The South Korean automaker Kia entered the U.S. market in the mid-90s with a compact sport utility as its primary product - the versatile Sportage, a roomy five-passenger.
That first generation of the Sportage was a truck-based SUV with a capable four-wheel-drive system, complete with low-range gearing for serious off-road driving. Since then, the Sportage has been discontinued and then reintroduced as a car-based compact crossover, no longer offered with off-road four-wheel drive.
But in the meantime, Kia added the Sorento midsize SUV to its lineup, initially to replace the Sportage. This model is like the original Sportage in that it has the traditional body-on-frame SUV design, as well as a four-wheel-drive system with low range.
Now a third sport utility, the Borrego, has entered the Kia lineup for 2009, the largest and most-capable model yet from this automaker.
Prices begin as low as $26,245 (plus $750 freight) for the base LX V-6 model with rear-wheel drive to $32,995 for the uplevel EX V-8 model with four-wheel drive.
Some critics might argue that this is a bad time to be introducing a truck-based SUV, and they're probably right, to a point. Most of the new sport utilities are of the crossover variety - built on unibody car chassis, and lacking the ruggedness and the four-wheel-drive systems to allow for serious off-road use.
But those of us who enjoy going where no car-based SUV has gone before will find the Borrego quite pleasing. And even though it is as capable off-road as some of those traditional SUVs born in the 1990s, such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer, the Borrego has a modern design that makes it a great on-road family hauler, as well.
It 's also equipped with a third row of seating, something lacking up until now in any Kia sport utilities. There is room for up to seven people.
Before the SUV became the latest automotive fad in the early '90s, embraced by soccer moms as the replacement for minivans and station wagons, those of us who like to go into the wild had been buying sport utilities as our weekend getaway vehicles. My first was a 1965 Jeep Wagoneer, in the days before the term "sport utility vehicle" had been coined.
And for those of us who enjoy the off-roading hobby, those newer crossovers just won't do. While there are plenty of crossovers on the market today, the choices of traditional SUVs are dwindling. So I applaud Kia for bucking the trend and offering the Borrego. It's probably destined to be a niche vehicle, though, so it may not last long.
The Borrego's name comes from one of my all-time favorite places for four-wheeling - the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park near Palm Springs, Calif. Kia began development of the Borrego about four years ago when no one was worrying much about fuel economy.
The Borrego would have been a harder sell about six months ago when gasoline prices were topping $4 a gallon, but it's probably more palatable now that the average gas price has dropped to about $1.65.
But this is not exactly a gas hog. A Borrego with the base, 276-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 engine has EPA fuel-economy ratings as good as - or even better than -- those of some of the popular crossovers: 17 mpg city/22 highway with two-wheel drive, and 16/21 with four-wheel drive. In comparison, the all-wheel-drive Honda Pilot is rated at 17/22, and its upscale cousin, the Acura MDX, is rated at just 15 city/20 highway.
Optional on the Borrego and not offered on most crossover utility vehicles is a 337-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8, borrowed from the new Hyundai Genesis luxury sedan. This is the first V-8 in either a Kia or Hyundai vehicle (Kia is a subsidiary of Hyundai), and some would argue that it's a little late coming, especially now that consumers have been abandoning V-8s in favor of less-powerful, more-efficient four- and six-cylinder engines.
We tested the Borrego EX V-6 model with four-wheel drive ($29,995 plus freight), so we weren't able to check out the additional power offered by the V-8. But it's not a gas hog, either - with two-wheel drive, it's rated at 15 city/22 highway, and with four-wheel drive, it's 15/20 - the same as the Acura MDX crossover.
V-6 models come with a five-speed automatic transmission, while the V-8s have a six-speed. That extra gear helps give the V-8 its decent highway mileage.
The Borrego gives Kia its most-powerful and best-equipped vehicle yet, and it shows consumers that the brand once known mostly for value and economy can field a credible entry in a near-premium vehicle segment.
The vehicle has a roomy and comfortable interior that looks more like that of a luxury sedan than an off-road-capable SUV. We packed it with adults and kids for a long highway run, and found it to be a delightful trip vehicle. And once we got to where we were going - the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina - the four-wheel drive came in quite handy for those rugged off-road trails.
Highway handling is more carlike than you would expect, and off the highway, the Borrego was very much like a Jeep SUV.
Kia says the Borrego has more interior space than the Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner, Grand Cherokee, or the redesigned 2009 Pilot. As with most of these three-seat midsize sport utilities, though, cargo space behind the third seat is tight - just 12.4 cubic feet, about the same as in a compact car.
The Borrego, which is sold as the Mohave in markets outside North America, was designed with safety in mind. It has earned the highest five-star crash safety ratings from the U.S. government for all seating positions.
Among standrd safety features are advanced front air bags, front seat-mounted side air bags, side-curtain air bags for all three rows of seats, a driver's knee air bag (V-8 models only); four-wheel antilock disc brakes; electronic stability control and traction control; a tire-pressure monitoring system; electronic brake-force distribution; and electronic brake assist.
For those with boats, horse trailers or small travel trailers, towing capacity is 5,000 pounds for the V-6 models and 7,500 pounds for the V-8.
Standard amenities include air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD/MP3 six-speaker audio system with USB and auxiliary input jack, power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, and Sirius satellite radio.
Extras on our tester included 18-inch chrome wheels ($750); the Premium package ($1,800), which added a sunroof, uplevel Infinity audio system with 10 speakers, MP3 playback and CD changer, rear air conditioning, and running boards; a navigation system ($1,500); and the Luxury Package ($1,500), which tacked on such amenities as leather seats for the first and second rows, heated front seats, power tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, and a memory feature for the driver's seat, outside mirrors and steering wheel.
Total sticker price for our vehicle was $36,295, including freight and options.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at 210-250-3236; chambers@star-telegram. com.
2009 Kia Borrego
The package: Midsize, five-door, seven-passenger, rear- or four-wheel-drive, V-6 or V-8 powered sport utility vehicle.
Highlights: This is the newest and largest SUV in the Kia lineup, and the most-refined family hauler yet from this South Korean automaker. It's quite refined and comfortable, yet has an optional four-wheel-drive system capable of serious off-road use.
Disadvantages: Limited cargo space when the third seat is in use.
Engine: 3.8-liter V-6; 4.6-liter V-8..
Transmission: Five-speed automatic (V-6); six-speed automatic (V-8).
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.
Power/torque: 276 HP/267 foot-pounds (V-6); 337 HP/323 foot-pounds (V-8)..
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.
Electronic stability control: Standard.
Extra air bags: Front seat-mounted side bags; side-curtain, all three rows, standard; driver's knee bag standard on V-8 model.
Length: 192.1 inches.
Curb weight range: 4,460-4,621 pounds.
Cargo volume: 12.4 cubic feet (behind third seat).
Trailer-towing capacity: 5,000 pounds (V-6); 7,500 pounds (V-8).
Fuel capacity/type: 20.6 gallons/unleaded regular.
EPA fuel economy: V-6: 17/22 (2WD)/16/21 (4WD); V-8: 15/22 (2WD)/15/20 (4WD).
Major competitors: Honda Pilot, Ford Flex, Toyota 4Runner, Toyota Highlander, Acura MDX, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Nissan Armada, Dodge Journey, Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia/Saturn Outlook.
Base price range: $26,245-$32,995 plus $750 freight.
Price as tested: $36,295, including freight and options (EX V-6, 4WD).
On the Road rating: 8.6 (of a possible 10).
Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.
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