Kia's Bargain Borrego

With gas prices dropping and the economy softening, there's never been a better time to buy a midsize, inexpensive SUV like the Kia Borrego

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Standard features, seven-passenger capacity, rebates

The Bad: Bland styling, SUV fuel economy

The Bottom Line: A classic midsize SUV at a bargain price

Up Front

There are some great deals around right now on midsize sport utility vehicles, with one of the best bargains being the new '09 Kia Borrego. The Korean company's timing isn't great bringing out a classic SUV in the midst of a financial crisis and continuing gasoline price jitters. But if you really need the seven-passenger capacity, available V8-power, and the four-wheel drive of an SUV, the new Borrego offers excellent value.

Almost exactly the same size as a Ford Explorer, the Borrego is the heaviest and most powerful vehicle Kia (KIMTY) has ever sold in the U.S. It comes with a choice of two engines, a 3.8-liter, 276-horsepower V6 coupled with a five-speed automatic transmission or a powerful 4.6-liter, 337-horsepower V8 coupled with a six-speed automatic. With the bigger engine, the Borrego weighs 4,600 lb. and can tow as much as 7,500 lb., best in its class. Its 8.5-inch ground clearance even gives it limited off-road capability.

It's hard to beat the Borrego's price. The model starts out at $26,995 for a two-wheel-drive, V6-powered LX, rising to $33,745 for a fancy EX with four-wheel-drive and a V8 engine.

However, rival SUVs are being heavily discounted (a $2,000 Borrego rebate ended Dec. 1). Through Jan. 5, Ford (F) is offering rebates of up to $4,000 and $2,000 on the '08 and '09 Explorer, respectively. General Motors' (GM) rebates total more than $4,000 on the '08 Saturn Outlook for some customers, and more than $3,000 on the '09, also through Jan. 5. .

Considering the amount of standard equipment it comes with, however, the Borrego is highly competitive. Even the most basic LX comes with full power accessories, air conditioning, cruise control, a tilting and telescoping steering-wheel, a backup alarm, a six-speaker sound system with satellite radio, and a USB port, an integrated trailer hitch, electronic brake-force distribution, side-mirror turn signal indicators, hill-start assist, and an automatic downhill braking control system. The EX adds power adjustable front seats, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, fog lights, and heated outside mirrors. Four-wheel-drive versions also have a windshield de-icer,

The main option on the entry-level LX is a $1,200 convenience package that adds leather seat trim and an eight-way power driver's seat. However, you can jazz up the EX with all sorts of add-ons: The $1,800 premium package adds a sunroof, a backup camera, a premium sound system, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and running boards, while the $1,500 luxury package adds leather heated seats, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and memory for driver's seat settings. Navigation and rear-seat entertainment systems cost an extra $1,500 apiece, chrome wheels another $750, and Bluetooth capability $350.

Belying its size, the Borrego's fuel economy is better than average for this class of vehicle. With rear-wheel drive, the V6 version of the Borrego is rated to get 17 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway. Rated mileage drops to 15 city and 20 highway for the V8-powered four-wheel-drive version. In 185 miles of mixed driving in a V6-powered Borrego, I got 17.2 mpg.

The Borrego earned the top Five-Star crash test rating in frontal and side collisions from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It comes standard with front, side, and head-protecting side curtain airbags, as well as antilock brakes and stability and traction control. There's even an airbag to protect the driver's knees in the V8 models. Kia's excellent warranty includes comprehensive five-year/60,000 mile coverage with free roadside assistance.

However, not surprisingly given the state of the auto industry, the Borrego is off to a slow start. Kia posted record U.S. sales as recently as July, but the company drove off a cliff this fall, along with the rest of the auto industry, right as the Borrego was hitting the market. As a result, Kia only sold 1,440 Borregos in the model's first three months on the market.

Behind the Wheel

Kia has made a quantum leap in recent years, New models such as Optima midsize sedan and the Rondo small SUV have excellent fit and finish and come packed with features you wouldn't expect from a budget brand. The same holds for the Borrego.

For starters, this new Kia is surprisingly quick for such a heavy vehicle. I clocked my V6-powered test vehicle at 7.5 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60, and the V8 engine, the most powerful in its class, undoubtably provides even faster acceleration. Both transmissions have a manual mode for those who want to do the shifting themselves. The Borrego's suspension may be too stiff for some people, but it's about right for those (like me) who don't like a boaty ride.

There's nothing exceptional about the Borrego's bland exterior styling. But the vehicle's interior is remarkably well designed. Fit and finish is uniform, with tight gaps in the dashboard and door sections. The glove box closes with a solid thunk, and everything inside the car seems well-made.

What sets the interior apart is how roomy the rear seating area is. The Borrego's middle seats are adjustable—the seatbacks can be tilted back at different angles and slide back and forth. If you take the time to adjust the second row seats, there's plenty of space for adults to be comfortable in the third row. That contrasts with most midsize SUVs, where the third-row seats are suitable mainly for kids.

With all three rows of seats in use, the Borrego only has 12.4 cu. ft. of luggage space in back, considerably less than the larger Saturn Outlook and slightly less than the '09 Explorer. However, both rows of rear seats fold down in a split pattern, providing an enormous amount of cargo capacity when you need it. There's also an under-floor compartment in back for storing valuables.

My main gripe is that the Borrego isn't as responsive at cruising speeds as I would have liked. The transmission is geared to maximize fuel economy, so it switches into the higher gears relatively quickly and seems to run out forever in each one. You really have to punch the gas hard to get it to gear down for passing other vehicles on the highway.

Also, there's no trip computer on LX models. And you can't get a power lift-gate at all, even as an option.

Buy it or Bag It?

The first question to ask before buying a Borrego: Do you really need such a large vehicle? If not, the much smaller Kia Rondo offers seven-passenger capacity at a much lower price (about $18,000) and gets better mileage (19 mpg in the city/26 on the highway).

The midsize Borrego is far roomier but sells for an average of $29,133, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). The '08 Ford Explorer ($27,136) and '08 Jeep Grand Cherokee ($28,095) are still available and sell for less, but also come with far less standard equipment than the Borrego.

If you want to spend a bit more for a slightly larger vehicle, the '09 Saturn Outlook ($33,103) and Honda's (HMC) '09 Pilot ($33,003) are both very classy and seat up to eight passengers. Toyota's (TM) '09 Highlander costs a lot more, with an average recent selling price of $39,821, according to PIN (which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies—MHP).

Midsize SUVs aren't exactly selling like hotcakes these days. But it's a great time to buy if you want one, and the Borrego is one of the best bargains in the category.

Click here to see more of the 2009 Kia Borrego.

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