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One Week With: 2019 Kia Sorento SXL AWD

A balancing act worth checking out

Arthur St. Antoinewriter, photographer

Having recently driven the new three-row Volkswagen Atlas SUV, when the opportunity arose on a business trip to Michigan, I was curious to try a rival from almost halfway across the planet: the revised-for-2019 Kia Sorento. Both are mid-sizers and both offer three rows of seating, but there the similarities between the two machines mostly end.

The 2019 Sorento, available now, has been freshened with a new, more aggressive front fascia (including, on my top-model SXL—or "SX Limited"—edition, standard LED headlamps), a revised tail with a redesigned hands-free power tailgate, an updated interior with improved materials, a new 8-speed automatic transmission, and such new active-safety features as lane-keep assist.

This Kia is a neatly chiseled and attractive rig, its athletic looks enhanced by the standard 19-inch chrome alloys that come standard on the SXL. The engine is a 3.3-liter V-6 coupled with the new 8-speed; the two additional cogs over the previous transmission make for improved torque delivery and responsiveness. While front-drive is standard on the SXL, my tester was equipped with the optional all-wheel drive system that features a locking center diff, which is available for $1,800.

Compared with the top-model VW Atlas V-6 SEL Premium 4-Motion ($49,665), the Sorento SXL is roughly on par luxury-wise but boasts a lower base sticker ($47,480). Standard features on the Kia include Nappa leather hides; dual-zone climate control; an 8-inch touchscreen with nav, surround-view monitor, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration; wireless charging; heated and ventilated front seats; keyless entry with pushbutton start; a bounty of active safety features; and a panoramic moonroof. The only options on my tester were a few minor convenience items (such as a rear cargo net). The Sorento SXL includes everything you could want as standard.

The Sorento cockpit is a handsome space full of rich materials that feel pleasing to the touch (including a heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel). My tester's seats were trimmed in an attractive, contrasting Terracotta color, while the dash wore a pebble finish and aluminum accents.

Despite absolutely bursting with tech (rear-view camera, rear cross-traffic warning, forward collision-avoidance with pedestrian detection, driver-configurable vehicle modes), the Sorento's cockpit is straightforward and extremely user-friendly. The climate controls are mounted below the touchscreen and feature conventional buttons and dials (a very welcome layout), the steering wheel's myriad switches are clearly marked and easy to operate, and the touchscreen is lively, outfitted with smartly designed menus, and, surrounding the screen, hard buttons for quick access to the various sub-systems. For once I was able to enjoy the tech this vehicle offered without cursing or burying my nose into the owner's manual. Well done.

The Sorento is on the smaller size of its class, especially compared with the Atlas (which is almost ten inches longer). Yes, there are three rows available, but you wouldn't want to put anyone but a small child all the way back there on long trips. Cargo room with the second and third rows folded down is 73.0 cubic feet, compared with 96.8 cubic feet in the considerably larger Atlas. That said, the Kia's trim dimensions will likely prove a plus for many buyers who don't want to deal with a bigger machine but do need seven seats every now and then. The Sorento offers options that similarly sized two-row SUVs don't.

This is a genteel vehicle, the V-6 smooth and brawny, the 8-speed adept at serving up polished gear changes, and the ride agreeably plush. You wouldn't call the Sorento a "driver's" SUV—it's simply too relaxed to compete in that regard with, say, the Mazda CX-9—but 90 percent of buyers likely won't care. What they'll notice instead is the Kia's refinement, quiet, and predictable road manners (Torque Vectoring Cornering Control, standard on the SXL AWD, helps improve front-end bite when yaw sensors detect the onset of understeer). Switching the drive mode selector into Sport enhances throttle response somewhat, but I found myself completely content to leave the switch in Eco most of the time. The Sorento feels optimized for poise over moves.

I should make note of the newly available Harmon-Kardon premium audio system (standard on the SXL). Boasting 630 watts, ten speakers, QuantumLogic Surround Sound, and Clari-Fi (which improves the quality of compressed digital music files), the system will rock your world if you're in the mood. I usually was.

Though admittedly not as roomy as some competitors, the new Kia Sorento comes across as well-sized and perfectly appointed for the vast majority of buyers. Most of the time you'll appreciate the ease of guiding a trimmer SUV through traffic—plus the abundant on-board amenities—but when the need arises, those two third-row seats flip right up in a blink.

"Balanced." That's what this Kia is. And while balancing acts aren't easy, the updated Sorento pulls it off almost without effort. That's a true pro at work.

2019 Kia Sorento SXL AWD Specifications

PRICE $47,480/$48,020 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 3.3L DOHC 24-valve V-6/290 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 252 lb-ft @ 5,200 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 19/24 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 189.0 x 74.4 x 66.5 in
WHEELBASE 109.4 in
WEIGHT 4,350 lb
0-60 MPH 7.5 sec
TOP SPEED 120 mph