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Car reviews - Kia - Sorento - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Ride/handling balance, improved steering, interior design, generous equipment levels, diesel engine, brake pedal feel, warranty package
Room for improvement
Press-and-guess kickdown on petrol, centre row legroom still tight, V6 thrashy when revved, front seat comfort, foot operated parking brake on automatics

10 Oct 2012

THOSE looking for a butch family wagon with off-road pretensions have never had it so good.

Top sellers in the segment include the home-grown Ford Territory for those who want decent dynamics and that ‘made in Australia’ pride, the Kluger from that safe pair of hands at Toyota, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee for its tough all-American image, value for money and all-round capabilities.

Like the Territory and Kluger, the Kia Sorento can seat seven but unlike those cars it comes pretty comprehensively equipped from the base Si trim level and includes one of the industry’s best warranty packages.

The same could be said for the closely related new Santa Fe from sister company Hyundai, which apart from fussier styling inside and out, does not get V6 petrol power or a two-wheel-drive option.

Those cross-shopping the Sorento with the Santa Fe might also note that the Kia’s rear windows provide a better view for passengers in the rearmost seating row, reducing the chances of their car being nicknamed ‘the vomit comet’.

So it’s looking good for the Kia, which despite its looks being squint-or-you-miss-it compared with its pre-facelift predecessor, has undergone a thorough overhaul behind the scenes.

This means it shares its guts with the all-new Santa Fe, making for a stiffer, stronger and lighter body structure that can only improve ride, handling and safety, while shaving a little off the fuel consumption figure.

Stepping aboard we were pleased to note that Kia has kept a restrained dashboard design that is reasonably attractive with its textured finish and satin chrome highlights that give the cabin an almost European ambience.

Sadly the questionable trim strips of black fake wood (on base Si variants) or dotted silver (SLi and Platinum) are trying to copy Audi and fail badly.

Nevertheless, it feels robust and hard-wearing, while the controls are simply laid out and functional.

The large seven-inch digital speedometer on SLi and Platinum variants adds an extra touch of class for the driver while providing scroll-through screens of vehicle information.

Less appealing was the foot-operated parking brake on all but the diesel manual Si, which has a standard handbrake.

A big glovebox is accompanied by further storage in a huge central bin under the armrest, along with door pockets that can take small water bottles.

On automatic variants, two cup holders hide under a sliding door in the centre console, beside a small recess for keeping items (manual variants just have two open-air cup holders).

So while the Sorento has plenty of internal storage volume, it also has precious few smaller cubbies.

Plenty of tilt and reach adjustment of the steering column, combined with similar controls for the driver’s seat, make it easy to find a suitable driving position, but taller drivers might find thigh support lacking.

The seemingly softer-sprung cloth seats of the base model felt slightly more comfortable than the leather items of SLi and Platinum variants, but we enjoyed using the Platinum’s heated and cooled front pews.

Occupants sit up high for a commanding view of the road, and we found the Sorento to have good all-round visibility and generously-sized exterior mirrors – a good thing for positioning and parking such a big vehicle.

Usefully, all Sorentos get front and rear parking sensors as standard, and a reversing camera is standard on the SLi and Platinum.

Platinum drivers also get a great view of the sky, through a new one-piece panoramic glass roof with large openable front section (the previous model had separate front and rear sunroofs).

Setting the driver’s seat for a six-footer resulted in the knees of a similarly lofty rear passenger being pressed against the hard plastic of the seat back, despite Kia’s claim that an extra 30mm of legroom has been liberated.

The centre backrest can recline if passengers fancy a nap or stargazing through the Platinum’s glass roof – so long as nobody is sitting behind – and they also have the convenience of a fold-down armrest with two cupholders.

Adults can just about fit in the rearmost two seats, meaning these places would only be usable for short journeys when carrying teenagers or above, but this row has its own set of air-conditioning vents with controls on upper-spec variants.

With the third row of seats folded flush with the boot floor, the Sorento’s luggage space is as cavernous as ever.

We took a petrol variant first, which carries over the 204kW/335Nm V6 engine only available with front-wheel-drive and a six-speed automatic transmission.

In most circumstances, the V6 provides a crisp throttle response and smooth progress, with plenty of grunt for confident overtaking – and we only managed to chirp the front tyres once when taking off a little too briskly.

However, when the roads north of the Tasmanian capital of Hobart got twisty and hilly, we found it hard to maintain steady progress as woolly calibration between throttle pedal and transmission kickdown meant we never knew if it would be changing down one or two ratios for powering through bends.

The engine does not have enough mid-range torque to cover this, slowing on uphill bends or not providing enough acceleration through flatter ones, while dropping two cogs uncovered a thrashy, unrefined engine note at higher reaches of the rev range.

We were also disappointed by the fuel consumption, which was more than 14 litres per 100 kilometres by the end of our stint, compared with the official figure of 9.8L/100km.

By contrast, the quiet and refined 145kW/436Nm diesel was far more relaxing to drive on hilly, undulating roads, felt better matched to the transmission and as such could only be heard purring away in the background at most times while its considerable torque did the job at low revs.

The six-speed manual transmission, only offered on the Si diesel, provided a slick shift feel, but we felt the engine, which loses 15Nm of torque with this gearbox, sounded a little gruffer.

Diesel efficiency was great too, as we achieved 8.8L/100km in the automatic diesel (official figure is 7.3L/100km) and less than 7.0L/100km in the manual (official: 6.6L/100km).

A big improvement over the old Sorento’s feather-light and vague steering comes unexpectedly in the form of a switch to electric power assistance, which brings selectable steering weight and fewer turns lock-to-lock.

Comfort is the lightest setting, making round-town progress a breeeze, while at the other end of the scale is Sport, which is heavier and more direct for more confident cornering and the Normal mode offers a compromise between the two – and Kia executives explained that all three settings cross over about 110km/h.

Steering is still a little slow and indirect with an artificial rubbery feel typical of current South Korean electrically-assisted systems, but we had no major issues with it – other than the occasional rack rattle on bumpy bends – as we flogged across some classic Targa Tasmania stages.

The Sorento resists body roll well unless really pushed, and the Kumho tyres hang on more than most people would require on the dry bitumen of our test route.

We got the impression it would be a better vehicle with more expensive rubber, especially as even the heavier all-wheel-drive diesel variants skittered about more than we were expecting while driving on gravel, meaning it did not instil the same level of confidence as some rivals.

Kia has trodden the fine line of acceptability for ride firmness with the Sorento and got it just right, exhibiting especially impressive levels of isolation during extended periods on gravel and dirt roads.

On bitumen, most bumps are soaked up perfectly well – although the car is susceptible to audible bump thump and sometimes crashed over larger potholes.

We noticed quite a bit of road noise emanating from the rear of the Sorento, which is hard to suppress due to the van-like acoustics, but we would expect a fully loaded vehicle to be relatively serene from a road and wind noise point of view – but we cannot account for the noise generated by children.

Most people will buy one of these vehicles out of necessity, and thankfully the hot competition in the SUV segment has pushed manufacturers to dig deep and deliver some well thought-out products.

The well-equipped Sorento deserves a place on the family car shopping list and makes a lot of sense on paper, especially taking into account its warranty and capped price servicing package.

Most of all, it has retained its good looks, boosted practicality and added equipment while taking a stride forward in terms of its driving experience.

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