First drive: 2020 Kia Telluride [Review]

Kia goes bigger, bolder and boxier. Does the Telluride offer a true SUV experience?

Every time we think we've reached peak SUV, another utility vehicle comes along to fill a gap we didn't even realize existed. The 2020 Kia Telluride is a perfect example of just such an introduction. Slotting above the company's Sorento crossover, Telluride takes the crown as the largest family hauler in the company's lineup.

Kia's new SUV looks the part, but does it have what it takes to compete in the hot midsize market? We were invited to Colorado to find out.

Looking it over

Kia would like us to say its new SUV resembles a certain British SUV manufacturer's staple three-row, but we're going to leave that assessment to you. We appreciate the Telluride's clean, boxy lines and lack of overwrought details or attempts to wagonize its proportions.

Inside, we're quite impressed with the Telluride's interior layout and Kia's material choices. We'll note that even though our loaded-up test vehicle boasted Nappa leather and a premium headliner, even this range-topper features synthetic (Kia's choice of terminology) wood and metal trim finishes.

To Kia's credit, the faux wood isn't the sort of shiny stuff you'll find on some of its competitors' dashes. Frankly, it wouldn't look out-of-place in a full-blown luxury vehicle. We'd say it's a Volkswagen-esque execution, only VW's own Atlas is guilty of some high-gloss ticky-tack.

Our biggest gripes with the interior were few and mostly insignificant. We're not big fans of the giant infotainment buttons laid out horizontally below the Telluride's touchscreen; the low-contrast labels only really work when obviously illuminated and can result in some feature-hunting. We also found the wireless device charger to be a bit fickle even with a relatively thin iPhone case.

Sizing it up

"But what about the Sorento?" A valid question. Sorento is actually small for the segment. Despite packaging that makes it competitive, its dimensions actually place it in the over-achieving end of the compact spectrum rather than the meat of the midsize class. Telluride's wheelbase is nearly five inches longer than Sorento's and its overall length exceeds Sorento's by nine.

This gives Telluride a lot of room to play. It's aimed squarely at the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet Traverse and Ford Explorer (and everything else that plays in this space), but its styling and boxy proportions remind us of the segment oddball: Dodge Durango. While the Telluride lacks the big Mopar's longitudinal drivetrain (and, consequently, an available high-output engine), it was clearly built to appeal to the same sort of buyer. Plus, both share names with towns in Colorado. RIP, Chrysler Aspen.

In that vein, Kia engineered the Telluride to offer more interior passenger room than any of its competitors (a big leap up from Sorento) and more cargo room than just about all of them plus the larger Chevrolet Tahoe. It even eclipses some fellow newcomers in the space (Volkswagen Atlas and Subaru Ascent, we're looking at you here.).

Breaking it down

The Telluride is available in four trims: LX, S, EX and SX. The grade walk is fairly conventional, but it's worth noting that the entry-level EX and mid-range EX stick you with the eight-passenger configuration no matter what. The S and SX have second-row captain's chairs standard, though you can option the second-row bench on the S if you're so inclined. The range-topping SX is seven-passenger only.

Every Telluride comes standard with a 3.8L V6 (a variant of the Hyundai-Kia corporate Lambda II engine) producing 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. This V6 is paired with a conventional eight-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive is an optional upgrade regardless of trim. Yes, you can get the SX model in front-wheel-drive if you're in a climate where an extra set of driven wheels is superfluous.

Opting for front-wheel-drive will save you some fuel, but not a ton. The Telluride is rated at 20 MPG city, 26 highway and 23 combined in that configuration. All-wheel-drive models are certified at 19/24/21.

While Kia has come a long way from its humbler, cheap-car days, its product developers still put an emphasis on packing value into their products. Translation? You get a lot of standard features for your money.

This is most apparent when it comes to tech. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration are standard from the base model up, as are automated emergency braking with pedestrian protection and forward collision warning/braking assist, smart cruise control with stop-and-go, blind spot monitoring with collision avoidance, rear cross-traffic avoidance with collision avoidance, lane keeping assist, and lane following assist (meaning the car doesn't just ping-pong from one guideline to another).

