

The two-lane mountain roads linking Montrose, Colorado, to the isolated ski town of Crested Butte provided me with ample opportunity to stretch the new Kia Sorento’s legs across a variety of terrain. From snowed-over peaks to muddy lakeside access to roads to soaring altitudes, Colorado’s winter landscape offered a respectable and versatile workout for the SX V6 version of the vehicle that I was handed the keys to.

There are, in fact, five versions of the Sorento now available — L, LX, EX, SX, and SX-Limited — with the base L offering a four-cylinder, 2.4-liter engine delivering 185 horsepower. All other models feature Kia’s 290-horsepower, 3.3-liter V6 as standard equipment, save for the LX, which can be equipped with six-cylinder power as an option.

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Notice what’s missing? At a time when other automakers are scrambling to embrace the new turbocharged status quo, Kia has gone in the other direction and eliminated last year’s 2.0-liter turbo four from the order sheet. The 240-horsepower engine actually out-torqued the 252 lb-ft offered by the now-king V6, which makes its omission that much more unusual. Having personally steered a turbocharged Sorento on a 600-mile road trip a few short years ago, I have to say that particular model will be mourned.

ALSO SEE: Kia is Working on a Full-Size SUV

All-wheel drive remains available with all but the base Sorento L, and the system provides a lock feature that will split 50 percent of engine output evenly between the front and rear axles. A six-speed automatic is standard with the four-cylinder engine, while the V6 benefits from a new eight-speed unit (which Kia is proud to announce was developed entirely by its own engineering team). That wider gear spread translates into an extra mile per gallon for front-wheel drive Sorentos, and two more for all-wheel-drive models in combined driving.

So What Else Is New?

Aside from an additional two cogs in the Sorento’s gearbox and the banishment of its turbo engine, what else does the 2019 model bring to the table? Kia hasn’t played too much with the sport-utility vehicle’s winning formula when it comes to features or styling, to its credit, and it’ll take a real fan to spot the updated front and rear fascias that set the new Sorento apart from its predecessor.

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On the practical side, it’s worth noting that buyers now benefit from three rows of seating regardless of which model they purchase. It’s not the most spacious way-back accommodations one could experience in the segment, but certainly those seated in the second tier enjoy expansive amounts of room, even for larger adults. There’s a respectable 73 cubic feet of total storage available behind the driver with everything folded flat.

Also practical is the improved tuneage from the Sorento’s Harmon Kardon surround sound system, which provided good, if not wow-levels of audio during the long drive through Colorado’s valleys. In the SX-Limited model I drove, I was also coddled by an improved leather seat and trim package and somewhat more upscale plastics than one would expect from a vehicle at this Kia’s price point.

Take a Lungful

With the pedal down, and at altitude (Crested Butte is 8,000 feet in the thin, thin mountain air), the 2019 Kia Sorento’s V6 never felt like it was gasping for breath. Perhaps not as sonorous as what one would expect from a premium marque, the 3.3-liter’s power is present and accounted for when it counts, as exhibited by numerous uphill passes made to overtake lumbering Winnebagos prior to the next set of switchbacks.

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ALSO SEE: 2018 Chevrolet Traverse vs Kia Sorento

I also played with the drive mode or “Smart Shift & Drive” system, which Kia has labeled its replacement. When set to “Sport,” the transmission changes gears with more snap in its step, while “Smart” monitors your attitude behind the wheel to take its cues as to how aggressive things should get. The Sorento isn’t’ a canyon carver, but nor does its chassis trip over itself when roads refuse to straighten themselves out, which is appreciated in such a large vehicle. I did have to turn off lane keep assist, however, which was audibly unhappy with any deviation from the norm that took me too close to the road’s painted lines (a new feature for 2019, alongside a driver attention warning system).

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The Verdict: 2019 Kia Sorento Review

The 2019 Kia Sorento occupies an interesting niche in the three-row SUV universe. When found in its $25,990 L configuration, the Kia’s strong reputation for quality, smooth driving, capaciousness and relatively frugal four-cylinder engine make it a strong bargain buy.

All the money for the $46,490 SX-Limited with all-wheel drive, however, doesn’t feel completely out of line, either, given the care with which its upscale interior and feature set has been assembled. Aiming for the sweet spot — $35,000 EX — brings most of the features buyers will want along with the availability of V6 power, strong active safety equipment, and nice-to-have items such as navigation and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration.

How many other similarly sized SUVs are capable of serving such a wide range of budgets without feeling like you’re bumping your head against a false premium ceiling at the top tier? The Sorento’s versatility, and competence at each level of its pricing tier, is one of its most intriguing attributes.

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