There's a new Kia Sorento in town. Ryan Bubear attended the local launch and sampled both the entry-level 2.4 LS and the range-topping 2.2 CRDi SX AWD...
In the past decade or so, Kia Motors has undergone a remarkable transformation. The catalyst largely responsible for this change in fortunes? A certain Peter Schreyer.
Yes, the well-known German automotive designer — famous for penning the iconic Audi TT, amongst others — was snapped up by the Korean automaker back in 2006, as the brand sought growth through head-turning design.
The strategy worked wonders for the Seoul-based manufacturer, and virtually every member of the modern Schreyer-designed passenger car line-up continues to hold the buying public's attention thanks to a generous dollop of distinctive exterior styling.
But as fetching as Kia's products tend to appear in the metal, they generally lag behind more traditionally upmarket rivals in areas other than design (such as interior quality and on-road refinement). And Kia believes the all-new, third-generation Sorento addresses these concerns — so strongly, in fact, that the Korean brand reckons it can even stand toe-to-toe with the premium manufacturers.
So, can it? Well, that's a tougher question to answer than one might think, since the rather polished range-topping Sorento feels worlds apart from the somewhat scruffier base model. But the fact that this large SUV topped its segment in the 2015 JD Power Initial Quality Study in the US — with the brand as a whole beating all-comers bar Porsche — tells a story of its own.
The local range comprises four derivatives, including a new base model that employs an anything-but-new 2.4-litre petrol engine. While this five-seater LS variant certainly provides an attractively priced entry point to the range (the outgoing line-up lacked a petrol), it pales in comparison to its diesel-powered siblings.
The 2359cc petrol four-pot generates 127kW at 6000rpm and a modest 225Nm at a lofty 4000rpm, sending drive to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox that requires plenty of stirring when faced with any sort of incline. In short, it's not the most inspiring — or relaxing — variant to drive, due mostly to its lack of low-down torque.
The remaining three models — two of which boast seven seats and all-wheel drive — draw their urge from a 2.2-litre turbo-diesel mill carried over from the second-generation Sorento. But this 147kW oil-burner has come in for a raft of smart updates, with its peak torque figure increasing by a handful of units to a healthy 440Nm. More importantly, though, this oomph is now spread thickly across a wider rev-range (from 1750rpm to 2750rpm), which makes it even more useable in everyday driving.
It's also noticeably more refined, transmitting very little diesel-chatter into the cabin even under hard acceleration (plenty of new soundproofing materials certainly help here as well). The six-speed automatic transmission, meanwhile, is well matched to the engine, shifting fairly swiftly, smoothly and pleasingly intuitively. With "Sport" mode engaged, the hefty SUV will even sprint to 100km/h in less than ten seconds.
Thanks to a few suspension tweaks, the boldly styled Sorento also delivers a relatively plush ride — even on the flagship's 19-inch wheels — while the surprisingly direct steering is one of Kia's better efforts. And, despite tipping the scales at almost 2000kg, the all-wheel drive version (which, even with a locking function, isn't a serious off-roader) feels nothing short of utterly stable through high-speed bends. And it stops pretty sharply, too.
Of course, generous cabin space has always been one of the Sorento's chief strengths. And the new model — having grown in length by 95mm to 4780mm — continues this tradition. With a wheelbase some 80mm longer than its predecessor, this chunky SUV serves up plenty of room for both people and things.
In seven-seater guise, the second row of three seats is particularly spacious, although the final row of two perches is somewhat more cramped and leaves the boot with just 142 litres of packing space. Still, this pair of seats can be folded flat, increasing luggage capacity to a far more useful 605 litres (the five-seater, meanwhile, betters this with an always available 660 litres).
So, to the burning question: does the new Sorento feel "premium" enough on the inside? Well, Kia bills the third-gen SUV as a "watershed model" for its interior design crew. And, in SX guise, it certainly raises the bar, thanks to its smart layout, generous equipment level, and swathes of quality leather.
But some of the materials used aren't particularly easy on the eye (even if they're largely tactilely agreeable), and the dinky 4.3-inch colour touchscreen — as well as the even smaller display in the base models — already seems somewhat dated. Still, Kia Motors South Africa says a larger, crisper touchscreen (with sat-nav) will soon be available as an option, something we believe will make a vast difference to the cabin.
Of course, one area in which Kia undoubtedly trumps the big guns is in terms of standard equipment. In fact, the mid-range EX model perhaps represents the best value, offering items such as dual-zone air-conditioning (with rear controls), a six-speaker audio system (with USB and aux), Bluetooth, a USB charging point for rear passengers, a reversing camera, electrically adjustable (and heated/ventilated) front seats, automatic HID headlights, front fog-lights (with a cornering function), LED daytime running lights, and keyless entry.
The SX model adds a blind-spot detection system, a panoramic sunroof, and a power tailgate with the ability to open automatically when the key is in close proximity (thankfully preceded by an audible warning). Worth the R35k premium? We're not so sure.
In terms of safety, the entry-level models oddly feature just two airbags, while the higher-spec variants boast a far more acceptable six, as well as electronic stability control, vehicle stability management, and hill-start assist. ABS (with EBD) and IsoFix child-seat anchors, meanwhile, are standard across the range, as is a full-size spare wheel.
Kia currently sells around 100 Sorento units a month in South Africa, but hopes to double this figure with the introduction of the new model, which targets everything from mainstream ladder-frame SUVs (like the Toyota Fortuner and Chevrolet Trailblazer) to direct rivals such as the Hyundai Santa Fe. And, of course, a few premium SUVs, too.
So, while it still boasts (arguably even more) distinctive Schreyer-inspired looks, the new Kia Sorento has clearly also moved forward in terms of both overall refinement and interior quality.
The diesel-powered, all-wheel drive derivatives are particularly compelling packages — even if they can't quite match the best premium offerings — and are certainly capable of cajoling owners of far posher vehicles into the driver's seat.
Ultimately, the new Sorento is another massive step in the right direction for Kia.
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See page two for specs and pricing.