First Drive: 2011 Kia Sorento

For the gift of this global recession, Kia should be singing in the streets.

For the gift of this global recession, Kia should be singing in the streets. While others have endured bankruptcy, brand dismemberment, and double-digit declines, Kia's sales and market share are up for 2009. But don't give all the credit to the Koreans' value image. The automaker has also been steadily feeding new -- and substantially improved -- products into the market. The 2011 Sorento is the company's latest effort and, like the Soul and Forte before it, this fresh crossover puts Kia into the mainstream mix.

Save for the name, the Sorrento is genuinely new from the ground up. A unibody architecture replaces the old body-on-frame design, and the optional four-wheel drive is now ready to step in at any time rather than waiting for the driver to switch it on. The two V-6s from last year have been replaced with new four- and six-cylinder engines. And an optional third row provides seating flexibility for occasional kid-shuttling duty.

In rain-swollen Georgia, we piloted a front-wheel drive V-6 Sorento between downtown Atlanta and West Point, where the crossover will be built at Kia's new $1 billion manufacturing facility. Immediately, we noticed the Sorento's solid chassis and well-tuned suspension that dismisses road imperfections adeptly without being too soft or too harsh. The Sorento also packs a new 273-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 that delivers smooth and linear acceleration. The 2.4-liter in-line four makes 172 hp but will likely only deliver a 1 mpg improvement in highway and city driving.

A six-speed manual is fitted to the base car, but almost all buyers will end up with the six-speed automatic. In most situations, the automatic transmission works well, however we found it reluctant to shift a few times. On the highway, when looking for a six-to-four downshift, we prodded the accelerator without response until finally the Sorento produced a dramatic, abrupt shift to third gear. Steering, braking, and handling, however, are all drama free.

The interior is comfortable, with supportive seats and logical controls. The middle row provides adequate legroom and the seatback angle is adjustable. Although the materials are on par with competitors, Kia hasn't perfected the finer details of texture, graining, and finishes. There's an abundance of matte black plastic where other automakers would inject a touch of style. Frankly, stepping up the interiors one more notch appears to be Kia's last major hurdle.

Kia's steady improvement in vehicle dynamics and quality has been an evolution, but the change in styling is a radical mutation. At the hand of former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, the vehicles have gone from pragmatic to passionate, with a recognizable family look. The Sorento is no exception. Where the last model was dull and derivative, this new crossover has its own personality. On top of a very capable vehicle, the design-not the price tag-adds a compelling reason to consider the Sorento. And that's something Kia should sing about.

On sale: January
Price: $26,000 (est.)
Engine: 3.5L V-6, 273 hp, 247 lb-ft
Drive: Front-wheel

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