Preview Drive: 2011 Kia Sorento

Redesigned wagon switches from truck-based platform to unibody with independent rear suspension, for more carlike road experience

by James M. Flammang

2011 Kia Sorento

WEST POINT, Georgia - Over the past couple of years, sport-utility vehicles have steadily faded away. They've been edged aside by crossover wagons of similar size that promise the merits of several vehicles in a single package. Typically, a crossover combines the virtues of a sedan, a wagon, and an SUV - at least in the eyes of its maker.

When Kia launched the first-generation Sorento as a 2003 model, it was strictly-SUV, built on a separate truck-type chassis. Back then, no apologies had to be made for employing truck-based construction.

Now that Kia has redesigned the Sorento for debut as a 2011 model, it's taken on a markedly different form and structure. The old truck platform is gone. This second-generation compact Sorento uses unibody construction, allowing Kia to promote its more carlike ride and handling qualities. Five-passenger seating is standard, but for the first time, a Sorento model will be offered with seating for seven.

Sorento has another, quite different, distinction. This is the first Kia model to be manufactured in the U.S. rather than in South Korea. Specifically, Sorentos will be turned out at a brand-new plant in West Point, Georgia, not too far out of Atlanta. Kia says 43,000 applicants turned up for the 2,500 direct jobs in the new Georgia factory. Opening of the plant also promises some 7,500 additional jobs in the region, which has been hard hit economically since the textile mills closed.

For this redesign, Sorento dimensions have changed, but not dramatically. Senior product strategy manager Steve Hirashiki says the 2011 Sorento is "longer, lower, sleeker." Length has grown by more than 3 inches, now measuring just under 184 inches. Height is down by about half an inch, to 67.3. Width is unchanged at 74.2 inches, while wheelbase has been reduced by half an inch (to 106.3 inches). Weight has gone down by more than 50 pounds.

Aerodynamic improvements give the Sorento a drag coefficient of 0.38, which is 10 percent better than its predecessor, though still well short of slippery when rolling through the air. With seats folded down, cargo volume has grown by 15 percent, and the Sorento's center of gravity is 54 millimeters lower than before. The turning radius of the new model is under 36 feet, while rear track (distance between wheels) is 1.6 inches wider than for its predecessor.

Two engines are offered: four-cylinder or V-6. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder develops 172 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 166 pound-feet of torque at 3750 rpm. A Sorento with that engine earns a fuel-economy estimate of 21 mpg in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway. The available 3.5-liter V-6 generates 273 horsepower at 6300 rpm, as well as 247 pound-feet at 6000, yielding a fuel-economy estimate that's only a bit less thrifty: 20/28 mpg (city/highway).

Kia says the new six-speed automatic transmission (a proprietary design) contains six fewer components than the previous automatic, and is 25 pounds lighter. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, but more than 95 percent of Sorentos are expected to come with automatic. Full-time four-wheel drive is available (formerly part-time), or the Sorento can have front-wheel drive. The new 4WD system starts out fully in front-drive, but a front/rear split up to 50/50 is possible, depending on road conditions. Steering is all-new. The Sorento suspension uses MacPherson struts up front, complemented by a new independent rear suspension.

Outside mirrors contain LED lamps, and a four-spoke tilt/telescoping steering wheel holds a selection of controls. Available features include heated front seats, a panoramic sunroof, pushbutton start/stop, and a backup camera. The standard six-speaker audio system includes provision for Sirius satellite radio, and an Infinity 12-speaker system is optional. Automatic-transmission models include an Eco-minder indicator to help achieve the greatest fuel economy.

Within moments behind the wheel, it becomes evident that this Sorento really does rank as "new" as Kia claims, exhibiting a truly solid feel that suggests excellent build quality. Whether on an expressway or rural road, the Soreno delivers a satisfying, seldom-tarnished ride. Even when the surface gets a bit bumpy, little nastiness is transmitted to occupants and the Sorento runs quietly. Acceleration is generally good, but the four-cylinder can start to lag just when swift pickup might be most needed, even on flat terrain.

Easy to drive and maneuver, Sorento also comes across as "right-sized." Gauges are easy to read, including the orange-lit odometer and large, deep (but bright) speedometer. Even with seat all the way down, you feel somewhat high in the driver's seat. The supportive driver's seat is firm yet comfortable. At the end of the distinctive, attractive dashbard is a virtually immense glovebox.

Three models will make up the 2011 Sorento lineup: four-cylinder LX; four-cylinder EX (which adds such extras as pushbutton start and rear sonar); and EX V-6, which gets third-row seating as well as V-6 power that yields a 3,500-pound towing capacity. A Limited option package will be available for EX models. The same basic platform is used for the Santa Fe produced by Hyundai, Kia's corporate parent.

On the safety front, six airbags are standard, along with rollover sensing, antilock braking, traction control, front active headrests, and Electronic Stability Control.

With its latest Sorento, Kia competes against the Chevrolet Equinox, Toyota RAV4, Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7, and Honda CR-V. Pricing is expected to start under $20,000. Sales begin on January 2, 2010 (2011 models cannot be sold until after the start of the preceding calendar year).

Automobiles and compact SUVs built by Kia first appeared in the U.S. market in 1994-95, when the first Sephias and Sportages trickled onto the West Coast. Soon, the company became known primarily for budget-priced vehicles. Kia's history dates back far longer, to its birth as a bicycle company in 1951, in South Korea.

"Value has become the new cool," says Tom Loveless, Kia's vice-president of sales. "The perception gap is closing, and it's closing in a hurry." Kia is now "one of the top two brands in terms of growth."

Sorento V-6 update: In a subsequent week-long trial on familiar terrain, the Sorento demonstrated its appealing qualities in terms of ride/handling and performance. But gas mileage was not among the benefits. Fuel economy has been an issue with various Kia trucks and minivans in the past, and the 2011 Sorento is no exception. In mostly city driving, the V-6 AWD Sorento fell short of the EPA figure of 19 mpg, barely squeezing out 15 mpg. Another drawback is the laughably slim cargo area when the third-row seats are up. (3/12/10)

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang