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2016 Kia Sorento

ERIK JOHNSON

It’s hard to imagine that there’s a more under-the-radar vehicle for sale in America than the Kia Sorento—certainly among those that sell more than 100,000 copies annually. Which is a shame because, as we learned during our 40,000-mile test of this Sorento, it’s a practical and wieldy three-row SUV. (A confession: We sometimes forgot this thing’s name while it was here, calling it the Sportage—Kia’s smaller two-row crossover—about a third of the time. Oops.)

How We Did Spec It

We’re a shallow lot, so we started our Sorento ordering process in late 2015 by seeking out versions without shameful-looking wheels. These turned out to be the top two trims, the SX and SXL. We stopped shy of the SXL and its upgraded nappa leather upholstery, ventilation for the front seats, and heated rear seats because we had already inflated the Sorento’s base price from about $26,000 to something like $40K. Because we wanted to look cool. Driving a three-row Kia SUV.

But the Sorento SX does look nice, a rather simply sculpted product of a German-led design studio that wouldn’t look out of place with a European badge in its grille. (That said, some of us felt the design was a bit too simply sculpted, a factor perhaps causal to the nameplate’s relative anonymity.) It’s not as if we suffered by choosing the SX; it has pretty much Kia’s entire arsenal of features as standard. A full rundown is available in our introductory story, but highlights include an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, leather upholstery, heated front seats, a third-row seat, proximity entry and start, a 7.0-inch screen in the gauge cluster, and those sweet, sweet 19-inch wheels. To the all-wheel-drive SX’s $40,795 base price we added just a few minor accessories to bring the total to $42,180. That’s a tall number for a vehicle that starts at less than $26K, but it’s par for the course in a well-kitted mid-size, three-row SUV. Thus equipped, our Ebony Black Kia rolled onto our parking lot.

If a Sorento has an SX badge on its butt, it has a 3.3-liter V-6 up front. (Kia also equips the Sorento with a choice of four-cylinders, either a 2.4-liter or a turbocharged 2.0-liter.) We were largely happy with the naturally aspirated six, which had no issues and offered the sort of smooth, linear power delivery and predictable throttle response and tip-in that even today’s best turbo engines struggle to match. The transmission stayed out of the way and did its job; that’s all we have to say about it. While it won’t snap necks, the zero-to-60-mph time of 7.1 seconds is respectable, and the V-6 even managed to return 22 mpg over 40,000 miles. The latter figure was aided by the Kia’s frequent use as a road-trip vehicle, but it’s just 1 mpg shy of the EPA’s highway estimate for the 4400-pound SUV.

Always on the Move

Indeed, the Sorento rarely had time to cool its tires before it set out again on frequent trips to small towns and cottages in northern Michigan or journeys to Chicago and Pennsylvania. The Kia also spent a few months in Montana, in the care of C/D’s moose, cocktails, and moose-cocktails editor John Phillips, who took it on adventures in at least eight states before returning the Kia to Ann Arbor.

Helping the Sorento’s suitability for long-distance travel were its comfortable and spacious interior and its admirably low levels of noise, vibration, and harshness. The SX gets second-row side sunshades and a panoramic sunroof, meaning we and our passengers could let in as much or as little light as we liked, and the firm, supportive seats allowed for long but fatigue-free days in the saddle. Easy-to-access LATCH connectors made swapping various child seats a snap.

All primary and secondary controls are easily reached from the driver’s seat, and we made ample use of the three available USB ports for front- and second-row passengers to keep devices charged; our Sorento had a 115-volt household outlet on the back of the center console for additional juicing, too. We were always happy to use the Kia’s UVO infotainment system on account of its crisp graphics, quick responses, and intuitive layout. We were able to upgrade our Sorento for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, something Kia now offers to owners of vehicles with the UVO3 version of the system. (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto became optional for 2017.)

Interior room and cargo flexibility proved adequate in use, even though they’re on the small side compared with some key competitors. The Kia has a good amount of space for stuff in back with the third row folded, and it offers numerous cubbies for the detritus of daily life, although making use of that room—notably the third row—was more difficult than we’d have liked. For instance, you can clamber into that row via either rear door, but neither side of the 40/20/40 split-folding second row can tumble forward; moving a seat out of the way is a two-step process (fold down the backrest, then slide the seat forward), which would be difficult for little ones to manage on their own. Finally, only the passenger side has a lever accessible to those in the third row who wish to make an unaided escape. Kia should study the functionality of the Honda Pilot, where the seatbacks tip forward and slide at the touch of a single button, and both can be moved out of the way easily by third-row occupants.

