2011 Kia Sorento

One of my least favorite segments of the automotive industry is the mid-size crossover utility vehicle. I know it has practically become an automotive journalism cliché at this point but I love a good wagon. I see no reason to choose a tall wagon over one with a lower entry point and roofline. That being said, more automakers have recently figured out how to build better mid-size crossovers and I am finding it harder to complain about them.  A perfect example of this is the totally redesigned 2011 Kia Sorento.

The first vehicle to be built at the all-new West Point, Georgia manufacturing facility, the 2011 Kia Sorento represents their continued push in the right direction. The South Korean automaker is breaking free of the mold of affordable, cheap cars and is now producing affordable, good vehicles.

The Sorento looks good without forcing “style” on you. There are simple chrome touches on the front and rear. The front headlights gently reach back into the fenders, and the line from the hood flows right into the shoulder line which reaches back into an angled D-pillar. This Kia Sorento sits on 18-in wheels and they fill the wheel wheels nicely without having to resort to the, seemingly everywhere, 20-incher. I would not refer to the Sorento as a “hot” car, but I would describe it as “quite handsome”. Also, I clearly need to re-up my Maxim subscription and stop paying for GQ.

The Kia Sorento interior design incorporates a few low end materials but also features up-to-date tech features. The center stack is cleanly laid out with a touchscreen audio/navigation system up top and manual HVAC controls below. At the very bottom sits an iPod/iPhone connector for those of you who need shiny, expensive status symbols. This is odd, because if you are choosing a Kia you can see beyond that glitz that some crave. Since I need matte-finished status symbols, my HTC Hero was relegated to the also available Auxiliary input. The display is crisp, and the information available is excellent. In the above photo you can see that the navigation system is displaying traffic info. Had I been driving with a route entered, the system would offer to re-route me. Had I been driving in LA with a route entered, the system would take on a HAL like tone and said “We can’t do this Jeff…Daisy, Daisy…give me your answer true…” before smoke seeps forth from behind the dash somewhere.

For 2011, the redesigned Sorento features increased headroom, legroom, AND cargo space. This particular Sorento was equipped with beige and black heated leatherette seats. They were a nice contrast to the typical gray or black found in most vehicles, and more importantly they were comfortable on short to mid-length drives. I would be interested to spend some more time in them to see how they stack up on a true road trip.

At the heart of this Sorento sits a 2.4L I4 engine which produces a surprisingly-ample 175 hp and 169 lb-ft of torque. Coupled to a brand-new six-speed automatic transmission, the crossover has no problem getting up to speed when merging onto the highway or leaving your favorite photography spot in a hurry because the weird guy asking questions about the car is getting a little too close for comfort. The four-cylinder is rated at an acceptable 21 city/29 hwy in FWD guise. If you are looking for more grunt and don’t want to save at the pump, the available 3.5L V6 engine produces 276 hp and is rated at 26 mpg on the highway. The exhaust note for the four-cylinder sounds underwhelming but the performance feels more than adequate – even a bit surprising.

The 2011 Kia Sorento has a starting price of $22,395. That price makes this one attractive choice for someone looking for a mid-size crossover, as does the fuel economy rating of the four-cylinder engine. The problem comes when you advance up the trim level ladder. The Sorento you see here was a pre-production model and thus came with no monroney sticker – but an equally well-equipped model will push you close to the $30,000 mark. Are folks ready to pay $30,000 for a Kia? I don’t know if enough people are, even though the V6 Sorento makes more power than the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. You can find people happy to fork over that money for the new American King or the Japanese Giant, but the Korean Kid makes people grimace. Their image is changing for the better and I think it is a great thing. More good cars means more good choices for the average consumer. That means more fun choices for the enthusiast. I don’t think Kia is going to kick out a halo sports car anytime soon…but it can’t hurt when your non-enthusiast friend asks your opinion for a new vehicle to include those three little letters amongst your choices. We will call this The Reverse Porsche Effect if they do someday make a true sports car.

Kia currently occupies an interesting space in the automotive landscape. For years the sold very inexpensive cars which were simply point-A to point-B shuttles. They produced great fuel economy numbers but were generally not places you would want to be stuck on long drives. If you enjoy the driving experience at all, you really didn’t want to be stuck in them for short drives either. A new Kia? Still affordable and still earning great fuel economy ratings, yet the company is building world-class entry-level cars which are all fighting above their weight. They put the world on notice with the Kia Soul, a funky-fun vehicle with unique style and a host of great available optional extras. Next came the Kia Forte which is an affordable charmer offered in both sedan and coupe (or Koup, if you prefer) body styles. The Borrego has been around for a few years now, and is an oft-overlooked yet capable and well-equipped full-size SUV regardless of whether you choose the V6 or V8 engine. Now the redesigned Kia Sorento is here and it shows that this company is serious about building affordable, quality vehicles.

Would I buy a crossover utility vehicle? The answer is still no, since there are so many wonderful wagons to choose out there. However, the 2011 Kia Sorento has me giving this segment a double-take. If you are in the market for a vehicle like this, someone may have you pointed you towards a Kia but then added “it’s a great car…if you don’t care about the badge.” I think you can care about the badge now, and be proud to own a car with KIA on the outside.

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