Saturday, July 26, 2003

Kia puts a lot in small package

Sorento has everything you want in an SUV and then some

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Kia Sorento

Wheels rating:4 wheels
Top-drawer SUV for a bottom-drawer price.

Vital statistics
What I drove: Kia Sorento 4x4 EX, five-passenger SUV

Base price range: $19,995-$24,700

Price as tested: $25,195 (with destination fee)

Options on test vehicle: None

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, rear- or four-wheel drive

Engine: 3.5-liter V6 producing 192 hp and 217 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 4-speed electronically controlled automatic

Wheelbase: 106.7 inches

Length: 179.8 inches

Width: 73.3 inches

Height: 68.1 inches

Weight: 4,057 to 4,255 lbs.

EPA mpg, city/highway: 15/20 (4x2), 15/18 (4x4)

Warranty: Bumper-to-bumper:

5 years/ 60,000 miles;

powertrain: 10 years/ 100,000 miles; roadside assist: 5 years/unlimited miles

Assembled in: Hwasung, South Korea

Safety: Dual front airbags, head-protection curtain air bags for both rows, seat belt pretensioners and head restraints in all seating positions, LATCH child seat system.

Cool: Mini-ute price, midsize

utility, upscale interior, off-road prowess, front and rear curtain air bags, five-star crash-test rating, best warranty in the biz.

Uncool: Big-ute gas mileage.

Accolades: Named "Best in Class Mid-Size SUV" in AutoPacific's Vehicle Satisfaction Study; tied for "Best Medium SUV" in Strategic Vision's Total Quality Index; "Best Mid-Size SUV" in Motorweek's Drivers' Choice Awards.

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Car Talk
Don't underestimate Kia.

After all, the South Korean automaker's name means "to arise, to come up out of Asia," which is precisely what Kia did in 1994 when it entered the U.S. market with the Sephia sedan.

That year, Kia sold 12,163 Sephias. Eight years later, in 2002, Kia had eight vehicles in its U.S. lineup and sold 237,345 of them.

Purchased by Hyundai in 1999, Kia continues to function mostly independent of its parent company, and in the past two years it has introduced several new models that have won praise from industry analysts and customers. These include the Optima sedan, the Sedona minivan and the Kia Sorento sport-utility vehicle.

It was dark outside when I took delivery of a Sorento. I could barely see the exterior, so I had to judge it solely on how it felt. The seat felt firm, the dash panel felt solid, the steering wheel was leather wrapped and there was soft-touch material in all the right places. If I hadn't known better, I'd have guessed I was sitting in a $35,000 Lexus RX 330, not a vehicle priced closer to a Honda CR-V.

When the sun came up, I noted that the Sorento's profile even resembles the RX 330; it has similar windows and raked C-pillars. (Turns out Kia used the RX 330 as its benchmark.) But the Sorento's pronounced wheel arches and staunch head-on appearance set it apart.

On- and off-road intentions

Unlike the car-based RX 330 - which is best suited for grocery-store runs - the Sorento was designed as much for off-road grit as for on-road performance. It has rugged body-on-ladder-frame construction, which makes it more comparable (in size and intent) to a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

On the road, the Sorento drives like a truck-based SUV, but not a sloppy one. It steers and corners smoothly, with marginal body roll, and is well-mannered around town, though a bit bumpy on rough pavement. Tire and traffic sound dampening is fine, but wind noise gets loud at highway speeds. The brakes were impressive, especially considering this vehicle wasn't equipped with anti-lock brakes, a $595 option.

The 3.5-liter V6 engine puts out 192 horsepower and 217 lb-ft torque and is mated to an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission. The engine is quiet and strong, providing plenty of punch when you need it, and the transmission does its job without any ambivalent hunting-and-pecking.

