The Borrego may answer a question few outside Kia are asking, but when you take the time to size up the new midsize SUV, it's clear that it's a very well-executed truck-based model. It mitigates many of the undesirable aspects of this type of platform — from unrefined ride quality to lower fuel economy — while retaining the design's strengths, like towing capacity.
While the Borrego is a refined truck-based SUV, its existence begs a second question: Does the U.S. need another truck-based SUV? The answer for many shoppers is probably no, and the fact that Kia was able to make a nice vehicle using this type of platform is trumped by the reality that it's about 10 years late to the SUV party.
If you're a fan of traditional SUVs, there have been few all-new models for you in recent years, as many manufacturers have been churning out sleeker crossovers. While a few of these crossovers, like the GMC Acadia and redesigned 2009 Honda Pilot, have tried to emulate the tough-SUV look, many more have spurned it. The Borrego embraces it.
The Borrego is similar in size to the Explorer, and my wife thought it looked a lot like an Explorer, too. It definitely has the upright, angular design of the Ford, and it's defined by its large front grille, one that's flanked by projection-beam headlights.
Ride & Handling
The most impressive thing about the Borrego is that Kia has eliminated nearly all of the negative ride and handling aspects of its body-on-frame platform. This design is often associated with wallowing on undulating pavement, pitching when braking or accelerating hard, and vague steering. The Borrego, by comparison, offers precise steering that wouldn't be out of place in a car-based crossover, and it handles corners with confidence. It also remains remarkably even-keeled during hard acceleration and braking. Overall, it's a surprisingly easy vehicle to drive.
Where the Borrego does retain a truck-based-SUV trait is in its firm suspension tuning, and you'll feel it whenever you hit a rough patch in the road. You'll hear it, too, when the cabin gets noisy on rough surfaces.
Going & Stopping
I spent most of my time driving a Borrego with the base 3.8-liter V-6 engine, and came away thoroughly impressed with both the power and refinement that this drivetrain offers. The V-6 produces 276 horsepower and teams with a five-speed automatic transmission. This engine doesn't feel burdened in the least by the four-wheel-drive V-6 Borrego's 4,460-pound curb weight; the SUV moves fairly quickly when you step on the gas pedal.
Equally impressive is the automatic's smooth shifts; there's not even the slightest tug when the transmission moves from one gear to the next. It's the kind of sensation you'd expect from a high-end luxury car but might be surprised to experience in a mainstream SUV.
I also had a chance to drive a Borrego with the optional 337-hp, 4.6-liter V-8. Interestingly, the difference between it and the V-6 in everyday driving is minimal. Despite the V-8's extra torque at lower rpm (323 pounds-feet at 3,500 rpm versus 267 pounds-feet at 4,400 rpm), the engine doesn't feel any quicker than the V-6 when taking off from a standstill or accelerating hard at midrange speeds. The V-8 is very quiet, and the six-speed automatic it works with makes shifts so smooth you can hardly feel the gear changes. That said, the V-6 drivetrain is already rather refined, so while the extra dose of smoothness is appreciated, it's not enough on its own to make the V-8 more compelling than the V-6.
However, you will want the V-8 instead of the V-6 if you plan to tow a heavy boat or camper trailer. The V-8's 7,500-pound maximum towing capacity is 2,500 pounds greater than the V-6's.
When it comes to gas mileage, the V-6 isn't the clear winner you might expect it to be. Two-wheel-drive V-6 models get an EPA-estimated 17/21 mpg city/highway, while the V-8 version achieves 15/22 mpg. The figures are similar when looking at four-wheel-drive models: the V-6 is rated at 16/21 mpg, while the V-8 gets 15/20 mpg. The Borrego V-6's gas mileage estimates are fairly close to those of three-row crossovers like the Pilot, Hyundai Veracruz and Mazda CX-9.
The V-6 Borrego's brake pedal has an even, natural feel, and the all-disc antilock brakes produce sure-footed performance when a quick stop is needed. The V-8 model's brake pedal isn't as linear.
First of all, let me say that Kia really needs to get away from its all-gray interiors. That's the color scheme (if you can call it one) that my Borrego V-6 test model had, and it gave the cabin a "blah" feel, even though overall materials quality and fit and finish are good. The red-lit LCDs for the optional dual-zone automatic air conditioning and trip computer look really nice, as does the optional navigation system's graphics.
The front bucket seats are comfortable and can have power adjustments that let you raise the seat high for good forward views over the hood. A memory feature for the driver's seat, steering wheel and outside mirrors is included in an option package.
The Borrego has a 60/40-split second-row bench seat that can slide forward and back. The backrest also reclines, though the handle to do this is located high on the outside corner of each backrest. It's easy to reach when standing next to the SUV, but if you're already seated you have to twist around to lift it. This design is common, but Toyota, for one, has a better way: in its Highlander crossover, there's a lever on the outside of the seat cushion that reclines the seat.
There's decent space in the second row for adult passengers, and the seat cushioning is comfortable enough. However, the seat is close to the floor, which makes for a knees-up seating position that doesn't offer taller passengers a lot of thigh support.
The third-row bench has space for two people. Kia makes it easier to get back there by including a slide-forward function for the passenger-side section of the second row. The Borrego's third row is similar to the ones in the Pilot and CX-9; adults can ride back there in a pinch, but would likely balk at the prospect of a road trip. Again, taller passengers ride with their knees up because the seat is close to the floor.
When the Borrego's three rows of seats are up, there's just 12.4 cubic feet of cargo room. That's about the size of a Honda Civic sedan's trunk, and it's less space than the Pilot and CX-9 offer behind their third rows.
Kia makes it easy to expand that space with a fold-flat third row. There's a handle on the back of each section of the 50/50-split bench that, when lifted, lets you push the backrest down until it's level with the cargo floor. The process for folding the second row is similar, and when down this backrest is nearly level with the cargo floor.
The Borrego's list of standard safety features includes antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for all three rows, an electronic stability system, active head restraints for the front seats and rear parking sensors. V-8 models have a knee airbag for the driver. A backup camera is part of an optional Premium Package for EX models.
In the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's front-impact crash test, the Borrego achieved a five-star rating, which is the best possible score. As of publication, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hadn't crash-tested the Borrego.
Borrego in the Market
The Borrego enters the U.S. market as the truck-based Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy midsize SUVs exit. While sales are down this year for crossovers and SUVs alike, truck-based SUVs have been hit especially hard; sales of Ford's Explorer are down 42 percent through October, and Toyota 4Runners' are off 45 percent.
Now, if you're a glass-half-full kind of person, you might think the withdrawal of competitors like the TrailBlazer and Envoy means there are more buyers for the Borrego. I like your optimism, but with the way SUV sales are getting hammered in today's struggling economy, I'm not about to buy into that theory right now.
A sometimes-overlooked element of vehicle launches is timing and the ability to predict what the next hot vehicle category will be. Ford's timing was nearly perfect when it launched the original Explorer, which helped kick-start the SUV phenomenon. In contrast, Kia's timing with the Borrego is way off as buyers shift to large crossovers, a type of vehicle that Kia doesn't currently sell.
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