On the plus side, the second-row seat slides through a decent amount of real estate, which made it easy to apportion legroom among all back-seat occupants. We rarely had passengers in the wayback, though, as the seat bottoms are too low and the backrests are too flat, making it suitable only for children and/or short trips. Helpfully, each side of the second-row bench can be folded from the cargo area, using release levers located on the outer walls. Interior materials generally appeared to be of high quality, and they wore well overall. Nothing broke, even though our multitude of drivers were unusually torturous on this vehicle, even by our tough standards (as a nice person, you’d probably treat it with more respect).

Useful but Tame

From behind the wheel, our Sorento SX turned out to be everything we knew it to be from previous exposures: capable, easy to drive, and utterly anodyne. There’s little excitement to be found in this class in general, and we didn’t find any in our Kia. That’s not to say it isn’t well tuned. Body motions are nicely damped, and we found maneuvering the Sorento in tight parking lots easier than in some other crossovers because of its good forward and rear visibility. The ride is amazingly smooth, with a sophistication to the way the suspension irons out impacts large and small that’s more typically found in far more expensive vehicles. The brakes are strong enough to place it midpack in our 70-mph-to-zero test, although we did wish that Kia engineers had taken up the slack at the top of the pedal travel.

We never figured out what was going on with the steering, the one major source of frustration. In general, it was stupendously numb but otherwise accurate, and the Kia tracked straight on long freeway stretches. Often, however, the steering would go heavy or light, sometimes varying its weight back and forth during a single spin of the steering wheel. The worst symptom was the inconsistent weight just off-center, where sometimes it would just go extremely heavy for no apparent reason.

Service, Wounds, and a Recall

With the Sorento flying hither and yon to Montana, where Kia dealerships are about as common as coral reefs, we missed a couple of scheduled services but then got the care and feeding of the Kia back on track in Ann Arbor. One service we missed was a routine $76 job, but the other was a biggie and would have cost $413; absent those costs, we spent $470 for scheduled maintenance. Our Sorento was subject to a single recall repair, for the trailer-wiring connector, which may not function properly and keep the trailer’s brake lights illuminated. This was, of course, repaired at no cost. (The Kia had a tow rating of 5000 pounds, but we rarely took advantage of it.)

The right rear of our Sorento was cursed. First, an unknown assailant backed into the rear bumper and took out half of the passenger-side reflector. Then another accident ninja dented the right-rear quarter-panel near the D-pillar in such a way that we could only guess they punched it with a fist—or with someone else’s head. Whether during that incident or another one, the same area ended up with long creases in the body. We had the reflector replaced for $72 and the sheetmetal pulled for $200. We also replaced a windshield to the tune of $480 due to a large crack that formed after taking a stone chip. But none of these were the Kia’s fault. Its only real flaw was a power hatch that sometimes refused to be a power hatch; occasionally, we’d have to lift it manually—oh, the indignity—before it would happily motor closed at the push of a button.

Our time with the Sorento showed it to be a solid choice among mid-size SUVs that still merits consideration even 16 months on, although newer competition is on the way in the form of Volkswagen’s Atlas and Chevrolet’s Traverse. If Kia can inject some personality and more functionality into the next generation of its three-row SUV, it’s likely more folks will have the Sorento on their radar screens. We might even stop calling it the Sportage.

Months in Fleet: 16 months Final Mileage: 40,545 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 22 mpg Fuel Tank Size: 18.8 gal Fuel Range: 410 miles
Service: $470 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $480
Damage and Destruction: $272

Specifications >

VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 7-passenger, 4-door hatchback

PRICE AS TESTED: $42,180 (base price: $25,795)

ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 24-valve V-6, aluminum block and heads, direct fuel injection

Displacement: 204 cu in, 3342 cc
Power: 290 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 252 lb-ft @ 5300 rpm

TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic with manual shifting mode

DIMENSIONS:
Wheelbase: 109.4 in
Length: 187.4 in
Width: 74.4 in Height: 66.5 in
Passenger volume: 143 cu ft
Cargo volume: 11 cu ft
Curb weight: 4378 lb

