It seems like just yesterday that Kia was fielding quirky offerings like, well, the previous-generation Sorento, a traditional body-on-frame SUV that never really caught on in America. But this company learns quickly. The all-new 2011 Kia Sorento boasts the carlike unibody construction (and the subsequent carlike ride) that Americans crave, and it's got most of the other bases covered, too. Perhaps most impressively, it starts at around $20,000, pitting it squarely against perennial compact-crossover all-stars like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
The Sorento's most obvious advantage over these models is its near-midsize dimensions. Longer than both rivals, the Sorento capitalizes with an optional third-row seat that's actually inhabitable by adults for short trips; the RAV4's third row, conversely, is strictly for kids, and the CR-V doesn't even offer one. The Sorento also features a choice of four- and six-cylinder engines, just like the Toyota, while the Honda is four-cylinder only.
The base four-cylinder, however, is not particularly impressive, which isn't surprising given that its 175 horses are tasked with moving more than 3,600 pounds of crossover. It feels and sounds somewhat strained at higher rpm, and it's not as good on gas as the thriftiest fours in this segment. Another mild demerit goes to the gray dashboard color scheme, which doesn't do justice to the solid materials and build quality. And while the front seats are comfortable, the armrests' lack of padding becomes evident on longer drives.
Overall, though, the Sorento is a highly impressive effort. Whereas past Kias have tended to be purchased primarily because of value, the Sorento is a legitimate contender that just happens to have an affordable price. In addition to the aforementioned Honda and Toyota, we'd recommend taking a look at the seven-passenger Hyundai Santa Fe and five-passenger-only models like the Chevrolet Equinox and Subaru Forester. But we wouldn't hesitate to recommend the 2011 Kia Sorento -- it's a rolling exhibit of how far this automaker has come in recent years.
Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options:
The 2011 Kia Sorento is a crossover SUV offered in three trim levels: base, LX and EX. A third-row 50/50-split-folding seat with room for two is optional on the LX and four-cylinder EX, and standard on the EX V6.
The base model comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission, 17-inch alloy wheels, full power accessories, air-conditioning, a tilt-and-telescoping multifunction steering wheel, a trip computer, Bluetooth connectivity and a CD/MP3 audio system with satellite radio and a USB audio jack.
Moving up to the LX nets a six-speed automatic transmission, body-color heated outside mirrors with integrated LED turn signals, a second-row armrest with cupholder, and the option of adding the Convenience package, which includes foglamps, roof rails, rear parking sensors, heated front seats, and a back-up camera with a rearview-mirror-mounted display.
The EX starts with the LX's equipment and adds 18-inch alloy wheels, keyless ignition/entry, dual-zone automatic climate control (with rear air-conditioning on V6 models) and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Optional on the EX is the Premium package, which adds roof rails, leather upholstery, heated front seats, the back-up camera with mirror-mounted display and -- for V6 models -- a panoramic sunroof. Once you've selected the Premium package, you can add the Limited package, which tacks on 18-inch chrome-finish wheels, a voice-activated navigation system with real-time traffic, a 12-speaker Infinity sound system and interior mood lighting. A rear-seat DVD entertainment system is available on EX V6 models without the sunroof.
Powertrains and Performance:
All Sorento trim levels come standard with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 175 horsepower and 169 pound-feet of torque. The base model has a six-speed manual transmission, while the others get a six-speed automatic. Optional on the EX model is a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 276 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque; it comes only with the six-speed automatic. Front-wheel drive is standard across the board, while LX and EX models are eligible for all-wheel drive. The AWD system comes with a locking center differential to improve low-speed traction in icy or off-road situations. Fuel economy estimates range from 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway for front-drive four-cylinder Sorentos with the automatic to 19/25 for the all-wheel-drive EX V6.
The 2011 Kia Sorento comes standard with antilock disc brakes, stability control, hill-start assist, hill descent control, front seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and front active head restraints.
Interior Design and Special Features:
The Sorento's interior is class-competitive in both design and materials, with a look that is restrained but sophisticated. Dashboard plastics are hard to the touch but look good. The audio and climate controls (whether manual or automatic) are intuitive and have a substantial feel, as does the rest of the switchgear. The front seats are comfortable on long trips and provide the commanding view of the road that crossover buyers love, and the inviting second-row seat accommodates two with ease and three in a pinch. The optional third-row seat (standard on EX V6) features 50/50-split-folding seatbacks and enough room for even taller-than-average adults, provided the trip is brief.
Like the RAV4, the 2011 Kia Sorento is a tale of two engines. The base 2.4-liter four is adequate around town and with light loads, but it struggles a bit with extra passengers and cargo. The 3.5-liter V6, on the other hand, is strong and smooth, and its fuel-economy deficit isn't huge; too bad it's only available on the top-of-the-line EX. The Sorento's suspension strikes a nice balance between ride comfort and handling control, and at cruising speeds, the cabin remains respectably quiet.