The Surprisingly Sporty Sorento

Kia's mid-size SUV is speedy, safe, and sensibly priced. Too bad its fuel economy isn't better

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Low price, speed, excellent warranty and crash test ratings

The Bad: Mediocre fuel economy, annoying minor quality glitches

The Bottom Line: A big step up for Kia, and a screaming bargain among mid-size SUVs

Up Front

If you're shopping for a bargain these days, check out the prices on mid-sized sport utility vehicles. And if you want a real bargain within that segment, check out the Kia Sorento, which starts at a mere $20,665 in a bare-bones, front-wheel-drive configuration, and tops out at around $30,000 with four-wheel-drive and loaded with options—and even less with rebates.

What you get for your money is a reasonably well-made SUV with decent fit and finish, acceptable off-road capabilities, a powerful new engine, top crash-test results, and an excellent warranty. Oh, and the Sorento has a towing capacity of up to 5,000 lbs.

The Sorento doesn't look that different from most of the other mid-size SUVs in the parking lot. Its most distinctive exterior feature is its side windows, which have unusually high sills, curve down sharply almost to a point at either end, and are augmented in back by small, triangular side windows. However, if you want distinctive looks, go for something like a Nissan Murano (see, 3/2/07, " Nissan's Best-Selling Truck "), not the Sorento.

In performance terms, though, the '07 is much improved over previous Sorentos. The standard engine in the '07 is a 3.8 liter, 262 horsepower aluminum V6 that's 36% more powerful than the engine it's replacing.

The standard transmission is now an electronically controlled five-speed automatic with a manual shifting mode for those who like to do the shifting themselves. The interior has also been upgraded and has a higher-quality look and feel than before.

The least expensive Sorento really is bare-bones (add $1,000 if you want air conditioning, for instance). But the LX trim level doesn't cost all that much more and has a lot more on it. A Sorento LX starts at $23,265, or $25,265 with four-wheel drive, and comes standard with 16-in. wheels, power windows, doors, and other accessories, a power driver's seat, and a 10-speaker sound system.

The main option on the LX is a $1,200 sport package that includes a black interior with an upgraded audio system, 17-in. alloy wheels, a rear spoiler and side step bars, and some extra metallic accents. A black leather interior costs $800.

Move up to the fancier EX trim level, and the base price jumps to $24,965, or $26,865 with four-wheel drive. On the EX, there's an optional $3,000 luxury package that includes such goodies as a six-disk, MP3-compatible, in-dash CD player, a power sunroof, 16-in. alloy wheels, heated front seats, and upgraded on-demand four-wheel drive that kicks on and off automatically as needed. As stand-alone options, a sunroof costs $800, a remote starter is $360, and a tow-hitch is $340.

Mediocre fuel economy has always been a weakness of the Sorento, and the '07's mileage isn't great. My four-wheel drive test model was rated to get 17 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway, but I only got 15.9 mpg in 163 miles of (admittedly hard) driving. Expensive premium gasoline is recommended.

The '07 Sorento's safety rating is tip-top. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Kia its highest five-star rating for all seating positions in frontal and side-impact crash tests. The '07 is the first Sorento to earn a top rating in front as well as side crash tests. Front, knee, and full-length side curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, and stability and traction control are standard on all versions of the Sorento.

The Sorento is one of the most in-demand mid-size SUVs on the market, spending an average of just 40 days on a dealer's lot before selling, according to the Power Information Network. That compares with 37 days for the Honda (HMC) Pilot, 57 for the Grand Cherokee, 62 for the Chevy Trailblazer, and 85 for the Ford (F) Escape.

Kia's overall U.S. sales are up dramatically through the end of February, by 18.6%, to 46,036 units. In a tough SUV market, however, Sorento sales only increased marginally, to 6,308 units.

Behind the Wheel

The Sorento is surprisingly sporty. The engine has a definite throb when you accelerate hard, and the manual-shifting mode adds to the fun of driving it.

I did a bunch of 0-to-60 runs in my test vehicle because at first I couldn't believe the times I was getting in this SUV. In manual mode, I consistently got times of 7.1 seconds, which is much speedier than most family SUVs.

It's not hard to get fast times, either. All you have to do is put the Sorento into first gear in the manual shifting mode and punch the pedal to the floor. As with a BMW, the transmission shifts on its own when the engine starts to redline, rather than kicking off the power as it does in some Japanese models.

The Sorento's interior is tasteful and, for the most part, well-made. On my test vehicle—a Sorento EX with the optional luxury package—there were even dark wood-like highlights on the doors and in the center console. The gray leather seemed well-made, and the glove box and sliding sunroof door felt solid and durable. The only design feature I didn't like was the bright chrome door handles and handles on the ashtray, which were a little garish for my taste.

There's plenty of space, too. Head and legroom is adequate in both the front and rear seats, though there's not enough room for three adults to sit comfortably in back. The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 pattern, and there is a plethora of cupholders: two up front in the center console and four in the back seat, including Big-Gulp-sized holders in each rear door.

The cabin is quiet, and the ride is smooth both on the highway and on bumpy back roads. The front and rear side doors close with a reassuring thud.

The door on the rear hatch is another matter. It seems flimsier than the doors. In my test vehicle, the warning light indicating that the rear hatch was open came on and wouldn't go off, no matter how often I closed and re-closed it.

That was one of several annoying minor quality glitches in my test vehicle. I found the steering too loose for a vehicle this quick and sporty. Also, the storage drawer under the passenger seat is a nice touch, but it's made of such flimsy plastic that I can't image it wouldn't break at some point.

Buy It Or Bag It?

Kia is a solid, Korean company that's clearly in the U.S. market for the long haul. A decade ago it was acquired by giant Hyundai, so it has strong financial backing.

Like Hyundai, Kia is expanding and upgrading its product line, both in the U.S. and Europe, and last year the company announced it would build a $1 billion manufacturing plant in West Point, Ga.

Kia is still a niche brand in North America, but its sales and quality ratings have been rising steadily. Like Hyundai, Kia tries to offset any doubts you might have about quality by offering a five-year, 60,000-mile warranty on its vehicles with free, 24-hour roadside assistance plus a 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty. The company's basic message: We couldn't afford to offer this warranty if we thought this car would break down, but if it does, you're covered.

However, the Sorento is in a very competitive segment, and with everybody discounting, there are plenty of rival models at bargain basement prices right now. The Power Information Network figures that the Sorento's average recent selling price is just $22,310, which is incredibly low considering all the standard equipment packed into the vehicle.

But the Jeep Liberty ($21,166), Ford Escape ($22,522), Nissan Xterra ($23,886), and Hyundai Santa Fe ($23,987) are all cheap right now, too (see, 10/10/06, "Hyundai's Santa Fe is Coming to Town"). Like Business Week, the Power Information Network is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP).

A big downside is that Kia's powerful V6 is the only available engine in the Sorento, and fuel economy isn't great. So the vehicle's low price right now will be offset by higher fuel costs over time, especially if gasoline prices continue to soar.

If you want an SUV with a peppy engine, though, the Kia may offer better value than any of its rivals. Just keep in mind that it's a buyer's market for SUVs, so it pays to shop around.

Click here to see more of the 2007 Kia Sorento.

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