Verdict: Big, comfy, classy — and impressively loaded with technology and luxury touches for less money than you’d expect — the new 2020 Kia Telluride is a triumph.
Versus the competition: Few competitors offer the same level of space and amenities for this kind of money. Factor in its polished driving dynamics, and the Telluride immediately becomes a benchmark in the large crossover class.
After a few miles sweeping through the towering sandstone canyons south of Gateway, Colo., in quiet, comfortable surroundings, it was obvious Kia has a hit on its hands with the new Telluride. Sometimes you just know, right off the bat.
Kia’s first big three-row crossover SUV (let’s all try to forget about the brief appearance of the 2009 Borrego), the Telluride seats seven or eight. It’s set to top the South Korean brand’s range of SUVs despite the company insisting it’s a mid-size model, going up against things like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Honda Passport. But it’s not conventionally mid-size; the Telluride is on the big end of the mid-size group, much closer in size to the Volkswagen Atlas or Chevrolet Traverse. It has more passenger room even than a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. If this is mid-size, I can’t imagine what a full-size crossover would look like.
Size-classification quibbles aside, the new Telluride is an exceptionally well-done new family hauler. On the smooth, fast switchbacks of the high plateaus of western Colorado, it was a stellar companion with its well-damped ride, strong acceleration, precise and communicative steering, and beautifully appointed interior.
It certainly looks the part of a full-size SUV. If comments from passersby and onlookers are anything to go by, the new Telluride is a styling hit from front to back. That big tiger-nose grille is flanked by LED running lights (white on most trims, amber on the sporty SX), and the clean body sides end in a downward swoop to the taillights that’s distinctive and modern. There are definitely elements from other automakers in the styling — Volvo and Range Rover are the two most often mentioned — but that’s not a bad thing. The overall look is attractive, bold and fresh without being offensive. Kia nailed the styling.
A Strong Body
Kia also did well with the powertrain. The only one available is a direct-injection Atkinson-cycle 3.8-liter V-6 mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. It sends power either to the front wheels or, optionally, to all four with a selectable low-speed locking function. Power is rated at 291 horsepower and torque at 262 pounds-feet. This isn’t Kia’s latest or greatest engine, but it’s more than adequate for powering up mountain valleys or providing sufficient passing power on rural two-lane highways. It’s also middle-of-the pack with regard to power and torque numbers. The Chevrolet Traverse offers up a choice of powertrains: either a standard 310-hp V-6 or an optional 257-hp turbocharged four-cylinder. The Honda Pilot has a 280-hp V-6 and the Subaru Ascent a 260-hp turbocharged four-cylinder. Torque is nearly the same among all four competitors.
The automatic transmission tends to shift quite frequently in order to keep the engine in its optimum power band, but the shifts are buttery smooth and so unobtrusive, you won’t mind them at all. Putting the drive mode selector into Sport seems to make the transmission hold lower gears longer and downshift more readily, providing a little extra spring in the Telluride’s step.
The Telluride’s ride and handling are also excellent. It exhibits some notable body roll in high-speed sweepers, and the heft of the vehicle means you’re not likely to do much spirited driving, but the more important characteristic of a big family SUV like this is stable, comfortable control; at that, the Telluride excels. An optional self-leveling rear air suspension on the top SX trim I tested maintained a level ride height even when loaded up with people and stuff. Steering feel is firm and transmits quite well to the driver what the wheels and pavement are doing. Ride quality is excellent even with the larger 20-inch wheels on the SX I drove; 18-inch wheels are standard and should make the Telluride’s ride even plusher. Even at 40 mph on a rock-strewn dirt road, nothing upset the Telluride’s chassis or steering — an astonishing feat.
The Telluride is also rated to tow a 5,000-pound trailer, which represents a decent-size family camper. The payload rating is roughly 1,300-1,500 pounds depending on trim level, so a family of four could bring along luggage and that camper with no problem. The tow rating matches the V-6 Chevy Traverse and the Subaru Ascent, and it beats the Honda Pilot’s maximum 3,500-pound rating.
Fuel economy is decent thanks to the Telluride’s fuel-sipping Atkinson-cycle V-6 engine. It’s rated 20/26/23 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 19/24/21 mpg with AWD. My drive wasn’t long enough to get a reliable fuel economy read, so that will have to wait for a later test. By comparison, the Chevy Traverse and its nine-speed transmission is rated 18/27/21 mpg (FWD) and 17/25/20 mpg (AWD) with the V-6, while the four-cylinder turbo (available only on the FWD RS) is rated 20/26/22 mpg — not any better than the Kia’s big V-6. The Honda has only one engine but two possible transmissions: With the standard six-speed, the Pilot is rated 19/27/22 mpg with FWD, 18/26/21 mpg with AWD; with the available nine-speed, the numbers rise just a tick to 20/27/23 mpg with FWD, 19/26/22 mpg with AWD. The Subaru comes only with AWD, as do most Subies, but fuel economy depends on trim level: base and Premium trims are rated 21/27/23 mpg, while Limited and Touring models are rated 20/26/22 mpg.
