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Kia Sorento / Sorrento SUV car reviews

Review Notes: Kia Sorento LX and Kia Sorrento EX - both automatic V6
Personality Moderately priced, off-road-capable SUV that feels more expensive than it is
Quirks Odd power window and lock controls
Unusual features Designed to actually go off-road
Above Average:  Luxury appearance and feel for the price; world's best warranty
Needs Work In:  Gas mileage (16/22 with automatic and two-wheel drive)

One could say that the theme of the Kia Sorrento is "you don't always get what you pay for," and I mean that in a good way (for Kia). The Sorrento proves that you don't have to spend a lot to get an enjoyable SUV – its $22,000 price tag is far below less satisfying SUVs from Ford and others. What's more, you can still get more for less from Kia, by picking up a Kia Spectra5 instead of the Sorrento. With a nearly identical, if less plush, interior, and, if we're not mistaken, just about the same amount of space, but a price tag $7,000 less, the Spectra5 is just as useful but a lot more fun – and it gets an extra ten miles from each gallon of gas.

We tested two Sorrentos, one a nicely loaded Sorrento EX, which, with a bunch of luxury options, ended up with a list price of $27,000 - quite competitive with the Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and others. We also tested an LX model, with very few options, at $24,000 (the LX price is $22,000 including destination).

For the most part, the Sorrento proved to be a strong value. The 3.5 liter, 210 horsepower engine felt much stronger than the paper ratings or sprints (0-60 in a bit under 9 seconds) would indicate, which is the opposite of our experience with past Kias. The Sorrento accelerated with authority, whether from a standing stop or from highway speeds, feeling more responsive than the heavy Explorer. Braking is also quite good, beating most off-road-ready SUVs. Unfortunately, the Sorrento's quick pickup comes at a cost – low gas mileage, rated by the optimists at the EPA at 16 city, 22 highway. But the engine is quiet and provides good acceleration, with appropriate noises when revved. (And that gas mileage is still better than the Hummer H3, Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, or Toyota FJ Cruiser).

The transmission was generally smooth, but making it smooth under all conditions unfortunately meant slow shifting under heard acceleration with a feeling of internal clutch slipping (no doubt due to torque management). In short, shifts felt long and drawn-out in many cases, rather than firm and fast; it's a matter of taste. The result is somewhat disconcerting to us, though we suspect we'd eventually get used to it. Ittends to upshift at any opportunity to save gas, but downshifting fairly rapidly. It can routinely move up and down by two gears at the same speed, to coast effectively and then to provide sufficient power. Other than that, the automatic - the only major component built in Japan - shifts very well, without gear-hunting and without hesitating before downshifts. Using manumatic mode helps to keep the engine at peak power, but may well interfere with gas mileage; the manumatic mode was also smooth, but seemed faster between gears.  

Cornering on our 2005 model was surprisingly good, thanks partly to good tires and partly to what appears to be a well designed suspension. The Sorrento feels nimble and can go quite quickly through hard turns with no signs of trouble. On our 2004 vehicle, handling was a mixed bag, we suspect largely due to the tires, which on our test car were designed for off-roading rather than on-road performance. Generally, the 2004 Kia did quite well on smooth surfaces, but was inclined to heavy tire squeal on tight turns and when accelerating during a turn. This is most likely a tire issue, coupled with the torquey engine and exceptionally easy steering which makes it possible to turn the wheel too quickly; it's a return to the 1970s ideal of American luxury, where you can spin the wheel with your little finger. It's a matter of taste, but you do have to remember that if you want to avoid tire squeal, you turn the steering wheel slowly, or lay off the gas.

On our 2005 model, which had tighter steering (perhaps the luxury model is tuned differently), we only encountered traction problems on wet roads or powered acceleration, and even then it was kept well under control, with no rear-end-swinging - a pleasant surprise on a rear wheel drive model. Hitting the gas hard while turning did break the rear tires loose, but without excessive noise, and without much loss of control. Overall, without resorting to an active suspension or sacrificing off-roadability, the Sorrento has quite good handling for an SUV.

Four wheel power disc brakes provide good stopping power, with nice, large discs to brake two tons of steel quicky. Safety is further enhanced with dual front and rear side curtain airbags and a first aid kit.

