Until now, Kia has specialized in basic, entry-level transportation. For shoppers looking at Spectra sedans and Sedona minivans, pragmatic factors such as value and functionality rule over emotional variables such as image and perceived performance. But the new Sorento is targeting the mid-size sport-utility market, where all too often rational thought is overruled by impulse and emotion.
For their entry, the Koreans wisely benchmarked the progenitor of the category, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. For years, the Grand Cherokee defined the mid-size SUV. Today, the Jeep has been eclipsed by newer, more sophisticated offerings, yet it's still popular enough to sell more than 200,000 per year.
The Sorento is remarkably similar to the Grand Cherokee. The two vehicles have similar profiles and proportions, with no more than a two-inch difference in wheelbase, length, height, and width. Interior accommodations are also similar, with five seats and 138 cubic feet of interior space. The Kia's fit and finish are better than the Jeep's, however.
Like the Grand Cherokee, the Sorento is equipped for use on and off the pavement. The Sorento rides on a new, ladder-frame chassis that executives hint could spawn a Kia pickup variant. The sole powertrain is a 192-horsepower V-6 with a four-speed automatic. Rear-wheel drive is standard, while part-time four-wheel drive and a more sophisticated full-time four-wheel-drive torque-transfer system are options. To increase the Sorento's off-road credibility, both four-wheel-drive models come with a low-range transfer case and skid plates.
A brief stint across the fire roads outside Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, proved that the Sorento is nimble and sure-footed. The route was too tame to tickle the skid plates, much less to determine if the Sorento matches the Jeep's off-road prowess.
However, returning to the resort town on mountain highways, the Sorento definitely had the upper hand. The Sorento's V-6 is smooth and civil all the way to its 5500-rpm power peak. Gear changes are as clean as an Irish spring, and the gearing masks most of the Sorento's power deficit. Steering is more linear and has a better feel than the Jeep's. Finally, the Sorento's suspension is far more civilized, stifling impacts and controlling body roll.
Still not convinced? Well, the base Sorento LX starts at $19,995, with air conditioning, a CD player, power windows and door locks, cruise control, and side curtain air bags. A fancy Sorento EX, with a power sunroof, a power driver's seat, keyless entry, plus four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes, is $25,115. The comparable Grand Cherokee Laredo tops $30,000.
Of course, the Kia lacks Jeep's lovingly cultivated image and off-road reputation. But saving a cool $5000 should sway quite a few buyers, no matter how irrational they are.