The verdict: The middle child in a family of SUV overachievers, the redesigned 2021 Kia Sorento is ready for the spotlight thanks to a thoughtfully designed cabin, comfortable road manners and a robust list of standard safety features.
Versus the competition: The Sorento stands out with a slick new multimedia system and interior materials that give even luxury SUVs a run for their money; many other three-row SUVs this size, however, have more cargo room.
The Sorento three-row SUV was redesigned for 2021 and slots just below the Telluride three-row SUV in Kia’s lineup. The Sorento is bigger this year and has an updated multimedia system, a nicer cabin, an available hybrid powertrain, more standard safety features and a rugged off-road version. Compare it with the outgoing model.
The redesigned Sorento goes up against the likes of the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Volkswagen Atlas; see them compared.
Best Dressed Award
Kia did a top-notch job with the Telluride’s interior, but it seems the automaker was just practicing for the Sorento, whose cabin belongs in a higher class.
I tested the line-topping SX-Prestige X-Line trim level. It was lovely, with elegant design, high-brow materials and attention to detail. “Yes please” to cushy quilted-leather seats, classy low-gloss wood trim and soft-touch plastic padding in all the right places. I suspect lesser trims will have less of all that, but this trim gets it right.
It’s also a thoughtfully packaged cabin, with an emphasis on small items that can make a big impact in terms of comfort and convenience. A few favorites: the big uncovered space under the controls, the small mesh pockets on the sides of the second-row seats, plenty of USB ports in all three rows and a rubber cargo mat that can be pulled down from the rear seatbacks to help contain messy items in back.
The new Sorento has grown a little for 2021, now riding on a 1.4-inch-longer wheelbase. It still has three rows, but the longer wheelbase translates into a bit more people and cargo room than the outgoing version. Mine had second-row captain’s chairs, but you can also get a bench seat that fits three. The third row seats two.
It’s on the roomier side of the class in terms of rear legroom, but the Sorento trails competitors a bit in headroom back there. I had plenty of both at 5-foot-6, and we easily fit two child-safety seats in the second row thanks to accessible Latch anchors and ample room. See our Car Seat Check for more. Getting to the third row is also struggle-free thanks to a button on the captain’s chairs, which quickly opens a large passageway to the third row, though this doesn’t work with car seats installed. If that’s the case, passengers will have to use the aisle between the chairs instead, and it’s pretty narrow.
The outgoing Sorento’s third row was only small-kid-friendly (or for adults you’re not friendly with), and while this year’s model is slightly roomier, it’ll still be a pain for adults. Kia has done a lot with a little, however: My test model had USB ports, cupholders and storage areas big enough for a device on each side. There are also two sets of lower anchors back there and top tether anchors for car seats — a setup not every three-row SUV has. (The Highlander’s third row, for example, has no lower anchors.)
Others do cargo better, however. Kia says there’s just 12.6 cubic feet of space behind the third row; that’s up a tiny bit from 2020, but still significantly behind manufacturer-reported numbers for the Pilot (16.5 cubic feet), Highlander (16) and Atlas (20.6). Wary of how manufacturers measure cargo space, Cars.com has begun measuring the space behind our test vehicles’ second and third rows (when present), and our numbers confirmed that the Sorento trails the others, with 6.6 cubic feet behind the third row and 22.1 cubic feet with that row folded. That’s versus 14.1 and 29.9 cubic feet in the Atlas and 10.5 and 23.1 cubic feet in the Lincoln Aviator. We haven’t measured a Telluride yet, but its sister, the Hyundai Palisade, measured 11.2 and 26.2 cubic feet behind the third and second rows, respectively.
The Sorento’s multimedia system can also join the thoughtful-items column. New this year is a giant available 10.25-inch touchscreen (borrowed from the Telluride). It’s front and center in upper trims of the new Sorento, while a standard 8-inch unit goes in lower trims. The system checks all the boxes: It’s easy to see, read and use, with good responsiveness and straightforward menus. I found some of the graphics to be a little odd, but maybe I’m just not cool enough to understand the appeal of encapsulating radio station frequencies in old timey lightbulbs. [Editor’s note: Or old enough to recognize a vacuum tube.]
The multimedia system uses the latest version of Kia’s Uvo software, and it has enhanced voice-control functions that allow for control of climate settings, seats, steering-wheel heating and the audio system. Uvo also has two new features: First, Find My Car uses the vehicle’s cameras to snap images of its surroundings, then shares them via the Kia Access Uvo app. The other is the Last Mile function, which provides walking directions to your final destination if it senses the car is parked between 0.1 and 1.2 miles away.
