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2011 Kia Sorento Preview

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SEE ALSO: Kia Specs, Prices and Comparisons-Kia Buyers Guide


2011 Kia Sorento Preview

When I first drove a Kia Sorento, back in 2003, I was surprised. Impressed, even. It was a solid, well-designed and well-built small midsize SUV that, even with traditional body-on-frame construction felt like a car-based crossover. It compared favorably with any of the then-current compact- to mid-sized SUVs and crossovers -- vehicles that were the most popular things on four wheels at that time.

Considering that previous Kias that I'd driven felt, when brand new, like second-tier Japanese car built five years before, the `03 Sorento was a revelation. I wasn't the only one to like it -- it was a great success and sold well, with few changes since its debut.

But the ensuing years have seen major changes in the auto industry, and nowhere more so than in the "SUV" class. Unibody crossovers were still a relatively new concept when the original Sorento was developed. Today, they have taken over. And so the second-generation Sorento shares little besides its name with its predecessor.

On sale now as a 2011 model, the new Sorento is a unibody crossover, offered in the usual (for crossovers) front- or all-wheel drive forms with four-cylinder or V6 power. The 2.4-liter four has 175 horsepower and 169 lb-ft of torque, while the 3.5-liter V6 produces 276 horsepower and 248 lb-ft. Both are matched to a six-speed automatic transmission that is unique to Kia. All-wheel drive is available with both engines, and Kia's system features a locking center differential for better low-speed, foul-condition traction. Trim levels are four-cylinder, front-wheel drive base, four-cylinder FWD or AWD LX, and EX with both engines and drivetrains possible.

The new Sorento's unibody structure is based on that of it's cousin the Hyundai Santa Fe, and makes extensive use of high-tensile steel for strength with minimal weight. Suspension is fully independent, by struts in front and a multilink system at the rear.

It's no secret that the American market is of paramount importance to Kia. Or that a crossover like the Sorento is meant especially for the American market. Or than foreign-nameplate manufacturers are increasingly bringing construction to the markets in which the vehicles are sold. So no one should be surprised that the 2011 Kia Sorento is built in the U.S.A. They might, however, be surprised that it's built in a brand-new facility in West Point, Georgia, near the Alabama border.

The Southeast is a rapidly-developing area of auto manufacturing, and parent Hyundai's American plant is not far away in Alabama. The West Point facility directly created 2500 new jobs in the Georgia/Alabama border area, and an additional 7500 jobs with suppliers. West Point is not too far from Atlanta, and the program for Kia's press introduction took advantage of that. The new Sorento was shown to the assembled press in Atlanta, and we listened to the usual technical and marketing presentations. Kia is justifiably proud of increased presence in a down market, and considers the 011 Sorento to be a "game-changer" that will further improve that. While it's primarily meant for young families, with space for five, or in the EX, seven with a folding third-row seat, empty-nesters, whose kids have left home, are seen as the second most important group of customers. "Everyday Adventures" is the marketing theme, reflecting crossover reality, not vintage SUV fantasyland.

Competitors? Since the 2011 Sorento fits neatly between the conventional low- and mid-priced compact and mid-size categories, nearly every vehicle in both was mentioned. Meaning Toyota's RAV4 and Highlander, the Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-7, Chevrolet Equinox, and, yes, Hyundai's Santa Fe. Kia considers its advantages to be affordability, with base prices ranging from $19,995 for a base model through $28,895 for an AWD EX, safety, with a five-star NHTSA rating expected, standard and available features (all the contemporary electronic gadgetry), and the Kia 10-year, 10,000-mile limited powertrain and five-year, 60,000 mile limited basic warranties. "SUV" means "safety, utility, and value" in Kialand. Next step, a walk around the vehicle. The new Sorento is longer than its predecessor, especially behind the A-pillars, meaning more interior room. It's also half an inch lower, with a two-inch decrease in center of gravity to help the ride and handling. No separate frame, big gain. The tabbed-trapezoid grille and integrated headlamps that are the cornerstones of Kia's new design language are prominent, and side sculpting and enhanced wheel arches give it character -- and a bit more body strength. The rear is a bit plain, but honest. Interior design and styling is likewise conservatively stylish and eminently functional. All models, even the base, come with Bluetooth® connectivity and minijack and USB audio inputs, a tilt-and-telescope adjustable steering wheel, and a trip computer. Base and LX seats are fabric; EXes get fabric and leatherette or optional leather, power driver's. Expect a full complement of air bags, front active headrests, four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic stability control, electronic brake distribution, hill start assist, and downhill brake control in all.

Finally, driving time. The day's agenda was: take the freeway -- most direct route -- to the plant in West Point, tour the plant, and drive back via the scenic route. That sounded good. The weather forecast did not -- heavy rain and winds, possible flooding. Hey, aren't such conditions given as a reason to buy a vehicle like a Kia Sorento? Trial by water time!

I got into an AWD EX V6 that was well-equipped enough to give any entry-luxury crossover good competition, met my co-driver/navigator, and we headed out through Atlanta morning traffic. Ugly stuff, fortunately mostly coming into town as we headed out. Light rain, not bad. Good ride quality, moderately firm for control but supple enough for comfort. Appropriate steering response, very good power and a near-perfect match between the engine's torque and the transmission's gearing, shift logic, and response.

And then it really rained. The wind came up, and it rained harder. Close to IFR conditions, several inches of standing water on parts of the road. No worries, the Sorento handled it with aplomb. We could have stopped somewhere for a driver change, but since neither of us had thought to bring a wetsuit, agreed that I'd drive to the plant and he'd drive back.

The factory was impressive. Definitely not an old-time Rust Belt facility, there was plenty of automation for welding, painting, and such, but most detail assembly was done by people. Most "shop floor" areas were wood, easier on human feet. There are two basic job classifications, line and maintenance, with employee training such that any person in either category can do all of the jobs in that category. There is a two-mile test track on the facility's 2200 acres, and each and every Sorento that successfully comes off the line is given a test drive.

Time to head back, so we requested what was expected to be the most popular model, a front-drive LX. If not as fancy as the EX, it was really just as comfortable. It's actually easier to criticize ride quality, wind and road noise, and minor annoyances from the passenger seat than from the driver's seat, as the driver's attention is (or should be!) on car control, not all of the small details of the experience. No complaints, no annoyances. Yes, the four has less power than the V6, but it's still more than merely adequate. Fuel economy is expected to be a bit better than the V6, by a mile or two per gallon. Estimates are 21/29 for the FWD four, 21/27 AWD, and 20/26 and 19/25 for the V6 variants.

Kia has been building a good reputation in recent years, and the 2011 Sorento will only add to that.

2011 Kia Sorento

Base Price			$ 19,995-28,895
Price As Tested			$ n/a
Engine Type			aluminum alloy DOHC inline four-cylinder 
				with dual continuously-variable
				 cam phasing
Engine Size			2.4 liters / 144 cu. in.
Horsepower			175 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			169 @ 3750 rpm
Engine Type			aluminum alloy DOHC V6
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 212 cu. in.
Horsepower			276 @ 6300 rpm
Torque	(lb-ft)			248 @ 5000 rpm
Transmission			6-speed electronically-controlled
Wheelbase / Length		106.3 in. / 183.9 in.
Curb Weight			3605 - 3935 lbs.
Fuel Capacity			18.0 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 ABS, EBD, ESP standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut/
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			transverse front engine, 
				  front or all-wheel drive