The interior is nicely set up. The LX model is fairly plush, with well padded cloth seats and a classy beige color; the EX, with luxury package, adds such niceties as leather and a wood-top steering wheel. Even done all in plastic and cloth, the interior is nicely designed, but the woodgrain and chrome adds quite a bit. The luxury package, by the way, costs $1,830 on the EX model, and includes not just the wood steering wheel and wood and chrome accents, but also the thermostatic climate control, a very good stereo with six-CD in-dash changer and excellent stereo separation, leather heated seats, and full time four wheel drive. Antilock brakes are $520, and automatic load levelling is another $510. All in all, that brought the price of our $24,600 EX to $27,635, which is in low-Grand Cherokee territory. What is interesting to us is that the interior is considerably more evocative of luxury (again, with that package) than, say, a Lincoln Navigator, Lexus RX330, or Cadillac Escalade - all far more expensive. What's more, the Sorrento is apparently quite capable of actually going off-road, unlike many pretenders - such as most of Ford's "no boundaries" vehicles, which don't seem to do very well off the pavement (and sometimes don't seem to do well on pavement, either). An underbody skid plate is standard even on the LX model. The full time four wheel drive has a low gear option, but you have to go into neutral to switch it on (it's not for on-road use), which is odd since the car isn't supposed to move when you go into low gear; Park would seem like a more clever option.

The LX model maintains much of the classiness of the EX/luxury package, but nobody would mistake the interior for Cadillac territory - then again, most people wouldn't think the base Escalade was a Cadillac, either, judging from the interior. (There's a luxury package for Caddies, too, which makes them look like, well, Caddies.) Still, the instruments are clear and readable, the switches solid and easy to use, and the seats comfortable and adjustable. The two wheel drive version includes a snow mode which presumably starts off in a higher gear and prefers higher gears once started to avoid slipping. Our test LX included an electric front defroster, an option we recommend to everyone North of the Mason-Dixon Line, because it not only de-fogged the mirrors (something that isn't often needed), but also warmed the windshield wipers - something that's very handy in snowy weather.

The instrument panel is clear and simple, with a tachometer, 130-mphspeedometer, and fuel and heat gauges. The PRNDL is nicely done with only the current gear showing at any given time (or, in manumatic mode, the gear number, from 1 to 5). The cruise control is mounted on the steering wheel (the left buttons are for the stereo, the right for the cruise), with an activation button on the dashboard. That button stays engaged once you press it down, so you don't have to turn it on each time you drive - and it has its own light so you know when it's active. When a speed is locked in, CRUISE lights up on the instrument panel so there is complete clarity. The cruise activation button sits between the light dimmer and the 4x4 knob in a little pod on the left, just above a small cubby and the hood release. We did not test the Sorrento's off-road capability, but between the skid plates, optional four wheel drive, and full ladder frame, we suspect it can travel there better than many "macho nameplate" vehicles (the Explorer and Expedition come to mind).

The center stack has the stereo, a clock, buttons for the heated seats, rear defroster, and windshield wiper/mirror defroster - a very useful option which is available on precious few vehicles. Beneath these buttons is the climate control, which is very clear and easy to use with big pushbuttons in both the standard and thermostatically controlled versions. Underneath the climate control is a rather nicely designed felt-lined tray, which itself is above the ashtray and cigarette lighter. Underneath that is a simple power outlet. Neither the cigarette lighter nor the power outlet are powered when the key is out of the ignition.

The center console itself contains the shifter, rubber-lined compartments for odds and ends, and cupholders. The covered center storage unit has a deep bay for CDs and such, and a shallow, hard-to-lift lid for other items. There are also map pockets on both sides, and some models have a storage unit under the passenger seat as well.

Vents are quite large, so that even on high speeds the fan is relatively quiet. Generous side-window demisters help to defrost the front windows quickly.

Lighting is generally upscale even on the LX model, with a lighted ring around the ignition lock (conveniently located on the dashboard, rather than the column), dual map lights, and an unusually nicely designed dome light which leaves no doubt about how to get light or what setting it has (on, door-activated, off). While there is no cargo area light, there are door lights and a glove compartment light. The sunroof has one of those clever sliders that has vents built in so you can leave the roof partly open and block the sun from coming in, but let air vent out. The sunroof has dual controls, one for tilting and one for sliding; it includes an "express" (one-touch) slide-open feature.