Other new features in the cabin include a rotary gear selector (which wasn’t at all annoying to use, unlike some others), available wireless cellphone charging, a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster and up to eight USB charging ports. As with 2020’s version, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration are standard. A rear-seat entertainment system is an optional feature, though at $1,500, it’s not cheap.
Unruffled Road Manners
The 2021 Kia Sorento’s road manners are a match for its cabin: comfortable and refined. The redesigned SUV rides on a new platform and ditches its previous powertrains for a few new ones, including a hybrid. There’s a base 191-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an uplevel 281-hp, turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder. The previous V-6 is no longer available.
I tested the turbo 2.5-liter with the eight-speed automatic and found the pair to be well matched; after a hint of turbo lag, power was prompt, smooth and quiet. The automatic engine stop-start system was well behaved, with nearly seamless transitions. A drive mode selector allows for Eco, Sport, Comfort and Snow modes; I favored Sport for its amped up acceleration response.
The version I drove was the new off-road-oriented X-Line SX-Prestige trim, and along with a more robust all-wheel-drive system, it also has an extra inch of ride height, trim-specific bumper design, a roof rack and 20-inch alloy wheels. While I didn’t get to put the AWD system to the test, I found the Sorento to be stable and confident at all times, maintaining composure over bumps and steadiness in corners; some editors thought the ride was on the firm side, however. Smaller wheels will likely improve ride quality.
The Sorento will also be available with a front-wheel-drive hybrid powertrain using a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor for a total system output of 227 hp. It’s EPA-estimated to get 39/35/37 mpg city/highway/combined — solid numbers for a vehicle this size. In this class, Toyota offers a hybrid version of the Highlander that’s rated 36/35/36 mpg with FWD and slightly lower with AWD, which the regular Sorento Hybrid doesn’t offer. A plug-in hybrid Sorento will offer it later in 2021.
The regular Sorento is also no slouch when it comes to fuel economy. With the base engine and AWD, it gets an EPA-estimated 23/25/24 mpg — better than base AWD versions of the Pilot (19/26/22 mpg), Atlas (20/24/22 mpg), and Highlander 20/27/23).
Kia added more standard safety features for 2021, as well as some new options. Standard across the lineup is automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, a driver attention warning system, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, lane keep assist and automatic lane-centering.
Available features include blind spot collision avoidance assist, a blind view monitor, rear cross-traffic collision avoidance assist, navigation-based adaptive cruise control, and a cyclist component of the forward collision warning system that helps detect cyclists in front of the vehicle and automatically brake to prevent an accident. Also available is safe exit assistance for the rear seats, which uses the SUV’s rear-facing radar to detect oncoming traffic and prevent a rear door from being opened if an approaching vehicle or bicycle is detected.
The Sorento is competitive in terms of safety features, even one-upping some other three-row SUVs on some equipment. First, there’s a standard rear-seat alert system that uses ultrasonic sensors to detect child or pet movement in the second and third rows after the doors have been locked; if movement is detected, the system sounds the horn and illuminates the hazard lamps. Many other automakers use a less sophisticated door sequence logic system that merely reminds drivers who had opened a rear door before driving if they don’t reopen it afterward.
Another standout offering is my favorite safety feature: the available blind view monitor. The monitor projects a live video view of adjacent lanes in the instrument cluster and is activated via the turn signal. I find this especially useful in congested city driving when I’m sharing the road with cars, people and bikes.
But What About the Telluride?
Kia’s new-for-2020 Telluride SUV wowed us so much, we wondered why the automaker was even keeping its smaller Sorento around. The answer is a redesigned 2021 Sorento that’s good — but so is the Telluride, and the models’ base prices put them in competition with each other.
The 2021 Kia Sorento starts at $30,565 in base front-wheel-drive LX trim — just below the Telluride’s $33,415 base price (all prices include destination). While you get more room in the Telluride, you also have to get a thirstier V-6 engine. See the models compared.
Against the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Volkswagen Atlas, the Sorento is priced thousands less than all. The Sorento Hybrid starts at $34,765 and comes only in mid-level S and EX trims. The price premium for the hybrid model looks high, but it undercuts the Highlander Hybrid, which starts at $39,685 in base LE trim.
Kia has a strong SUV lineup, and with its 2021 redesign, the Sorento has earned some time in the spotlight, outshining many other three-row SUVs in the class — and maybe even one from the automaker’s own lineup. In this case, shoppers looking for a three-row SUV stand to benefit from a little sibling rivalry.
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