It’s remarkable how much better the 2011 Kia Sorento is than the previous generation. It debuts in one of the toughest segments in the market, battling not just compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V, thanks to its price, but also larger crossovers like the Ford Edge, because of its overall size. In terms of value, interior quality and performance, the Sorento is preferable to many of its competitors, but its rough ride might sour those just looking for the high seating position and cargo room that crossovers provide.
At a glance, it’s unlikely many people will identify the new Sorento as a Kia. That’s a good thing. From most angles, it’s a handsome SUV with a sleek grille and headlights. ”Sleek” and ”SUV” are hard terms to combine in the design world, but the Sorento pulls it off.
The only off-putting angle might be the rear, where huge taillights and a relatively boring piece of sheet metal don’t do the rest of the Sorento justice.
Our multimedia department was also saddled with shooting one of the most unappealing exterior colors ever to grace the Cars.com offices: White Sand Beige. Under most conditions, it looked like Silly Putty. Not a flattering color on a car this size — or any size, for that matter. After seeing the Sorento in other colors and also testing a dark gray model, I’m positive that the Sorento can look great … in any other color.
The new Sorento is now technically a crossover — as opposed to an SUV — because it rides on a unibody platform. In theory, that should mitigate the bouncy ride attributed to traditional body-on-frame SUVs, which is what the Sorento used to be, but the new Sorento’s suspension makes it feel as bouncy as any SUV I’ve tested.
The Sorento is a comfortable crossover over smooth roads, but hit some potholes or expansion joints and it starts to buck. It’s something any owner of a Nissan Pathfinder or Ford Explorer — both traditional SUVs — is likely familiar with, but those comparing the Sorento with a CR-V or Nissan Murano — both crossovers — might be in for a rude surprise.
In base form, the Sorento comes with front-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine. Putting out 175 horsepower, the four-cylinder is surprisingly adequate at hauling around the 3,763-pound Sorento, which is almost 400 pounds less than the outgoing model. Four-wheel drive brings the curb weight up to 3,929 pounds. I tested a front-wheel-drive four-cylinder model, and it drove like a heavier vehicle; it felt much more substantial than the four-cylinder Dodge Journey I had rented a week earlier (which weighs 3,796 pounds) and had somewhat-heavy steering. I took the four-cylinder Sorento on a five-hour road trip from Chicago to Detroit, and it was quick enough. At Michigan’s highway speed limit of 70 mph, it felt very stable. Estimated gas mileage is 21/29 mpg city/highway for this model when it’s equipped with the automatic transmission, but I only managed 19 mpg during mostly highway driving. Granted, that was in very cold weather with a full cabin, but it’s still well below the EPA’s rating.
I also tested a top-of-the-line EX model with a V-6 engine and all-wheel drive — the White Sand Beige whale — and was blown away by this powertrain. I’m not sure when Kia began making terrific engines, but the 276-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 is stellar. Teamed to a six-speed automatic transmission, it’s more than capable. Both the engine and transmission are new to the brand, and together they bump up gas mileage to a respectable 20/26 mpg for the front-wheel-drive model — that’s nearly 30 percent better than the outgoing model. The all-wheel-drive V-6 I tested is rated at 19/25 mpg, and I saw real-world mileage of 20 mpg after 260 miles of commuting in mostly heavy traffic. For what it’s worth, I normally average near a car’s city mileage estimate during my testing.
The V-6 Sorento accelerates smoothly, and after the initial draw to the four wheels is satisfied, it leaps forward nicely if you have a lead foot. Apart from the sports-car-like Murano, the V-6 Sorento stands out among its competition in terms of engine performance. Handling was also above average for a vehicle that rides as high as this one.
I was impressed with the Sorento’s all-wheel-drive system, which has an electronic locking center differential. This is ideal for driving in severe weather, and it’s also a unique feature in this class. A simple switch turns it on and off, and I was fortunate enough to test the system during a horrendous Chicago winter storm that dumped about 9 inches of snow.
