Long ago, sport-utility vehicles replaced the station wagon as the quintessential family hauler. In the beginning, truck-based, body-on-frame SUVs were all there was. But car shoppers' desire for a more mild-mannered city SUV eventually gave birth to the crossover -- an SUV based on a passenger car. Nowadays, it seems like crossovers will eventually inherit the Earth. But one vehicle that has kept in touch with its traditional SUV roots is the five-passenger 2009 Kia Sorento.
The Sorento, like most traditional truck-based SUVs, is built on a sturdy body-on-frame chassis and has a solid rear axle suspension. This allows it to tow up to 5,000 pounds when properly equipped, about 1,500 pounds more than most other small and midsize crossovers can handle. Opting for the four-wheel-drive model gives the Sorento a decent amount of off-road ability, too, thanks to its low-range gearing. This is still a modern Kia, though, with a choice of two capable V6 engines, an impressive list of standard features, attractive styling and substantial warranty coverage.
Alas, this old-school approach leaves the 2009 Sorento somewhat outclassed in terms of all-around polish. Its lackluster fuel economy, less-than-stellar brakes and trucklike ride make it seem out of touch with what most people want out of a small or midsize SUV these days. While the Sorento is a capable alternative to the similar-in-concept Jeep Liberty, we think you'll probably be happier with a dedicated on-road crossover like the Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander or Toyota RAV4. And if you really do seek an old-world SUV with substantial off-road prowess, we think the Nissan Xterra and Toyota FJ Cruiser are better and more desirable choices.
Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options:
The 2009 Kia Sorento is a midsize SUV offered in two trim levels: LX and EX. The Sorento LX comes standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, air-conditioning, full power accessories, cloth seats and a 10-speaker sound system with a CD/MP3 player. The more powerful EX tacks on foglamps, heated side mirrors, leather seating, a power driver seat and wood-grain interior accents.
Options are conveniently bundled in two packages. The LX Value Package includes a sunroof, 16-inch alloy wheels and leather upholstery. The EX Luxury Package includes a sunroof, automatic 4WD if so equipped, heated front seats, an in-dash six-CD changer, automatic dual-zone climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and automatic headlights. Stand-alone options for the EX include 17-inch alloy wheels and a rear spoiler.
Powertrains and Performance:
The 2009 Kia Sorento is available with two engine choices. The base model and LX are powered by a 3.3-liter V6 that produces 242 horsepower and 228 pound-feet of torque. The EX receives a 3.8-liter V6 with 262 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. Properly equipped, the LX can tow up to 3,500 pounds while the EX can lug up to 5,000 pounds. All Sorentos feature a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control.
The base model is offered only with two-wheel drive, while the LX and EX can be had in either two- or four-wheel-drive configurations. The Luxury package-equipped EX model features an automatic "Torque-On-Demand" 4WD system that can automatically engage the front wheels for improved all-weather performance.
Regardless of which engine and two- or four-wheel-drive combination is selected, the EPA estimates virtually identical fuel economy across the entire Sorento line. A two-wheel-drive model with the 3.3-liter V6 should return 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway and 18 mpg in combined driving, while the 3.8-liter V6 is rated at 15/21/17 mpg. Opting for 4WD versions drops mileage by about 1 mpg.
All 2009 Kia Sorentos, regardless of trim level, feature antilock disc brakes, full-length side curtain airbags, stability control, traction control and driver knee airbags. In government crash testing, the Kia Sorento was awarded the highest possible score of five out of five stars for frontal and side impact protection for all occupants. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Sorento its highest rating of "Good" for frontal-offset crashworthiness, but in side-impact testing, the Sorento received the IIHS's worst possible rating of "Poor."
Interior Design and Special Features:
Despite its modest pricing, the 2009 Kia Sorento exhibits solid build quality with decent interior materials. The front seats are comfortable and controls are simple enough, but the overall look and design of the interior falls a bit behind the times. The rear bench is wide enough to accommodate three adults, but taller passengers may find legroom lacking. The versatile 60/40 split rear seats fold flat for about 66 cubic feet of cargo space, which is a bit less than what's offered by top crossover competitors.
With either V6 under the hood, the 2009 Kia Sorento has plenty of power for both city traffic and swift highway cruising. The suspension provides a pleasant ride and adequate handling on smooth pavement, but when the road gets rough, the ride gets bouncy, with a good deal of the bumps transmitted directly into the cabin. The Sorento's brakes might also be a cause for concern; in previous testing, we noticed significant brake fade after just two panic stops from 60 mph. Drivers who plan on any traversing of mountainous roads should keep this in mind.
The Sorento's steering feel, however, is satisfying and there's a minimum of body roll when cornering. Thanks to the Sorento's low-range transfer case and truck-based origins, off-road excursions can be tackled with relative ease, but the Sorento's capabilities still fall short of those possessed by more competent vehicles like the Xterra and FJ Cruiser.