2011 Kia Sorento

The 2011 Kia Sorento coulda been a truck. It coulda been a big truck. Come to think of it, it used to be a truck.

So what happened?

The new midsize crossover may wear a Korean nameplate, but it is tailor-made for the U.S. market. Not only was it designed at a Kia studio located in California, but it is built at a brand new factory in West Point, Ga., that was originally intended to manufacture pickups back when that looked like a sound business plan here in the U.S. of Keep on Truckin’ A.

Things change, and so did the Sorento.

The old Sorento was an old fashioned SUV, built on a truck frame. The new one joins the growing ranks of CUVs, or crossover utility vehicles, that use a car-like unibody construction which trades a little of the off-road and cargo carrying prowess which largely goes unused by many SUV owners for a lot of added refinement and comfort.

All you have to do is close the door of the Sorento to notice the difference. It delivers the kind of solid, muffled thud that you’d expect from a vehicle costing twice as much as the $19,995 midsize five-door. My cameraman was just as impressed as I was. Even more so, apparently, as he’s considering buying one.

The exterior design breaks no new ground, but nicely integrates Kia’s updated corporate look on a larger scale, including a grille that could be straight from the Kia Forte compact - just jumbo sized.

Inside the Sorento gets a clean, modern dashboard that’s made from a lot of hard plastic, but has a couple of planks of fake wood trim that might be good enough to fool a fake beaver. Jammed into it is an impressive list of standard equipment, like Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth, USB and iPod connectors, not to mention a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, even on base models.

As you move up through the trim levels, features like heated seats, a backup camera integrated into the rearview mirror, navigation with excellent graphics and voice commands, a crystal clear Infinity audio system, and a widescreen TV for backseat passengers start to fill up the options and packages lists. Second row travelers are offered reasonable accommodations, including reclining seatbacks, while an optional third row has a lot of headroom, but is so low to the floor that it makes you feel like you’re sitting on a preschool potty…I’d imagine. Fold it down and the cargo compartment is a healthy size and well-shaped, with only small intrusions from the wheel wells.

The driver’s seat gets top billing, especially in models with leather upholstery and power. There’s stretch-em-out legroom and adjustments galore, plus it’s perched way up high and offers a commanding view of the road and a the Sorento’s prominent hood. Under it, a 175 hp four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels is standard, but given the size and weight of the Sorento likely not the most appealing choice. The 276 hp V6 is a better match, especially if you plan on loading it up with people and stuff, or need to tow 3,500 lbs, as opposed to the 1,650 that the four can handle. All-wheel-drive is available with either powerplant.

Prices for Sorentos with the two extra pistons start at $27,395 and come with a high level of standard equipment. Used casually, the motor is well muffled and hardly makes itself noticed, but under full throttle it kicks out a raunchy, kinda racy sound that should please short track racing fans.

Fuel economy on the big engine is EPA rated at 20 mpg city/26 mpg hwy on front-wheel-drive models, and drops just one mpg on both figures with all-wheel-drive. That is as long as you have the Sorento set to ECO mode, which changes the shift pattern and makes the throttle less responsive to increase efficiency. Otherwise, you’ll need to drive with a naturally light touch.

The no-longer-a-truck is solid and rattle free, with a ride that maybe errs a bit too far to the stiff side in the name of handling, which is impressive for a vehicle in this class. Back seat passengers in particular are treated to a noticeably bumpy ride on rough roads, if my three year-old son and marginally more mature cameraman can be believed. The turning circle is tight, and the steering light, though very artificial. There’s little feedback through the wheel, and it forcibly tugs itself back to center.

To help compensate for any losses in off-roading ability, the Sorento comes outfitted with a number of electronic goodies to make the most of what it’s got. Hill hold and descent control are both standard -- the latter letting you take your foot off the brake pedal and crawl downhill at about 5 mph -- as is a locking center differential for the normally-front biased all-wheel-drive system.

In the week that I spent with the Sorento, I didn’t get the opportunity to get the tires dirty, but it did coincide with one of the many "snow-icanes" that hit New York City this winter, so it was subjected to plenty of snow and slush. Unfortunately, the factory equipped Kumho mud and snow tires proved unfit for the task. Not only did I slip and slide past a couple of stop signs and red lights, but had very little fun in one of the most amusing places known to a car enthusiast – the snow-covered parking lot.

Slam on the gas with the over-aggressive traction control turned on and it quickly brings the vehicle to a complete crawl, then every once in a while surges forward to test the frozen waters before it clamps down again. The operation of the system feels very rudimentary. Traction off and you’re all over the place, even with the differential locked. Hard to say if better tires are the answer, but they sure couldn’t hurt.

Of course, if it hadn’t snowed, and if I wasn’t so juvenile, I would’ve never noticed any of this. The Sorento is that impressive in everyday situations. On an even more positive note, despite my best efforts, I never actually got stuck. If I had, the Sorento comes with five years of roadside assistance along with the company's 10 year/100,000 mile warranty.

I wonder what kind of truck they send to pull you out.


2011 Kia Sorento EX 4x4

Base Price: $29,095

Type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel-drive 5-door, 5 or 7-passenger crossover

Engine: 3.5L V6

Power: 276 hp, 248 lb-ft

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 19 city/25 hwy

What do you think of the Sorento? Share your thoughts in the comments section.