Comfortable, Spacious and Well-Appointed
Inside, the Telluride is spacious, quiet and comfortable. The front seats have excellent thigh support, plenty of width and just enough bolstering to keep you in place without being too flat or padded. Materials quality is outstanding throughout, and the top-level SX trim is impressive in that none of the metal or wood trim is real, but damned if you won’t think it is. Genuine Nappa leather covers those comfortable seats, of which there are seven or eight depending on which seating option you choose. It’s a nicer environment than Chevy has concocted for the High Country trim of the Traverse, and it feels better than the Subaru’s top trim, but the Honda Pilot Elite edges it out in some tactile surface quality.
The second-row captain’s chairs fold forward with the touch of a button for easier access to the sizable third row, which Kia says can hold three people (it’s provided seat belts for that many). Suffice it to say these will be tiny people and that while the third row is acceptably comfortable for two full-sized adults, three is not reasonable. That’s really no different from any competitor; the Traverse is technically rated the biggest for maximum interior volume, but no large crossover can comfortably accommodate three in the third row. Legroom can be negotiated between second- and third-row passengers thanks to sliding second-row seats, allowing adequate space for everyone. All rows also get to enjoy USB charging ports to keep everyone’s personal electronics topped off.
Lots of Space
The Telluride is one of the biggest crossover SUVs on the market, and that shows up in space comparisons. Cargo room behind the third row of seats is 21 cubic feet, second only to the massive Chevy Traverse, which has 23 cubic feet. Fold the third row down and you increase space to 46 cubic feet, about on par with the Pilot (46.8 cubic feet) and Ascent (47.5 cubic feet) but falling short of the Traverse (57.8 cubic feet). Fold all rows flat and the Telluride checks in at 87 cubic feet, about matching the Ascent’s 86.5 cubic feet, besting the Pilot’s 83.9 cubic feet and getting soundly trounced by the cavernous Traverse’s 98.2 cubic feet of cargo room. Point being, you’re unlikely to run out of room for people or stuff in the Telluride.
Loaded With Tech
Up front, you won’t need your personal electronics; there are enough goodies included in Kia’s latest multimedia system to keep you entertained. The loaded Telluride is chock-full of useful technology, but unlike the mechanically identical Hyundai Palisade coming later in 2019, the Telluride doesn’t get a fully digital instrument panel. The gauges behind the steering wheel are analog, though there’s a display between them that ties into cameras in the side mirrors to show the view from Kia’s blind spot monitor, which is just like Honda’s near-defunct LaneWatch. The Prestige Package on my test vehicle included the head-up display, but I didn’t realize this until nearly 20 minutes into my drive because it disappears completely if you’re wearing polarized sunglasses, as I was. Big fail on that, Kia.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, and there are a couple of other neat touches in the multimedia system that are geared toward family life. First is the Driver Talk feature: Press a button on the 10.25-inch touchscreen (standard on the EX and SX; an 8-inch screen is standard on the LX and S) and the music mutes while activating a microphone to project the driver’s voice to speakers in the back of the bus. There’s also Quiet Mode, which mutes all but the front speakers and turns those ones down in the event the kids are asleep in the back. If you like it loud, a Harman Kardon 10-speaker premium audio system is standard on the SX, but I found it unimpressive and muddled at any volume. The Honda Pilot has a couple of features similar to these Kia niceties, but the Chevy and Subaru are a bit more conventional in their approach.
What does the Telluride not have that its competitors do? There’s no automatic parking function, either parallel or perpendicular (no Kia features this ability), and there’s no rear entertainment system — an especially curious omission in a vehicle that aspires to be a popular family wagon. There are no rear screens, no seatback DVD system, nothing that drops from the ceiling, though the USB ports back there will support the tablet approach many parents now prefer. There’s also no power third row: the seatbacks must be raised and lowered manually. (For the record, Hyundai’s upcoming Palisade does have an optional power third row.)
All the Safety Equipment You Want
A high level of safety equipment has been included standard on all Telluride trim levels, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, lane keep assist, automatic lane-centering, blind spot detection with braking and steering intervention, rear cross-traffic alert and intervention, and safe exit assistance for the rear seats. The latter function uses the SUV’s rear-facing radar to detect oncoming traffic and can prevent a rear door from opening if an approaching vehicle or bicycle is detected. I found the addition of most of these features welcome, but the lane-centering function is intrusive and the lane keep assist is, well, oversensitive. After the first few miles of feeling the wheel constantly shifting in my hands, I switched it off and never looked back.
The 2020 Telluride has not yet been crash-tested by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but results will likely appear here soon.
The fact that Kia includes all that safety equipment as standard when some automakers charge big bucks for it is praiseworthy. For instance, forward collision warning isn’t even offered on the Traverse unless you get the High Country trim, which starts at $54,395 including destination. However, the Honda Pilot, Subaru Ascent, Toyota Highlander and Nissan Pathfinder all offer it standard on their base models.
Priced to Move
The starting price for the Telluride is a reasonable $32,735 with destination fee. That puts it within a few hundred dollars of competitors like the Traverse, Pilot and Ascent. Loading one up to the max gets you an exceptionally well-done large family crossover packed to the gills with technology, safety equipment, convenience items and a big dose of rugged style, topping out around $48,000. A comparable Chevrolet Traverse rings in at more than $54,000, while a new 2020 Explorer Limited starts at nearly 50 grand and goes up from there. It does compare favorably to the Ascent, which tops out at about $46,000, but comes in a bit under the Pilot, which can top $50,000, as well. Compare the Telluride with three of its competitors here.
With its combination of comfort, cargo space, technology, safety, performance and value, the new 2020 Kia Telluride is going to be one tough competitor.
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