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

Our Opinion

We like
Design, space, safety rating, diesel economy, diesel performance, cabin presentation, dashboard, standard features, tight turning circle, drivetrain refinement, long warranty
Room for improvement
Busy ride, high-speed steering feel, some cheap interior plastics, foot-operated park brake, third-row not ideal for adults

23 Oct 2009

ROUGHLY translated, ‘Kia’ means ‘to come out’. And in the second-generation Sorento – out late last year – the South Korean brand has finally emerged with a strong class contender.

Between the exhumed Mazda tat of the 1990s such as the Mentor and Credos, and the latest mid-sized seven-seater SUV tested here, Kia’s leap in quality, safety, design and driveability has been tremendous.

Compared with the old BL Sorento, the newcomer XM is a different beast, eschewing the ladder-frame chassis and off-road abilities for a longer, lower and wider crossover wagon design with – at best – mild soft-roader tendencies.

The truth is, this Kia is basically a Hyundai Santa Fe underneath.

Let’s get other things straight then. Image wise, Kia still isn’t where the Japanese or local car-makers are, let alone the Europeans. Constant discounting on the Rio and Cerato certainly helps ensure that.

You will also need to forget about the weedy four-cylinder petrol front-drive Sorento that costs $36,490, since the range only really impresses as a CRDi diesel. That kicks off from $40,000, and squares up against the cheaper Holden Captiva and Mitsubishi Outlander, as well as the Toyota Kluger, Ford Territory, Mitsubishi Challenger, Nissan Pathfinder, and – of course – Santa Fe.

The latter is especially formidable since it shares the Sorento’s fab new R-series diesel. But with no love lost between the siblings, the Kia and Hyundai are truly the Cain and Abel of the industry, vying for virtually the same value-driven market.

But consider this: If sheer willpower and standout design are enough to improve your standing in life then Kia could be flying high as a sort of Korean Skoda, if not quite an Asian Audi.

That is obvious from the moment you open up the Sorento’s generously proportioned doors. They feel neither tinny nor lightweight, and shut with a vacuum-sealed thud. Crud is history at Kia.

This is a large wagon, so getting in is no chore due to the hip-height seats and wide apertures all four doors afford.

As we’re assessing a family conveyance, let’s begin with the third row. Please keep in mind your tester is of about average height for an Australian male (178cm), with all seats set accordingly.

In five-person mode, the Sorento’s rearmost seats reside underneath a long, wide, flat, but high cargo floor, and each erects after one easy tug of a strap.

As a load carrier the Kia includes a hidden sub-floor storage area, a roller blind cargo coverer with a multitude of mounting positions, and a full-sized spare wheel. To maximise space inside the latter is slung under the car (where it is exposed to road grime) but is only accessible via a cabin-sited bolt.

As a two-seater the Sorento offers 2052 litres of luggage space, 1047L as a five-seater and just 258L if all seats are up.

Grey plastic-sheathed bumpers are appreciated for they are much hardier than scuff-prone painted items during loading, as are a trio of child seat anchorage points behind the sturdily mounted middle row of seats for boot space enhancement.

In seven-seater mode, getting to the third row requires a simple folding down of the smaller kerbside portion of the centre backrest, which then reveals a strap to tip the whole ensemble forward for pretty much unfettered access.

The rearmost pair of chairs are uninviting, even if there is (just) enough headroom, plenty of shoulder space, a cupholder, face-level air vents with a three-speed fan setting (thankfully with a driver override switch) and sufficient storage places.

That’s because your tester’s knees are up in almost foetal position, feet feel cramped, and the backrest is too upright. Deep vein thrombosis, here we come! The black plastic trim is depressingly dour and nasty, and the Sorento’s signature thick D pillar limits for that dark and dingy claustrophobic ambience.

Sitting on the rear axle will soon have you jiggling like a Tetley teabag, accompanied by undesirable body pitching and a constant assault of road noise, further dampening our third-row digs. It is a kids-only zone really, or for shorter folk familiar with NASA’s nauseating G-force testing regime.

Mercifully Kia has engineered the seats for quick exit, and only via the kerb side for road safety reasons.

In contrast the centre row is a much happier place for all, with even the normally purgatory centre pew attracting praise, since there is a large gap between the front seats for knees to nestle within without their owner feeling like they are trying to keep something in.

That low-fi plastic trim is less obvious in the middle as well, while more outboard face-level vents and cubbyholes, damped overhead grab handles, map pockets, headrests, and the nowadays de rigueur cupholder-accessing centre armrest (that is padded to a surprisingly plush degree) are further highlights.

But not as much as the multi-angle rake adjustment and oodles of lounging room that – along with deep side windows – gives the Sorento’s middle-row outboard seats a sense of space, light and well being. The leather upholstery is not dire, while the metallic-like trim adds a welcome quality boost. The ride also improves.

Still, perched up high on a properly bolstered pair of bucket seats that – in this mid-range SLi – provide ample comfort and support, and with a vast VistaVision windscreen ahead, the Sorento’s front cabin area rates best.

The driver’s seat is electrically motivated, and manipulating the steering column for the ideal controlling position is child’s play, further adding to the Kia’s showroom lustre.

This is backed up by the dashboard’s impressively mature level of design and presentation. The hard plastics remain but they are overshadowed by the elegant symmetry of all the switches and dials, set for simple comprehension and easy reach of the driver.

We particularly rate the high clarity of the white on black instruments, beautifully illuminated with red pointers and a most easy-to-fathom trip computer readout.

