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Car reviews - Kia - Sorento - CRDi EX-L 5-door wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, economy, value for money, off-road ability
Room for improvement
Suspension, some interior fit and finish, vulnerable intercooler for off-roading

2 Oct 2008

EVEN though the SUV wagon has become the default family car, the novelty of a big off-roader has worn thin for urban buyers who fell in love with the trucks in the 1990s.

Ford sensed the mood with its Territory media campaign showing disgruntled mums dressed like truckies and driving older style SUV wagons in contrast to the more car-like Territory.

Exaggerated it may have been, but the Ford ad did show the prevailing mood - that buyers were fed up with rough-riding 4WDs and wanted a smoother car-like ride and brisk performance while not losing the essence of SUV style and practicality.

Manufacturers answered the call, but in the rush to abandon the separate chassis and live axle, they left unattended the need for a truly tough yet civilised compact 4WD wagon. Could the Kia Sorento, with its nimble proportions and old-school underpinnings fit the bill?

There are not many direct competitors for the Kia Sorento in the top-grade EX-L CRDi trim we tested, with the closest equivalent Japanese vehicles such as Pathfinder, Pajero and Prado a good $10,000-$15,000 more expensive (and noticeably bigger, especially the Pajero and Prado). The closest on price and specification is the Jeep Cherokee and fellow Korean brand SsangYong, with its Rexton and Kyron.

As you settle in behind the wheel of the luxury Sorento, the first impression is that is has a very classy interior, too, with the black perforated leather seat facings with red stitching and the mock wood and chrome appliqué on the centre console.

Yet look closer and longer and there are some elements that don’t gel, such as the shiny grained plastics used variously around the cabin and the cheap-feeling column wands. In this age of switchblade remote keys or at least remote head keys, the Sorento’s key remote fob is looks like an aftermarket one from the 1990s.

Despite these niggles, the actual fit of materials appears very good, with no rattles or anything falling off on a press car with 9000km under its belt.

The Sorento is no tall-trees SUV to climb aboard, despite its separate chassis, and is really no higher a hip point than something like the Ford Territory. The front seats are flat and do not offer much side support or underthigh support, yet seem to allow long stints of travel without causing back ache complaints.

There are several storage options up front, with long, thin door pockets, a relatively shallow glovebox and several centre console storage trays including a deep two-layer storage bin and two cupholders.

Vision is quite good out of the Sorento, though some may not like the small side mirrors and the rear window line is quite high. The main instruments are clear and easy to read.

There is easy access to the rear seat via wide-opening rear doors to a one-third/two-thirds split rear seat. The rear seat is also a flat and unsupportive pew and has slight intrusions from the wheel-arches.

However, the seat is a good compromise for when three occupants are seated as the shape doesn’t make the centre position unduly uncomfortable like some designs and the flat footwell also allows centre seat occupants adequate foot room. There is enough room for three child seats - at a pinch - and there are three anchor points provided on the cargo floor just behind the back seat.

The rear seat does not have any dedicated climate-control ventilation and storage is limited to door pockets and a recess in the back of the centre console.

The cargo area is reasonably large, has a remote-release glass section and inside has tie-down loops and a netted side storage pocket. There’s a full-size spare wheel housed under the floor and access from underneath the vehicle.

The 2.5-litre turbocharged common-rail diesel has a relatively small amount of turbo lag before it springs to life at around 1800rpm. The CRDi engine may have a more obvious diesel rattle than most, but it’s a smooth unit and has no lack of mid-range torque. It’ll rev out cleanly and smoothly to its 4500rpm if and when required, too.

The five-speed manual-mode auto transmission provides decisive gearshifts and appears to offer a good spread of ratios well matched to the engine.

The Sorento has a part-time transfer case activated by a switch on the dash, so it is a simple 4WD system that cannot be used in 4WD on dry surfaces such as paved roads without causing damage to the transfer case.

The Kia’s suspension seems to be the weakest link in this vehicle. While driving on a smooth undulating road it presents no problems. Once the road surface begins to deteriorate, so does the Sorento’s reaction to it.

It suffers slight body flexing and pitches around on soft springs and the stiff dampers seem only to make it worse. At least aftermarket companies such as ARB offer suspension kits to suit the Sorento, and this largely solves the problem.

Even though the Sorento can become quite skittish on corrugations, it is never unstable and has the back up of stability and traction control.

The Sorento’s dynamics are a strange mix of modern SUV and old-school. Its steering is a just a fraction vague on-centre but point it at a corner and it turns in well for this type of vehicle.

There is acceptable bodyroll and grip for a SUV wagon but the truth is most of the all-independent suspension monocoque designs are better. The Sorento sits somewhere just below the more dynamic car-like wagons such as Territory but is much better than the old-school SUVs such as the Patrol.

Off-road the combination of good low-range gearing, traction control, acceptable underbody clearance (208mm) and well-positioned underbody protection make the Sorento a far more viable off-the-shelf off-road proposition than many SUVs. The only complain is that the intercooler is mounted low at the front.

The Sorento is quite fuel-efficient, with a best easy highway cruising figure of 8.3L/100km, up to 11.0L/100km when city driving. The 80-litre tank allows a minimum of around 550km between refills.

It might not be a cutting-edge answer to the majority of the SUV wagon market’s requirements, but Kia's latest Sorento is a surprisingly good package.

If you can get over not having the most luxurious contemporary interior but like the Kia’s four-star Euro NCAP safety rating, its excellent engine and transmission, the off-road ability and neat packaging and value, then really there are few other choices.

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