Latest Blow to U.S. Automakers Is No-Joke Kia: Jason H. Harper

The Kia Sorento
The Kia Sorento competes with models like the $24,175 Toyota RAV4 Sport and the mid-level $24,600 Honda CR-V EX. Source: Kia Motors Corp. via Bloomberg

A friend recently argued that it’s hard to find a bad car these days. He may be right.

Boring, generic, ugly and pointless cars? Sure. But astounding crap-cans with engines that sound like a bout of tinnitus and can’t handle a 2 percent grade? Much harder to find.

Just look at Kia Motors Corp., South Korea’s second-largest automaker after affiliate Hyundai Motor Co. Once the butt of jokes from comedians like Jay Leno, Kia expects to boost global sales by more than 25 percent this year, and a recent survey by ALG Inc., which tracks residual values, found that the public’s perception of Kia’s quality is rising -- while stalwart Toyota Motor Corp.’s is dropping.

Kia even has a 10-year/100,000-mile limited power-train warranty.

Perception is one thing. To see for myself, I arranged to drive two models, the 2011 Sorento EX SUV and Forte SX sedan.

The second-generation Sorento is actually made in Georgia. The small SUV doesn’t look bargain basement, and neither is its $25,590 price, including destination charge, on the better-appointed EX. As driven it clocked in at $29,340. This puts it into competition with the likes of the $24,175 Toyota RAV4 Sport and the mid-level $24,600 Honda CR-V EX.

My Sorento was sheathed in glossy black paint that nicely showed off its solid, unfussy form. Well proportioned at 15-plus feet long, it looks bigger than it actually is. Upgrades of mirror-finish rims on the large 18-inch tires added just the right amount of bling.

Crafting Plastic

When it comes to the interiors of cars that aren’t Bentleys, much lies in the art of crafting pleasant plastic. Dashboards can be cold and spartan, as cheap-looking as a throwaway cooler, or, in rare cases, interestingly formed and almost organic. The better ones are cushiony to the touch.

The Sorento’s plastics are passable, with a gently wrinkled texture like elephant’s skin. My tester also had leather trim ($1,500, including heated seats), though it was more along the lines of a discount leather jacket than supple Armani calfskin. And while the driver’s seat was automatically adjustable, the passenger was left to manual operation.

Slam the doors or pop open the glove box, and you’ll notice that they lack heft. Kia still hasn’t nailed the issue of solidity one finds in upmarket rides.

The mouth of the rear hatch opens wide, and there’s a surprising amount of cargo room: 37 cubic feet with the second row of seats up, and 72.5 with them down. There’s also storage space underneath the floor.

Highway Handling

The Sorento is a fine suburban mobile, with a punchy engine and a six-speed automatic transmission. It’s at highway speeds where things begin to fall apart.

The steering is loose at slow speeds -- you can joggle the wheel with little effect -- and it doesn’t appreciably tighten when you’re zooming at 60 mph. Discomfiting.

During high-speed lane changes, the Sorento wallows like a sloop caught by a sideways wave, and the suspension is upset if you hit a bump while turning.

You’d think the Forte sedan would be better in this regard, as overall length is 5.6 inches less than the Sorento’s, yet its wheelbase is only two inches shorter.

And it does handle fast lane changes more predictably. The trouble is you’ll find your teeth chattering in bumps. The Forte’s ride quality is poor on rough asphalt and the steering has the same slushy feel.

I drove a six-speed manual version of the Forte (it’s also offered with four- and five-speed autos). The gear box was fine, but seemed out of touch with the engine, particularly starting off in first gear, when the motor lapses into catatonia.

Traffic Flow

The Forte exhibits both torque steer and significant understeer, as expected in a front-wheel-drive. Once you’re buzzing around, though, you won’t be left behind by the flow of traffic and it’ll surely barrel up 2 percent grades.

It replaces the Spectra (no, I didn’t remember it either). Unlike the newer, sleeker and hipper two-door Forte Koup, which starts at about $2,000 more, the sedan still looks generic. Nor is the interior anywhere near as successful as the Sorento’s. The closest it comes to flair is bits of red contrast stitching on the inside doors.

The top-level, 173-horsepower SX has a price of $17,890 including handling; $19,490 as tested. Competition in the segment is robust, with excellent options like the $16,400 base Honda Civic and $16,100 Mazda 3 sedan.

Still, the base, 156-hp Forte can be had for a bit more than $14,000, which is a nice price considering the standard electronic-stability and traction-control systems, and front, side and side curtain air bags. It makes a good, if not hip, starter car.

It seems we’ve reached the automotive age when we’re unlikely to see cars that explode into fireballs when hit from behind, or break down at the mere rumor of a rough road.

Apologies to would-be comedians, but Kia no longer serves as an easy punch line.

The 2011 Kia Sorento EX and 2010 Kia Forte SX at a Glance

Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder with 175 horsepower; 2.4-liter 4-cylinder with 173 hp.

Transmission: 6-speed automatic; 6-speed manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 9 seconds; 7.5 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 21 city, 29 highway; 22, 32.

Prices as tested: $29,340; $19,490.

Best features: Handsome exterior; standard safety features at the price.

Worst features: Handling at high speeds; rough ride and generic appearance.

Target buyer: The economy buyer who wants to look beyond Honda and Toyota.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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