2011 Kia Sorento

Welcome to the mainstream, Kia Sorento, it’s crowded but I’m sure you’ll make some space.

The previous Kia Sorento was an outlier. Late—very late—to the SUV party, it looked all modern and with-it on the outside, but underneath it was a body-on-frame truck, just like the old-school pickup-based SUVs. That gave it clumsy handling and lousy gas mileage even though it was rather compact in size.

The new one makes a clean break with its past. Kia says no parts are shared. To minimize potential confusion between the two, the company even skipped a model year, so the last old Sorento is the 2009 model and the new one is a 2011.

The new Sorento moves into the heart of the popular and burgeoning mid-size crossover class, which is fast becoming the to go-to reservoir for Americans seeking family transport. No surprise, then, that Kia selected the Sorento to be the first product assembled at the company’s first-ever U.S. factory, in Georgia.

The new version ditches the old, body-on-frame layout for a new, unibody design (the chassis is shared with the Hyundai Santa Fe). The Sorento has switched to front/all-wheel drive, which is the template for this class, and offers a choice of four-cylinder or V-6 power. Larger than before, it’s almost edging out of the compact class, kind of like the Chevy Equinox and the Toyota RAV4. Like the latter, the Sorento now offers the option of a third-row seat. (Interestingly, corporate-sibling Hyundai has dropped that option from the Santa Fe, due to a low take rate.)

My test example had the four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, a combination rated at 21/29 mpg, which is respectable, if a bit short of the Equinox’s 22/32 mpg EPA numbers. With 175 hp and 169 lb-ft of torque, the Kia 2.4-liter has no trouble moving this sizable SUV along, but the engine is rather noisy and coarse-sounding doing so. Those seeking an extra measure of refinement might check out the V-6, which adds a lot more power (276 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque) at a relatively small penalty in gas mileage (20/26 mpg, with front-wheel drive), if a rather more significant one in cost at $2600, although that does include the third-row seat.

For most people, the decision between front- or all-wheel drive will be based on the climate in which they live, but consider also that even on dry pavement my front-wheel-drive Sorento would occasionally spin its front wheels when I attempted to pull out quickly into traffic, causing the traction control to squelch the power and making for a slow take-off.

Whereas the old car leaned heavily in turns, the new Sorento remains relatively flat, and its hydraulically assisted steering also is pleasantly weighted. The suspension, however, could use more compliance, because over broken pavement the Sorento’s ride is somewhat brittle for a family hauler.

The Sorento is a relatively spacious five-seater; my test car didn’t have the third-row option. Controls are fairly simple and a rear-view camera is standard on the top-spec EX. Leather seats, however, will cost you another $1500 for the Premium package; my car’s two-tone black-and-tan upholstery looked snazzy but felt pretty industrial-grade as did the stuff on the steering wheel and shift lever.

Unlike its predecessor, the new Sorento has no obvious failings, but neither does it really excel in any one area—and that includes price, where you might expect a Kia to be dramatically cheaper than its competitors. The $25,590 base sticker (optioned up to $29,340 with leather, navigation, and a few minor items) for my four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive EX is competitive but not a screaming bargain. So, too is the Sorento’s overall price spread, which ranges from $20,790 for a stick-shift, base-model to $29,690 for a four-wheel-drive EX V-6. In all areas then, the Sorento swims solidly in the mainstream, but that’s far better than being an outlier.

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