PERFORMANCE: NEW
Zero to 60 mph: 7.1 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 19.5 sec
Zero to 120 mph: 33.9 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 7.6 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 3.9 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 5.1 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.7 sec @ 91 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 121 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 174 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g

PERFORMANCE: 40,000 MILES
Zero to 60 mph: 7.1 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 19.5 sec
Zero to 120 mph: 33.6 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 7.5 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 3.7 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 5.0 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.6 sec @ 91 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 121 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 177 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad*: 0.81 g

*stability-control-inhibited

FUEL ECONOMY:
EPA city/highway driving: 17/23 mpg
C/D observed: 22 mpg
Unscheduled oil additions: 0 qt


WARRANTY:
5 years/60,000 miles bumper to bumper;
10 years/100,000 miles powertrain;
5 years/100,000 miles corrosion protection;
5 years/60,000 miles roadside assistance




WHAT WE LIKE: Eight months and 17,500 miles into our long-term Kia Sorento’s life with us, its logbook is overflowing with praise. Such as, “The Sorento strikes me as a Korean version of a Jeep Grand Cherokee.” Okay, it isn’t quite yet on that mountaintop, but you have to agree it’s a compliment.

What you notice first about the Sorento is the cockpit’s remarkable serenity, how isolated it is from road noise, and how reassuringly solid this crossover feels. As far as we could tell, most of the minor wind noise is being generated by the optional crossbars on the roof.

Kia is also getting better at interior appointments, although the company remains famous for offering a few dazzling surfaces that act as distractions. That’s the case here. Notice the rich, creamy headliner fabric flowing down the A-pillars. And there’s a lovely slash of high-gloss black plastic across the top of the dash, around the window switches, and around the door pulls. Unfortunately, the majority of the dash surface is a pebbly vinyl that would look good only in a contractor’s truck. Its principal feature is its uncanny ability to latch onto dust, dirt, and pieces of paper towel.

The center stack also looks a little downscale, but the rotary temperature controls and the HVAC switchgear are large and easily learned. In fact, all control relationships are pretty much bang-on. What’s more, the seats are surprisingly firm and so far have elicited zero complaints.

There are three driving modes: Normal, Eco, and Sport. The latter remaps the transmission so that kickdowns manifest sooner and harder and upshifts are delayed until higher revs. It’s not particularly sporty, but it offers useful engine braking on downhill grades.

The split second-row seats slide and recline. Slid to their rearmost stops, those seats offer legroom that will satisfy NBA stars. Really, it is remarkably comfortable back there, more than in a dozen more expensive SUVs. There’s also a 110-volt AC outlet in the rear, plus 12-volt and USB ports. What you won’t find, strangely, is your own fan control, because that’s located to the right of the folks who might have occupied the third row. Wouldn’t you expect the second seat to be inhabited far more often? With rear seats flattened, the cargo area extends a full six feet. No problem storing a bike back there. Heck, two campers could sleep back there.

We also love the panoramic sunroof, which is standard on the SX V-6 model. That the sun shade also automatically extends and retracts makes the whole system practical and desirable. Speaking of shades, the second-row side windows are fitted with you-pull-’em blinds, in case you’re asked to ferry the Queen to the bingo finals.

What has surprised us the most about the Sorento is that roll/dive/squat are adequately damped, at least for this soft-life crossover, and the ride is as close to perfect in this vehicular niche as you are likely to find. Looking at the 19-inch Kumho Crugens (isn’t a crugen a type of pastry?), we never would have dreamed the ride could be so supple. In fact, what the Sorento feels like is a very well-developed station wagon.

WHAT WE DON’T LIKE: This may sound facile, but the Kia Sorento is one of the blandest, most universally generic-looking crossovers extant. It looks like its exterior shape coalesced from a team of 30 stylists, all too willing to head home at 3 p.m. When you lose your Sorento in Costco’s lot, you’ll wind up searching for it by color, not shape. Prepare to make accidental unlawful entry into other folks’ vehicles.

Despite the 3.3-liter V-6’s 290 horsepower, the Sorento feels rather languid, even though 60 mph is achieved in a not-so-bad 7.1 seconds. Step-off is especially poky, but at least it makes it easy to drive smoothly, and the V-6’s low levels of NVH comprise a double bonus. Observed fuel mileage so far is 21 mpg.