The back seats are comfortable despite the relative lack of leg room. In addition to slide-out cupholders and a power outlet in the back of the center console, there is a fold-down armrest in the middle of the bench seat and large drink-sized cupholders moulded into the doors.

The LX model, starting at $21,740 with destination, includes air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and locks, heated outside mirrors and windshield wipers, CD audio with six speakers, an 8-way driver's seat, folding rear seats, keyless remote, full interior lighting, overhead bins for sunlasses and somethin else, a rear cargo cover that retracts nicely and is easily removed, and under-cargo-floor and underseat storage - the under-cargo storage neatly divided into small bins. The rear seats flip and fold down for convenient loading, with a 60/40 split. The LX also comes with a liftgate with flip-up glass, a defroster, and wiper-washer for greater visibility, dual front and rear side curtain airbags - an unusual standard feature - and alloy wheels. Our test LX also had a tow hitch ($340) and sport package ($900 for a spoiler, leather shifter, ten-speaker CD/cassette stereo, metallic interior trim, side step bars, and leather-wrapped steering wheel). We wouldn't go for the sport package, ourselves, but it's all a matter of taste.

The EX model, though it starts at $24,600 (with destination), adds a power sunroof, a CD/cassette with steering wheel controls (oddly, you lose the cassette player when you get the luxury package), power driver's seat, leather wrapped tilt steering, auto dimming rear view mirror, built in garage door openers, compass, barometer, relative altimeter (!), themometer, a full size spare, and fog lights - but not antilock brakes.

The Kia Sorrento has few reminders of the brand's downscale roots. The sun visors are a bit less than ideally designed, despite the built-in lighted vanity mirrors. Like many Asian vehicles, the Sorrento has a power window lockout which not only takes control away from the passengers, but from the driver as well; and the driver's door controls all the doors when locking (but not unlocking), a bewildering custom. As with all Asian cars we know of, the windshield wiper is upside-down to American tradition, with "off" being on top and the highest setting on bottom.

Aside from minor quibbles like these, the Kia was every bit as good to drive and look at as more expensive SUVs. (While stopped in a parking lot, we were asked how we liked our SUV, and whether it was an RX330 - the liftgate was up, so the Kia logo was not visible, but the leather, wood, and chrome appointments were.) Take away the Kia badging, put on a blue oval or stylized T, and this vehicle would sell like gangbusters.

There are down sides, largely common to all SUVs. While the cargo area is decently sized, and on the whole the dimensions are similar to the Lexus RX330 mentioned earlier, the back seats are fairly cramped for a vehicle that gets 15 mpg city, 18 highway with four wheel drive, and 16/22 with two wheel drive (the manual transmission, which will make the decision easy for stick afficianados, may help matters). Indeed, the full sized Dodge Durango and Chevrolet Tahoe both get similar mileage! There are formidable competitors in the well-made Jeep Liberty, the popular (but not off-roadable) Ford Escape, and countless others, as well as wagons such as the Subaru Outback and WRX. We wouldn't take a typical Subaru off-road, but, then again, most Sorrento owners won't take their vehicles off-road either. However, our current pick for a Sorrento competitor is - surprise - the Spectra5, also made by Kia. It's considerably smaller on the outside but about the same size inside; is just as comfortable despite a gray, less plush interior which is otherwise almost identical to that of the Sorrento LX; costs considerably less ($15,000); has a nicer ride, and, with a manual transmission, is even more lively. What's more, the Spectra5 with manual transmission gets 26 mpg city, 33 highway!

On the whole, the Sorrento does very well against similar (and more expensive) SUVs. Kia quality has been rising fast from admittedly low levels, and in addition to the thousands in savings from buying a Sorrento, you also get a generous ten-year powertrain warranty. If you're willing to give up the SUV form factor, the Dodge Caravan is a bargain, with a larger interior and nice appointments; but if you're a real SUV fan, take a look at the Sorrento before plunking your cash down on a Ford or Lexus. If more people test drove Kias before buying, more people would own Kias.

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