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2009 Kia Borrego

Evan McCauslandphotographers

Let's clear the air: we get that the sudden drop in large SUV sales casts the launch of the 2009 Kia Borrego in a questionable light. But when work began on the body-on-frame utility nearly four years back, truck sales in the U.S. totaled 9.6 million units and were predicted to increase each year until 2009. We can't blame Kia for wanting a piece of that pie.

That pie certainly is smaller today, but there are still consumers who want, if not need, to sidle up to an SUV. Commuters may not find solace in the truck-like capacities (and a voracious thirst for fuel), but there are buyers who actively tow, venture off the beaten path, and need to carry more than five passengers in comfort. For those folks, an SUV may still be the ideal vehicle - and Kia hopes the Borrego will be their ideal choice.

The Borrego isn't Kia's first venture into the world of body-on-frame sport utilities, but it is their biggest. The new truck towers over the mid-size, body-on-frame Sorento, although it's not what we'd call a true full-size SUV. Measuring in at 192" long and riding on a 114" wheelbase, the Borrego's stature is closer to that of a Dodge Durango or Ford Explorer than that of the Chevrolet Tahoe or Ford Expedition.

The new SUV, however, is Kia's first foray into V-8 engines. Although both EX and LX trim levels come standard with the 276-hp 3.8-liter V-6, a 4.6-liter DOHC V-8 is optional fare. Both engines are also found in near-identical forms within Hyundai's Genesis sedan, although the V-8 curiously produces less power in the Borrego. Kia rates the V-8 at 337 hp and 323 lb-ft of torque, down nearly 38 hp and 10 lb-ft of torque from its Genesis counterpart.

Drivers used to engines with gobs of low-end torque will need to adapt to Kia's V-8; the 4.6-liter begs to be revved, with peak torque kicking in at 3200 rpm. Sure enough, we can feel the engine really come alive somewhere between 3000 and 4000 rpm, and the Borrego - all 4900 lbs of our V-8 tester - suddenly sprints forward. This may prove to be an issue for those who intend to use all of the V-8 Borrego's 7900 lbs of towing capacity, but isn't worrisome for those who rarely mash on the throttle.

Our pre-production V-8 EX model came with a six-speed automatic transmission, standard on all models equipped with the 4.6-liter engine (six-cylinder models sport a five-speed auto). Power was split to all four wheels via a part-time transfer case, but we're told by Kia this won't make its way to customers. Instead, look for a full-time Torque-on-Demand four-wheel-drive system (similar to that in the Sorento) as standard equipment on 4x4 models. The combination is said to return 15 city/22 highway mpg; we averaged an indicated 17 mpg over a mixture of city and highway driving.

Mating the V-8 and six-speed leaves little to be desired; upshifts and downshifts occur smoothly and with little lag time. Although we didn't have a chance to trailer anything, in everyday driving, the transmission doesn't hunt around. We did notice a considerable amount of whine from the transmission during low-speed cruising, usually at around 35 mph in third or fourth gear. The noise seemed to go away once the Borrego hit 50 mph or so, but it was boisterous during brief jaunts around town.

Perhaps more refined was the Borrego's ride and handling. Albeit fairly smooth over most surfaces, there was no mistaking the Borrego for anything other than a body-on-frame truck. Dreams that the SUV will ride like a car are quickly broken on poor road surfaces, although many of the secondary vibrations typically found in similar SUVs are noticeably reduced - certainly thanks in part to the use of independent rear suspension. We were pleasantly surprised to see that, in spite of a fair amount of body roll, the Borrego handled corners quite well, displaying quick turn-in and well-weighted steering.

We were also surprised to find how well the Borrego was suited to long, high-speed cruising. During a weekend filled with highway travel, the cabin remained well insulated from the outside world. We scarcely noticed any wind noise, and even sounds from loud sources (e.g. motorcycles, semi trucks, the Borrego's own horn) were considerably muted to those inside.

Speaking of passengers, all Borregos - regardless of trim level - are fully capable of seating eight across three rows. We loaded our tester with several full-size adults, and even those in the third row found a reasonable amount of headroom and legroom, provided the second row was slid forward a smidge.

Drivers will find their cockpit to be cleanly laid out, with large, legible instrumentation straight ahead and controls that easily come to hand. We questioned the position of some switchgear (the temperature control's position is a bit unusual), but we were impressed with their solid feel. Overall fit and finish was good, although we caught a few rough edges on the top of the center stack.

Perhaps equally clean is the Borrego's exterior, although it may not be extremely memorable. While evocative of Kia's 2005 Mesa concept, many of the design cues seem lifted from other manufacturers. Few bystanders turned their heads for a second look; those that did found the Borrego resembled a "butch" Subaru Tribeca from the front. We certainly see that, as do we note some resemblance to a host of Nissan SUVs - perhaps most notably the Armada - from the rear.

Still, Kia keeps exterior appearances tasteful, with chrome accents on select surfaces and restrained use of argent-colored cladding. The sunset metallic paint on our tester was virtually flawless; coupled with tight gaps between body panels, the look was that of a more expensive vehicle - certainly not that of a $30,000 vehicle.

Such bang-for-the-buck may well be how the Borrego wins over most customers. LX models include cruise control; power windows, locks and mirrors; roof rails; a hitch receiver; an MP3-capable stereo with USB and auxiliary inputs; stability and traction control; front side and full curtain airbags - among many other features - as standard equipment. And at $26,245 (excluding destination), we'd say that's very well equipped.

Even our test vehicle, which didn't seem to lack anything we could imagine, should ring in somewhere around $32, 995. Even if it had arrived with every option package Kia plans to offer, we likely wouldn't see the price go beyond $40,000. That's not something we can say about either the Dodge Durango or Ford Explorer, both serious competitors in the Borrego's playing field.

Rag on the launch timing all you want, but given the Borrego's mixture of comfort, capability and value, we expect it to find buyers when it goes on sale this summer - no matter how dirty a word "SUV" is these days.