The steering’s heft is fine, on-center feel is excellent, and tracking is satisfactory. But the steering delivers little info about the tire-to-road interface. Worse, the electric power assist seems to fluctuate, as if tuned in steps instead of one fluid arc. It means that even if you summon a perfect steering angle on turn-in, you’ll be making corrections moments later. On the upside, the column itself is generously adjustable for reach and rake. Another oddity: Before the brakes bite, there’s a funny dead spot on initial application of the pedal. But it’s another quirk easily mastered.

You can buy a Sorento SX AWD (the second-highest trim level) at a base price of $40,995. On our long-term model, we added the roof crossbars ($225), a cargo net and tray ($165), the auto-dimming mirror ($350), a tow hitch ($395), and a windshield-washer heater ($250). All of that pushed the as-tested price to $42,180. If you’re saying, “That’s a lot for a Kia,” well, we said it first.

WHAT WENT WRONG: In Livingston, Montana, the Sorento suffered a flat right-rear tire. Changing it was a breeze until it came time to return the spare back up into its hidey-hole beneath the cargo area. That’s when it will hang up on the optional tow hitch—every damn time—becoming a sweaty ordeal requiring a two-person team not prone to cursing. Plus, be willing to sacrifice one T-shirt.

So far, nothing on our Sorento has broken. It has undergone two scheduled services, and that’s it. On the other hand, the automatic cargo-hatch opener is prone to balk and fuss, as if it’s about to stage a coup. Also, someone gently backed into the Kia’s rear hindquarters, breaking a section of red reflective plastic—not all of it, just half of it. It’s difficult to notice, so we’ll have to decide whether it’s worth replacing.

WHERE WE WENT: Apart from a trip to Chicago, the Sorento was pretty much a homebody. Until, that is, road warrior Mad Max Mortimer aimed its grille west, checking out Mount Rushmore and eventually depositing the car with the editor of our Montana Desk, where nothing at all was happening. Since then, the Sorento has accomplished a serene trip to Livingston, Montana, the home of reclusive writers and Hollywood celebs, all of whom eventually migrate to the Murray Bar, as did we. As this is written, the Sorento is headed to Milwaukee by way of Denver, then back to the Montana Desk, where nothing at all is still happening.—John Phillips

Months in Fleet: 8 months Current Mileage: 17,575 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 21 mpg Fuel Tank Size: 18.8 gal Fuel Range: 390 miles
Service: $238 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $15

Specifications >

VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 7-passenger, 4-door hatchback

PRICE AS TESTED: $42,180 (base price: $25,795)

ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 24-valve V-6, aluminum block and heads, direct fuel injection

Displacement: 204 cu in, 3342 cc
Power: 290 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 252 lb-ft @ 5300 rpm

TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic with manual shifting mode

DIMENSIONS:
Wheelbase: 109.4 in
Length: 187.4 in
Width: 74.4 in Height: 66.5 in
Passenger volume: 143 cu ft
Cargo volume: 11 cu ft
Curb weight: 4378 lb

PERFORMANCE: NEW
Zero to 60 mph: 7.1 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 19.5 sec
Zero to 120 mph: 33.9 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 7.6 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 3.9 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 5.1 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.7 sec @ 91 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 121 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 174 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g

FUEL ECONOMY:
EPA city/highway driving: 17/23 mpg
C/D observed: 21 mpg
Unscheduled oil additions: 0 qt


WARRANTY:
5 years/60,000 miles bumper to bumper;
10 years/100,000 miles powertrain;
5 years/100,000 miles corrosion protection;
5 years/60,000 miles roadside assistance




Kia’s crossover SUVs have become fully competitive at the right time. The market for high-riding, roomy, and all-weather-capable machines has never been stronger, including in the heady days of sub-one-dollar gas in the 1990s. And today’s crossovers are more comfortable, more versatile, and more efficient than pretty much anything of comparable size two decades ago.

When we first encountered this third-generation Sorento, we stated that buyers couldn’t do much better in terms of value, style, quality, and capability in the three-row-SUV segment. Two subsequent short exposures at our Ann Arbor headquarters confirmed that Kia had indeed cooked up something savory. But would those impressions hold up over a full, 40,000-mile long-term test?