Some other niceties of note are standard second- and third-row air vents (Hello, Mazda CX-9.) and second-row HVAC controls, wireless device charging (EX and SX only), an electronic all-wheel-drive lock mode (good up to 40 MPH) and second-/third-row sunshades (again, on the EX and SX).

The only two packages available on most models are the 8-passenger seating setup (on the S model for $100) and a towing package ($795, EX and SX only). Max tow rating with the package is 5,000 pounds regardless of powertrain.

The SX is also available with a Prestige package (all of the test vehicles made available were so-equipped) which includes Nappa leather seating trim, a heated steering wheel, an upgraded cloth headliner, rain-sensing wipers, a 110-volt inverter, heated and ventilated second-row seats, and a driver information HUD. Note that this package requires all-wheel-drive.

Throwing it around

As we mentioned above, the loaded-up Telluride makes a great first impression. The seats are comfortable, and the second- and third-row accommodations roomy. While we wouldn't want to take a particularly long road trip in the way-back, it's as tolerable as the Buick Enclave's rear-most bench. That's high praise for this class.

Getting situated, we noted that the heated steering wheel offers only manual adjustment controls. Another minor quibble. The 10-way power-adjustable driver's seat (standard on SX, up from eight-way in S and EX) adds two-way lumbar adjustment, seat extension and thigh support, making it a breeze to find just the right seating position.

Adjusting the temperature, we noticed yet another small aesthetic imperfection: The temperature control display in the center stack features good, old-fashioned LED temperature readouts. It's a glaringly twentieth-century look in an otherwise twenty-first-century interior (and, to be fair, one not at all unique to the Telluride).

Power from the big V6 is adequate, but far short of awe-inspiring. Gateway, Colorado, sits at nearly, 4,600 feet of elevation and our drive to Telluride took us up to nearly 9,000. The combination of altitude and uphill driving is murder on naturally aspirated engines (not to mention fuel economy) and we occasionally found ourselves looking for longer and longer passing lanes to guarantee enough room to clear dawdling locals.

As you might expect, our 4,500-pound test car wasn't exactly raring to carve up the Colorado canyon roads, but we were genuinely impressed by the Telluride's poise and competence. Even those twisty two-lanes boast speed limits up to 65 miles-per-hour in some stretches, giving us ample opportunity to build momentum which we were able to sustain more easily than expected when things tightened up again. The steering, even outside of "Sport" mode, was plenty communicative for a big, comfortable cruiser, and we never found ourselves wandering from our lane without warning.

Speaking of wandering, we deliberately sought out opportunities to test the Telluride's semi-autonomous driving aids. We didn't evaluate the stop-and-go performance of the dynamic cruise control, but we did get to try out the lane following assist and found it to be well-behaved even on the dirt-, cinder- and slush-covered roads of rural western Colorado. Telluride's blind spot view monitor (SX only) does an excellent impression of Honda's LaneWatch camera system, and while we didn't really utilize it on the highway, we found it handy for exiting roadside parking spaces. Note that it only operates when you use your turn signal.

Use your turn signal.

After some six hours behind the wheel of the Telluride, we came away impressed by its road-tripping credentials. We felt no fatigue from the large, comfortable front seats or from having to make constant corrections to the steering. Ultimately, though, what impressed us the most was that Kia's SUV, despite all its attempts at big-ness, drives like a much smaller crossover. High praise, make no mistake.

Leftlane's bottom line

The 2020 Kia Telluride is a fantastic entry in the midsize SUV segment, offering good looks, a comfortable driving experience and a boat-load of utility at a price that keeps Kia's value proposition intact. We wish a bigger engine was available, but the truth is, it doesn't really need it.

2020 Kia Telluride SX base price, $43,490; As tested, $46,860

Prestige package, $2,000; Carpeted floor mats, $210; Carpeted cargo mat with seat-back protection, $115; Destination, $1,045

Exterior photos by the author. Interior photos courtesy of Kia.

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