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First Drive: 2011 Kia Sorento [Review]

by Mark Elias

West Point, Georgia, is rising again like a Phoenix from the ashes. Only now, this dot on the map on the border with Alabama is dealing with hardware, instead of the soft goods it once produced. The 2011 Kia Sorento has come to town.

Nearly devastated following the late 1990s closure of fabric mills that produced everything from shirts to bed sheets to towels, the city of nearly 3,400 was "on the road to becoming a ghost town," CNN said in July.

Yet this isn't a belated Halloween horror story; instead, it's a tale of rebirth. Korean automaker Kia has just taken the wraps off of a new factory in the little Georgia burg that is just now churning out the automaker's rethought and redesigned Sorento.

Version 2.0
The 2011 Kia Sorento is generation two of the company's popular small 'ute. Previously built using traditional body on frame construction, it has moved into modern times with the changeover to unibody construction and a choice of two or all-wheel-drive.

But more than that, Kia has seen the Promised Land. They have been to that mountaintop - possibly using the old Sorento to drive up it since it was a surprisingly rugged little trucklet. Kia can see what possibilities exist when it sets out to produce a successful car.

The new Sorento, which shares a platform with the Hyundai Santa Fe, is much more contemporary than the model it replaces. Possessing a silhouette that appears not unlike a Toyota Highlander, it has all the latest scalloping and lower body cladding, not to mention the chrome, that has become de rigueur on SUVs today.

We have heard reports that Kia benchmarked against the Toyota Highlander when prepping for this new Sorento, but in Korean tradition, there's more value for the money than in the default Japanese rivals. From a price-competitive standpoint, the Sorento slots in against the Chevrolet Equinox, Toyota Highlander and Nissan Murano.

For example: We found a smart key setup that either plugs into a receptacle in the center console armrest/cubby hole (an odd choice of place), or will work perfectly well in your pocket. Bluetooth cell phone connections are easy to achieve, and the audio head unit offers iPod connectivity through plugs located at the bottom of the centerstack. Dual-zone climate controls offer heating and cooling of driver and passenger side occupants. We do wish Kia included ventilated seats to go along with the heated two-toned stitched leather package we drove.

Sized right
Longer and wider than the model it replaces, it is capable of seating up to seven people or about 3,000 hamsters who wanted something a bit more traditional than a Soul. The Sorento's exterior measurements put it about four inches longer than the outgoing model, but still a little shorter than the Highlander or Equinox.

Comfortable front seats made for relaxing driving with no fatigue after a full day behind the wheel. The rear seat offered enough space for three full-sized adults, but we think the third row seating is a stab by Kia at a feature that is becoming increasingly less relevant. We see most people leaving them down and utilizing the full cargo area - or simply buying larger vehicles that can actually accommodate real humans. By the way, the middle row 60-40 seats recline to about a 31-degree pitch, which also happens to be the standard in the airline industry.

In the engine room
Kia offers two engine choices for the new Sorento. The base model hits the pavement with a 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder. With 172 horsepower and 166 lb-ft. of torque, it was such a smooth operator that we didn't realize it was powering our photo car until we stopped to make a snap of the engine. We sampled the EX-V6 model during the next day's drive.

Loaded with the big muscle, in this case a 3.5-liter V6 with 273 horsepower and 247 lb-ft. of twist, it made exceeding the posted speed limit seem like child's play. Both engines are mated to six-speed automatic transmissions with Sportmatic auto stick functions. A six-speed manual is standard with the four-banger. Kia expects a take-rate of 20-percent, but that seems a little optimistic for us. Estimated fuel economy with the automatic is estimated at an impressive 20/28 city/highway for an all-wheel-drive four-banger, but the V6 imposes a mere 1 mpg penalty in either measurement, making it a no-brainer for those with a little more budget.

The torque-on-demand all-wheel-drive-system features a locking center differential with all engine and transmission combinations. While it won't make mountains into mole hills quite like the rather capable outgoing model, available hill descent control should help out with light trail capability.

The ride proved car like, thanks to the lower mounting of the drivetrain and engine in the Sorento's unibody. With independent MacPherson struts, springs and stabilizer bar in front and a multi-link setup with stabilizer bar in the rear, the Sorento was the picture of composure. The SUV showed its sporting side by clicking off an avoidance technique that felt it corner flatly and without drama. More than this, what really had us jazzed was how the NVH engineers must have been working overtime to provide a ride as quiet as they have. We were driving pre-production models that transmitted little in the way of road noise into the cabin except under the worst road conditions.

We are always on the lookout for a value-loaded vehicle, and the 2011 Kia Sorento easily fills the bill.

Leftlane's bottom line
Kia again delivers by adding to a string of hits that continues to impress us with features and build quality that heretofore were reserved for cars that came from Japan. Though pricing hasn't been announced, (Kia says to expect a base price that tickles $20,000) it's hard to see much to complain about with the thoroughly redeveloped Sorento. While our off-roader side is sad to see another dirt-capable rig bite the dust, our logical side says that 27 mpg from 273 ponies in a five and two-halves-passenger 'ute is top notch.

2011 Kia Sorento pricing to be determined.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.