We restrained ourselves when we spec’d our Sorento, going for the penultimate $40,795 SX trim level rather than the full-hog SX Limited, a.k.a. the SXL. (The Sorento starts at $25,795.) So we’re missing out on some chrome exterior trim, wood interior accents, front-seat ventilation, nappa leather upholstery, and second-row heated seats—absences that cause us to lay our head on the non-heated steering wheel and weep. We’ll have to be comfortable with our crossover’s fancy 19-inch gunmetal-finish wheels, 14-way power driver’s seat, panoramic sunroof, regular leather, LED tail- and accent lights, and other goodies.

Other items baked into our particular Sorento as standard include a third-row seat; dual-zone automatic climate control; a 110-volt household electrical outlet; an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with navigation, real-time traffic, and Bluetooth connectivity; proximity entry and start; and a 7.0-inch TFT screen in the gauge cluster. Oh, and SX-exclusive red-painted brake calipers, which are very important. To all of that we added $1385 in small items—among them a tow hitch, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a washer-fluid heater—for a final tally of $42,180. Okay, life ain’t so bad.

As for the engine, our choice was simple: The SX is available only with a 3.3-liter V-6, although the Sorento line also offers a 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder (L and LX) and a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder (standard in the EX and SXL). The V-6 suits us just fine. While the Sorento’s 2.0T is strong enough to pull around 4200 pounds (or more) of CUV, the market’s swift adoption of downsized turbocharged engines means we don’t get to play around with naturally aspirated six-cylinders much these days, and the six is rated to tow 5000 pounds versus the 2.0-liter’s 3500. Our observed fuel economy so far—19 mpg—isn’t stellar, but it matches the EPA combined rating and is only 1 mpg lower than we saw in our test of an AWD turbo four-cylinder model.

Initial commentary has largely been positive. “This might just be the best modern Kia,” wrote our very first logbook commenter, online editor Alexander Stoklosa. “Big bounds forward in ride quality,” opined technical director Eric Tingwall, referencing an occasional bugaboo in previous Sorentos, “and the body control is spot-on.” The crossover’s interior roominess, general comfort, and solid structural feel have also drawn compliments, as have the interior materials, which wouldn’t be out of place in a vehicle with a luxury badge on the nose.

Not all has been rosy, however, and the steering has come in for the most complaints. The system in the SX (and in the SXL) differs from other Sorentos in that it mounts the electric-assist motor on the steering rack rather than on the column, in the interest of providing better feel. We’re not sure Kia should have gone to the trouble of developing two setups. The early returns show the steering in our Sorento to be afflicted by numbness and a tendency to require minute corrections during straight-line cruising, as are some other Kia vehicles. In addition, multiple drivers have commented on the steering’s “notchiness,” as when you’re holding the wheel in a steady curve (think cloverleaf ramp) and making small inputs, you can feel the boost ebb and flow. “It’s as if the EPS [electric power steering] was tuned to follow stair steps rather than a smooth curve,” said Tingwall.

All in all, our long-term test is off to an auspicious start, and the Sorento hasn’t created any outright detractors. Of course, we have 35,000 more miles to cover—and plenty of logbook pages to fill.

Months in Fleet: 3 months Current Mileage: 4997 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 19 mpg Fuel Tank Size: 18.8 gal Fuel Range: 360 miles
Service: $0 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0

Specifications >

VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 7-passenger, 4-door hatchback

PRICE AS TESTED: $42,180 (base price: $25,795)

ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 24-valve V-6, aluminum block and heads, direct fuel injection

Displacement: 204 cu in, 3342 cc
Power: 290 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 252 lb-ft @ 5300 rpm

TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic with manual shifting mode

DIMENSIONS:
Wheelbase: 109.4 in
Length: 187.4 in
Width: 74.4 in Height: 66.5 in
Passenger volume: 143 cu ft
Cargo volume: 11 cu ft
Curb weight: 4378 lb

PERFORMANCE: NEW
Zero to 60 mph: 7.1 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 19.5 sec
Zero to 120 mph: 33.9 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 7.6 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 3.9 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 5.1 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.7 sec @ 91 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 121 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 174 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g

FUEL ECONOMY:
EPA city/highway driving: 17/23 mpg
C/D observed: 19 mpg
Unscheduled oil additions: 0 qt


WARRANTY:
5 years/60,000 miles bumper to bumper;
10 years/100,000 miles powertrain;
5 years/100,000 miles corrosion protection;
5 years/60,000 miles roadside assistance