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

Launch Story

23 Oct 2009

FOR the first time in its patchy 13-year history in Australia – and perhaps since the company was formed in 1944 – Kia has the makings of a segment leader in the second-generation Sorento.

And the irony is that the Hyundai-owned South Korean firm has never offered a seven-seater SUV of any size in this country until now.

Seven seaters … Kia … it has form when it comes to creating people carriers, with the highly successful Carnival helping to cement the brand here 10 years ago.

And now the same is true for the XM Sorento in the mid-sized SUV segment, against luminaries such as the Ford Territory, Toyota Kluger, Holden Captiva and Hyundai’s own Santa Fe.

A tall order you may think, but the Kia has a surprise or two up its sleeves that we think will endear this unassuming crossover to more Australians than the rugged old off-roader ever could.

Crossover? Huh? Wasn’t the old Sorento more like a cut-price Prado than a jumped-up Tarago wannabe?

Yes it was, so it’s time to forget what you think you know about the Sorento.

This one, with styling overseen by former Audi designer Peter Schreyer – is a complete departure from the old Hyundai Terracan-derived BL model that found around 9000 buyers in Australia since early 2003.

Just a quick glance at the specs reveals a Sorento sea change – monocoque construction instead of a ladder-on-frame chassis a longer, wider and lower cab-forward body the abolition of a V6 engine (for now) for a duo of four-cylinder units and – perhaps most importantly for the 2000 or so buyers that Kia expects to lure overt the next 12 months – seven seats in lieu of five.

In a nutshell, then, that lumbering old 4x4 feel of the old model has been banished to history (like with 70 per cent of every other mid-sized SUVs now sold in Oz), for a boxy wagon shape that majors in cabin room, occupant comfort, refinement, safety and (whisper it) style.

With a 2+3+2 seat configuration, the Kia conforms to the class norm, but there is ample space for five tall people and a duo of sub-175cm passengers out back, thanks to those square proportions.

The driver sits behind of a contemporary and well-finished dashboard boasting a set of the clearest instruments you are ever likely to experience, and surrounded by sensibly designed and laid-out switches and controls.

Points are scored for a good driving position, aided by a pleasant steering wheel that tilts and telescopes an impressive audio system in the up-spec Platinum model and a fine set of front seats.

Only the headroom-robbing panoramic sunroof (for taller occupants) and the vision-impeding rearmost pillars blight an otherwise fine control centre.

Second-row passengers are well catered for too, with air vents in the pillars, door bins for bits and pieces, and ample space for heads and limbs. The sufficiently supportive 60/40 split/fold backrest has a wide range of angle adjustment is also a bonus.

Kia says it has done all its homework on providing a proper family car conveyance, and this is evident in the easy-access third-row area (all you need do is double-fold the kerb-side middle-row seat), as well as the rear-fan control, face-level vent outlets (on up-spec versions) and probable near class-leading room.

Yes, adults do need to adopt a knees-up posture, but heads aren’t touching the rear glass, while there is room for shoulders and elbows. It’s too bad there isn’t more side window though, because it can feel a tad claustrophobic back there.

But the point is, the XM Sorento rivals some people movers as far as second and third-row accommodation is concerned, so it shapes up as the sort of medium SUV that smaller families could grow in well into the kids’ teenage years.

Of course, using all seven seats does render the boot area virtually useless, but this is not limited to just this particular mid-sized SUV. As a five-seater, however, the Sorento suddenly becomes a commodious wagon.

Kia offers a choice of a 128kW/226Nm 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine mated to an all-new six-speed automatic transmission, or a 145kW/436Nm 2.2-litre common-rail turbo-diesel four-cylinder powerplant driving all four wheels (using an on-demand 4WD system) via a six-speed manual or six-speed auto gearbox.

Not surprisingly, on the rural-roads press launch in southern Queensland, the Kia Motors mob only rolled out the R-series diesel unit for the media to assess – but this is one heck of an impressive four-pot engine.

With a mountain of torque accessible from low revs, and a who’s who (or, rather what’s what) of latest-gen diesel-engine technology to draw upon, this 2199cc CRDi-powered Sorento is quiet, refined and lively.

OK, step-off acceleration is a tad leisurely in the first instance, but acceleration then builds strongly as the diesel revs freely to its 4500rpm red line, helped in the auto by a slick-shifting gearbox.

Considering the two-tonne weight that needs to be hauled, mid-range overtaking manoeuvres can be executed fairly quickly, while cruising along the highway will have diesel sceptics eating their hats, because there is just no way you can tell what type of fuel system the Sorento uses.

Find a corner and the Kia is likely to amaze keener drivers with its communicative and well-weighted steering feel, which translates into neutral, flowing handling characteristics. Could we be talking about a Sorento here? The squat foursquare stance also helps in creating stable roadholding qualities, so we ended up enjoying carving up the big open roads in this crossover. Amazing.

But the really big news is Kia’s economy claims for the 2.2 CRDi unit – 6.7L/100km for the manual and 7.4L/100km for the auto. Carbon dioxide emission levels are an equally impressive 177g/km and 194g/km respectively.

We drove the Sorento quite enthusiastically over both bitumen and gravel roads (which the Kia handled the rough stuff stably and securely), and we achieved 7.7L/100km for the manual and 9.1L/100km for the auto, so decent fuel economy is achievable.

All is not perfect with the Sorento driving experience, however.

We found the manual’s shifter to be long, notchy and quite rubbery in feel, while the auto’s ‘Tiptronic-style’ sequential manual facility is too readily overruled by the ECU so the driver can’t hold on to a gear.

The ride quality on the 17-inch wheeled Si is more absorbent than the rather busy and noisy 18-inch items found on the Platinum model, while there is a fair amount of road-noise intrusion entering the cabin from the rear on the many varying road surfaces we encountered. And what is it with foot-operated park brake pedals on vehicles built in the 21st century?

But none of these issues are deal breakers, because Kia seems to have turned the old Sorento sow’s ear into a silk purse in a single generation.

Kia says the MacPherson strut front suspension/independent multi-link rear suspension set-up and platform is an evolution of the current Santa Fe’s, but the taut, solid feel of the car as a whole suggests a more substantial and enjoyable vehicle to be in and to drive.

Speaking of which, we want to reserve our final judgement until we sample the XM Sorento on more familiar urban and inner-city roads, specifically to see if the ride quality deteriorates or not. And we cannot recommend the petrol version until we try it.

But we can tell you already that the handsome Kia’s thoughtful and practical packaging, pleasant interior presentation, strong driver appeal and brilliant diesel engine application makes for a compelling mid-sized SUV family car contender.

Add keen pricing, long warranty, five-star ENCAP crash test rating (to be a five-star Australian NCAP rating from December 2009 production thanks to a passenger seatbelt reminder system), and a generously long standard features listing, and we reckon the XM Sorento will give Toyota, Ford, Holden, Kia and others a monumental headache.

In diesel guise anyway, the second-generation Sorento is already the best Kia ever, eclipsing even the likeable Soul CRDi.

After 65 years, the Korean car-maker has finally come of age.

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