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First drive: Kia off-roader done with style

Stylish newcomer: The Sorento's styling is one of its strongest points.

Kia chases an image change with the Sorento off-roader

23 Feb 2003

THINK Kia and you probably think of the basic transport it sells at an appealingly low price. The Korean company wants to lift that image both here and internationally, and its new Sorento mid-size off-road five-door wagon is in-the-metal proof of that.

On sale from March 1, the $37,950 Sorento is not only the most expensive model in the Kia lineup here, but also the easiest to understand - just one five-seat wagon powered by a 3.5-litre V6 engine mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.

The drivetrain is also utilised by Kia's owner Hyundai in its similar sized Terracan off-roader, but that's all the two wagons share apparently, with the Sorento all Kia's work from the traditional ladder frame chassis up.

And that includes - happily enough - the quite handsome styling, which is evocative of the Mercedes-Benz ML series with its wrap-over headlights and gracefully angled C-pillar.

The Sorento joins a booming but crowded part of the four-wheel drive market, up against everything from the higher-spec light duty wagons like the Nissan X-Trail, through the Mazda Tribute V6 to such serious off-road names as the Land Rover Discovery and Jeep Cherokee.

Kia is hoping to sell 100 to 150 initially per month, with that total swelling to around 200 once production capacity in Korea improves from around June. Next year there's the chance of a turbo-diesel and possibly a manual gearbox version to swell choice and sales further.

Sales numbers like those wouldn't impress the big movers in the off-road world, which move 1000-plus vehicles a month, but Kia Automotive Australia boss Ric Hull says the Sorento's importance is more than just volume.

"It takes Kia up to a new level in terms of image," he says. "It's important to have some cars up the scale and I think this car takes us up another level.""Up till now we haven't had much of an image," he says frankly. "I think inevitably we are seen as a cheap maker but we would prefer the expression value for money."And there's no doubt the Sorento offers plenty of that. The standard equipment list includes air-conditioning, ABS brakes, dual airbags, cruise control, three power sockets, remote central locking, eight-speaker CD sound system, a rear luggage cover and 16-inch alloy wheels.

Add $1800 for leather trim, $1000 for a sunroof and $190 for metallic paint.

One thing the Sorento does miss out on is a third row seat, something many of its rivals including the Terracan offer.

Mechanical specification kicks off with that quad cam V6 engine that produces 145kW at 5500rpm and a useful 295NM at 3000. Kia claims a top speed of 192km/h but has issued no other performance figures.

Normally a two-wheel drive, the Sorento can be shifted "on the fly" into four-wheel drive high range or low range - while stationary - via a Nissan Pathfinder-style rotating button on the dashboard.

Underpinning the drivetrain is a traditional off-roader ladder-type chassis, double wishbone front suspension and five link rear-end. Brakes are discs all-round, while the rack and pinion steering is a speed-sensitive type.

The body cloaking all this measures up well against its rivals, being longer and wider - at 4567mm and 1863mm - than the Jeep Cherokee or Tribute, while its 1580mm track is wider than luxury off-roaders from Benz or BMW as well as the Ford Explorer. Height is 1810mm including the standard rood racks.

Kia claims more than one metre of legroom in the front and more than one metre of headroom in both front and rear seats.

Boot space, which is accessed via the vertically opening open-piece rear door which includes a wind down window, is 900 litres with the 60:40 split-fold rear seats upright. Flip and fold the bench down and that expands to 1900 litres, including an under-floor storage area. One neat touch is the installation of the spare tyre under the floor so it neither obscures the rear view or eats into luggage space.

One measurement which isn't quite so attractive is the 2027kg kerb weight. Kia hasn't issued fuel consumption figures but you just know that with a 3.5-litre petrol auto hauling along more than two tonnes the result isn't going to be pretty.


AFTER driving the Sorento we're left wondering why Kia chose to go down the ladder frame route for this wagon. Yes, this design is a traditional choice for hard-core off-roading, providing superior wheel travel for tackling the real rough stuff.

But the Sorento isn't likely to be the choice of the gung-ho cliff climbers, particularly as there is no option of a diff lock.

Why point all this out? Because ladder frame vehicles can lack the sophisticated ride and handling tuneability of a car-type monocoque chassis. Just sample the capabilities of the monocoque Mitsubishi Pajero if you don't believe us.

Then drive the Sorento. It's not bad, it's just not that good either. Bumps, ruts and potholes on bitumen or dirt tend to get the body wobbling, the rear end skipping and transmit too much shock back into the cabin.

Even on smooth surfaces there's a jostling coming back from the suspension that suggest damping and spring rates have not been not fully resolved for Australia's challenging combination of surfaces.

The speed-sensitive steering was also a touch disconcerting - very light at town speeds and then suddenly too heavy as speeds built up on country roads.

The drivetrain was a star by comparison. Both engine and auto transmission date their life history back to Mitsubishi and courtesy of Magna we know how good they can be.

Despite the significant weight that has to be hauled, engine and transmission set about the job cordially. There's no harshness and few thumping shifts as you flatten the throttle looking for more urge. The response to this demand is hardly startling though. Momentum grows, but you can feel the weight hurting performance.

Inside the Sorento is blandly presented but efficient enough with a plethora of cupholders, power points and storage areas and bins to satisfy anyone. Space for adults is good front and rear. Four should be able to travel comfortably enough and take their luggage as well. The fifth passenger gets the less comfy centre rear position and a lap-only safety belt.

Overall, the Sorento impresses in some regards and not in others. Style, equipment, drivetrain and price are the positives, while weight, performance and chassis behaviour cause it to be marked down.

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