First Drive: 2014 Kia Sorento

2014-kia-sorento

As any hot rodder knows, it's easier to improve something that started out very slow than to eke a little more performance out of something that's already been heavily tweaked. Kia faces an analogous challenge with the 2014 Sorento. Just three years ago, the Korean automaker transformed the Sorento from a blase body-on-frame truck to a competitive mid-size crossover -- it is now Kia's second best-selling vehicle behind the Optima. With the 2014 Sorento, we'll see whether Kia can improve even more on a good thing.

New platform
Kia says the Sorento is more than merely updated, boasting that 80 percent of its parts are new or redesigned. To see most of those parts, however, you'd need to put the vehicle on a lift. The Sorento has moved to a new platform, so it has different underbody stampings and different suspension mounting points. It's both stronger and lighter than before thanks to the increased use of high-strength steel. Kia expects this to help the crossover achieve a five-star crash-test rating (versus the current four stars) and promises all-around ride and handling improvements.

This is a significant and unusual change for a three-year old vehicle, but it makes sense when you learn that the Sorento's recently redesigned cousin, the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, already rides on this platform and is built in the same Georgia factory. Moving the Sorento onto this platform eliminates the need for redundant tooling.

Same shell
The new underpinnings don't change the wheelbase, so Kia did not have to modify the body beyond what we'd normally expect from a mid-cycle refresh. The front and rear fascias, formerly a bit dull and dumpy by modern Kia standards, now look more upscale. Kia's trademark tiger-nose grille is bolder and more pronounced, and wider taillights feature LEDs. The upper trim levels get LEDs in front along with xenon projectors. These flashy touches mix well with the Sorento's restrained, relatively boxy shape. Like the smaller Sportage, the Sorento now looks decidedly more expensive than its competitors.

That impression unfortunately fades when we climb inside. Kia designers have told us they're making a concerted effort to improve interior materials quality, but that effort is not yet evident in the Sorento. The plastics still look and feel cheap for a vehicle that in most trims costs more than $30,000, and the standard leather still feels more like vinyl (the top-of-the-line SX-L features higher-grade Nappa leather). That money does buy an impressive assortment of technological goodies. Upper-level models like the SX we drove feature LCD screens in the center stack and gauge cluster, heated first- and second-row seats (seats for the driver and front passenger are cooled as well), a panoramic sunroof, blind-spot warning, and a ten-speaker Infinity sound system. The Sorento also introduces the newest iteration of Kia's infotainment system, which it calls UVO eServices. That's a bad name, but it's good technology; the touchscreen is nicely laid out, and there are some neat new features such as Google maps integration, which allows you to send directions from your phone or computer before climbing into the car. A power liftgate, noticeably absent on the old Sorento, is also available.

The Sorento wisely still offers an optional third row, a rarity among mid-size crossovers. The new platform yields slightly more room back there, but we still consider the third row just-in-case or just-for-kids seating, especially since it takes up most of the cargo bay. Fold the seats flat with the pull of a cord, and the Sorento's rear hold opens up to an impressive 36.9 cubic feet of cargo volume (it increases to 72.5 with the second row folded). Those who plan on carrying around six or seven passengers on a regular basis should consider a full-size crossover like the long-wheelbase version of the Santa Fe.

Fewer engines, more power
Given that the Sorento has moved to the same platform as the new Santa Fe Sport, we're somewhat surprised to see that it offers a different engine. Whereas Hyundai eliminated its V-6 in favor of a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, Kia is offering a 3.3-liter V-6 as its top engine. Should gas prices spike, Kia may regret passing up the turbo four and its estimated 2-mpg advantage in fuel economy (18/25 mpg city/highway for the front-wheel-drive Sorento V-6 versus 20/27 mpg for the Santa Fe). Still, we can't say we disagree with Kia's assumption that people buying a vehicle this large and expensive want the refinement of a V-6. Indeed, the 290-hp 3.3-liter is smooth and doesn't sound strained even as it hauls our well-equipped all-wheel-drive Sorento down the highway at 90 mph. At the other end of the spectrum, Kia has eliminated last year's base four-cylinder, leaving only a direct-injected 2.4-liter four that produces 191 hp. Both engines are paired, as before, with a six-speed automatic. Kia did not have any four-cylinder models on hand, but we've driven a 2013 model with this engine and found it sufficient -- barely.

Even with the stiffer new platform and a powerful engine, the Sorento is no athlete. Its competent handling compares closely to those of midsize crossovers like the Ford Edge and, of course, the Santa Fe Sport. It doesn't help that the Sorento now has electric, rather than hydraulic, power steering, although upper-level models take a stab at sportiness by offering three levels of steering effort. Unlike many such setups, the differences among the modes are easily discernable. In the most aggressive mode (Sport), the Sorento's wheel has BMW X5-like heft. Alas, that weight doesn't seem to correspond with what the front tires are actually experiencing -- as in most Hyundais and Kias, it feels particularly artificial just off center -- so we'd just leave it in Normal or Comfort mode. Those looking for something a bit more entertaining should consider smaller competitors like the Mazda CX-5 or Kia's own Sportage.

Conclusion: Pretty much what meets the eye
The 2014 Kia Sorento has a lot more going on under the skin than a mere refresh, but the net effect is that the changes are still evolutionary rather than revolutionary: the Sorento both looks and drives a bit better and has a few more features on the options list. We'll have to wait a few more years for the full redesign, when we hope to see a more significantly improved interior and -- we can dream -- more engaging steering and handling. In the meantime, the Sorento should continue to stand out in its segment for its above-average style and value.

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