The same goes for the effective climate control system and (of only average sound quality) radio/CD/MP3 audio set-up, which are both as easy on the eyes as they are to operate.

Owners of early Kias will not recognise the quality standards of the latest Sorento, which seems right up to Japanese levels these days.

Practicality aspects are further addressed by the inclusion of generous storage areas up front, while little things such as the great big exterior mirrors, steering wheel-mounted controls, sunvisor extenders and the brilliant rear-view camera built into the interior mirror (along with parking sensors) all show that Kia has been thinking about the sort of ways this car will be used. Despite the significant footprint of this vehicle, nobody should feel daunted when attempting to park it.

But the cabin isn’t all Mike and Carol Brady happy time extravaganza. The inclusion of a foot-operated park brake is 1950s Americana blah. That cheapo plastic trim already looked grubby in our 7000km old test car. And the Koreans obviously can’t yet synthesise quality new-car smell. This Kia’s odour is on the nose.

Yet it is what lives within the vehicle’s nose that really elevates the new Sorento, because few manufacturers at any price point provide such an up-to-date drivetrain.

Imagine what the Kluger or Territory would feel like with a spanking new 2.2-litre common-rail direct injection four-cylinder turbo diesel delivering 145kW of power at 3800rpm and 436Nm of torque between 1800 and 2500rpm?

Slick, smooth and incredibly well silenced from inside the cabin, and matched to a fine six-speed automatic transmission, this lively and lusty third-generation unit is a peach, providing oodles of low-speed acceleration as well as eager and linear mid-range punch when required.

It really is hard to fault, even when stepping off the mark. Progress is instant with hesitation minimal, while there is enough torque in reserve for most overtaking jobs to be no trouble at all.

Sweet and strong, this CRDi is the new poster boy for modern low-cost diesel applications – and you’ll find it in the latest Santa Fe as well.

Economy is another Sorento forte – the upshot of a variety of measures like tall gearing, relatively good aerodynamics (0.38 is the drag co efficiency rating), an auto with fuel-saving neutral selection when idling in drive, and plenty of body structure weight paring combined with light high-strength steel applications.

We managed a credible 8.6L/100km in urban and city driving, with mid 7s recorded on several open-road runs. Kia’s 6.7 litre combined average claims means that a 1040km range is possible from the 70-litre diesel tank.

However, with little driver involvement dialed into the driving experience, the Sorento totally lacks the Territory’s dynamic finesse.

At normal driving speeds, the steering is light and amply weighted with a well-measured directness for accurate and fuss-free direction changing. A tight turning circle also comes as a pleasant surprise that, along with the good all-round vision and handy parking aids, greatly increases this car’s city friendliness.

Progressive braking power on a wide spread of surfaces is another plus point.

But while the Kia’s centre of gravity may have fallen by 54mm compared with its BL-series predecessor, there is still a curious roly-poly SUV feel about the way this vehicle changes direction if you decide to hurry on a bit. The low-geared steering begins to feel vague and a general sloppiness starts to invade the driving experience.

While not exactly tippy-toed, even on the 18-inch wheels the Sorento feels top heavy, especially at freeway speeds where strong crosswinds will have the driver correcting the wheel to keep the car on course.

Consequently, as this is family transport, slow and steady changes in pace or direction are best, since they suit this SUV’s soft chassis set-up.

So it literally comes as a small shock to learn that the Kia’s ride quality can feel unyielding at times, with a busy and unsettled attitude on everything other than super-smooth surfaces. We did become used to it fairly quickly – and there are good noise suppression measures at work that help here – but the Koreans have yet to master the art of suspension suppleness. The SLi’s big alloys on relatively low-profile tyres don’t help.

But what of the Sorento’s off-road pretensions, you ask?

With a 50/50 front-rear 4WD lock (up to 30km/h), a hill-descent device, a minimum of 184mm round clearance (down from 222mm), a 25.1 degrees approach angle, 23.1 degrees departure angle and ramp-over angle of 17.1 degrees, the Kia is able to handle some intermediate off-road challenges.

However, remember that this is still essentially a 100 per cent front-drive machine built for the bitumen. Only when traction losses are detected does up to 50 per cent of torque travel to the rear wheels.

You will be parting with almost 50 big ones if you choose the Sorento SLi, making this Kia expensive. Balancing things out though (besides the usual five-year warranty) are six airbags, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, stability control, downhill brake control, hill-start assist control, anti-whiplash front seat headrests, filtered dual-zone air-conditioning, cruise control, remote audio controls, trip computer, 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, power windows, remote central locking, electric folding exterior mirrors, rear cargo blind, a reverse camera, sonic parking sensors, leather seats, a powered driver’s seat, roof racks, LED tail-lights, third-row seating vents and fan control and three-flash lane-change indicators.

With the old Sorento having established its credentials as a capable 4x4 machine, we reckon Kia should have conjured up a fresh nameplate since seven-seater wagon buyers may not immediately think of the XM version when considering their next purchase.

Which might be a shame if a family-friendly runabout with good first and second row seating and sufficient third row accommodation appeals to you, then the handsome and spacious Sorento SLi CRDi – with its brilliant diesel drivetrain, five-star safety rating, five-year warranty and long list of standard kit – should be high on your to-test-drive list.

It is not cheap at $46K but there are plenty of features.

At last then, here is a car that can really boost the Kia’s credibility, and also be worthy of the Korean brand’s self-proclaiming emergence.

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