The Sorento can be had with rear-wheel drive or a choice of two four-wheel-drive systems: a part-time system that the driver can engage "on the fly" with the turn of a knob; and a full-time "torque-on-demand" system that automatically transfers power as needed from the rear wheels to the front wheels without driver input. All 4x4 models include a low-range gear for enhanced crawling ability, and a limited slip differential for improved traction on slippery surfaces.

Two trim levels are available. LX models come with air conditioning; power windows, door locks and mirrors; cruise control; an eight-speaker CD sound system; and flip-and-fold rear seats. EX models get alloy wheels, two-tone body cladding, a power sunroof, an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat and a roof rack.

Prices range from $19,995 for the 4x2 LX to $24,700 for 4x4 EX. An extra $1,500 to $2,000 will buy you the luxury package (leather seats, heated front seats, automatic headlights, a six-CD in-dash audio system, and torque-on-demand).

Upscale interior

Interior appointments give the Sorento an upscale feel out of proportion to its low sticker price. The seats in my Sorento 4x4 EX tester were covered in a high-quality cushy material (a welcome change from leather in mid-summer). The matte-finish dashboard, instruments and controls are tightly assembled and cleanly arranged.

The glove box has a map shelf and is lined with a rubbery fabric to prevent contents from clanking around during driving. The storage drawer, ashtray and sunglass compartments glide open slowly and gracefully, like they do in a Lexus. The fake burled wood is a bit much, but forgivable.

My parents visited over the weekend, and we shuttled them everywhere in the Sorento. We found that two adults and one kid can ride comfortably in the rear seats, even with two 6-footers in front.

With the 60/40-split rear seats folded flat, the Sorento has enough room (66 cubic feet) to haul a week's worth of camping gear or a semester's worth of laundry (to Mom's). Behind the rear seats, there's a power outlet, cargo cover, tie-down net, and a storage tray beneath the carpeted floor.

Safe but thirsty

As I was writing this article, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced the results of its latest round of rollover and side-impact tests: the Sorento scored five-star ratings all around. That's great news for Kia, but not surprising. The Sorento is equipped not only with dual front airbags, but front and rear head-protection curtain airbags.

The only downer about the Sorento is its thirst for fuel. The 4x4 is EPA rated at 15 mpg/city and 18 mpg/highway. The 4x2 doesn't do much better at 15 mpg/city and 20 mpg/highway.

Quality improving

Earlier Kia models suffered quality woes, but all indications show that Kia is steadily improving product quality.

From 2002 to 2003, Kia improved its rating by 21 percent in J. D. Powers and Associates' "Initial Quality Study," which ranks vehicles and brands based on how many problems owners report during the first 90 days. In the 2003 study, Sorento was Kia's best-performing model, placing mid-pack in the mid-size SUV category.

Since its introduction last fall, the Sorento has been getting raves from the toughest critics of all - owners.

In AutoPacific Inc.'s "2003 Vehicle Satisfaction Study," owners rated Sorento "Best in Class" in the standard mid-size SUV category, ousting such competitors as the Toyota Highlander, Ford Escape and Explorer Sport.

"This is really a beautiful vehicle, exceptionally well laid out, designed and equipped," said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., an automotive consulting firm. "The Sorento proves the need for all of us to recalibrate our thoughts about Korean design, execution and quality."

The Sorento tied with the Toyota 4Runner as the "Best Medium SUV" in Strategic Vision's "2003 Total Quality Index," which measures the complete ownership experience, as defined by consumers.

The PBS automotive TV show, Motorweek, named Sorento the "Best Mid-Size SUV for 2003" in its annual "Drivers' Choice" awards.

Top-notch warranty

Kia thinks highly enough of its products to back them with one of the best warranties in the business: 10 years/100,000 miles of powertrain coverage, five years/60,000 miles of bumper-to-bumper coverage, and five years/unlimited miles of roadside assistance.

The Sorento has everything most of us need in an SUV - utility, all-weather capability, comfort and safety - plus some things we just want, such as off-road ruggedness and handsome styling.

Sorento offers it all for $10,000 less than the other guys charge, and backs it up with a killer warranty.

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