The all-wheel drive performed extremely well on my unplowed street, and there was little to no wheelspin, even when I practiced — safely — avoidance maneuvers. I engaged the locking differential on a particularly slush-covered road, and the Sorento plowed through the muck confidently.
Cargo room is tremendous in the Sorento. There is 37 cubic feet of storage behind the second row, which is second only to the Dodge Journey (39.6 cubic feet) in this class. With the second row folded flat, there is a total of 72.5 cubic feet of storage, only the Toyota RAV4 has more at 73 cubic feet. This bests midsize crossovers like the Ford Edge (69 cubic feet total), as well.
Those able to handle the bumpy ride will be treated to a thoroughly modern and well-crafted cabin. I’ve tested two of Kia’s newly launched cars, the compact Forte and Soul hatchback, in the past year, and both show tremendous progress for Kia in terms of interior quality. They are, however, sub-$20,000 cars. The Sorento has the same overall interior scheme, but it rightly feels richer. The Sorento starts at just under $20,000, but my V-6 four-wheel-drive test car easily broke $30,000 with options.
Both Sorentos I tested had leather seats, so I can’t comment on the comfort of the base model’s cloth interior. The leather itself is definitely on par with what Ford puts in the Escape and Edge crossovers, and with what Chevy has in its new Equinox, Subaru’s Forester and Toyota in the RAV4. It bests the Dodge Journey’s low-rent interior.
The dash is solid black, which at times is overpowering, even with lighter-colored seats. Piano black trim runs down the center control panel, where the audio and climate controls are located. All the buttons felt solid and about par for the class.
The optional third row is a surprisingly comfortable seat of last resort. Third rows in vehicles this size are typically flimsy and cramped. The Sorento’s third row is solid, folds into place easily and, most importantly, can fit adult passengers. I’m 5-foot-10, and I managed to have an inch or two of knee room with the second-row seat in place. There was also plenty of headroom, because unlike a lot of new crossovers the roof doesn’t slope down radically for design purposes. That also keeps the blind spot quite small.
In the second row, I fit both my children in their child-safety seats without having to move the front seats to accommodate them. A rear-facing infant seat fit behind my wife in the passenger seat, and my son’s full-size convertible car seat — a rather large Britax Marathon — fit behind the driver’s seat. The infant seat may cause problems behind drivers taller than me, so definitely do a seat check if you’re expecting twins. (We regularly get questions on Ask.cars.com wondering which cars can handle two infant seats.)
Perhaps the reason Kia is seeing such success recently is its value-based pricing. With a starting price less than $20,000, the Sorento comes with a manual transmission, standard steering-wheel audio controls, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth and a USB port.
The next step up, the $22,395 LX, adds very little to the base model besides an automatic transmission, heated side mirrors, an auto up-down driver’s window and a second-row center armrest. If you want the optional third row ($700), though, you have to move up to at least the LX trim.
The bigger move up is to the EX trim, which comes with either the four-cylinder engine or the V-6. Those two cost $24,595 and $27,195, respectively. You can add all-wheel drive to the LX and EX no matter the engine. The all-wheel drive V-6 EX starts at $28,895.
EX models add 18-inch wheels, automatic headlights, a rear spoiler, dual-zone automatic climate control, push-button start and keyless entry, backup sensors and a power driver’s seat.
The 2011 Sorento is so new it has yet to be crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
It does come with a full slate of standard safety features, though, including first- and second-row side curtain airbags that don’t extend to the third row, active head restraints for the front seats, electronic stability control and downhill brake control, which helps maintain a safe speed on severe slopes.
With so much competition from both compact and midsize crossovers, the Sorento has to do a lot right to win consumers. The good news for Kia is that the Sorento is as impressive as it is. Its bouncy ride might turn off some shoppers, but its low price helps make up for that shortcoming.
For shoppers who need severe-weather capability, the Sorento stands out in its class thanks to its affordability, array of standard features and relatively nice interior.