AUSTRALIA is addicted to SUVs — they are our new family cars and we simply can’t buy enough of them.
Mums and dads love these “faux-wheel-drives”, even if they never plan to leave suburbia, because they’re perceived as escape machines.
Competition for buyers is fierce and if you’re an emerging brand like Kia — Hyundai’s smaller sibling — you have to over-deliver if you want to be perceived as an equal.
The latest Kia Sorento is new from the wheels up. Previous models, although sound, were a mishmash of older Hyundai underbodies.
This time Kia gets the new threads, and Hyundai is playing catch-up. No hand-me-downs here and the improvements clearly show.
Designed primarily for the US market, the Sorento is bigger in every dimension but the biggest gains have been in quality and refinement. The interior — including super-softtouch material on the dashboard, console and door trims, the gloss black and alloylook cabin highlights — would have once made BMW proud.
Kia covers all aspects of functionality. So all four doors get auto-up power windows and the sun visors extend to block sun from the side or near the rear view mirror.
The reversing camera (standard on every model) now has lines that swivel with the steering, so you know where the car will end up.
Parking sensors front and rear make it easier to squeeze into tight spaces and the turning circle is 11.1 metres, on par with some passenger cars.
There are eight cup holders for seven seats, three 12V sockets (two front, one rear) and USB ports front and rear.
Airconditioning vents extend to the third row of seats and access to the back bench (still for kids only) is easier now the second row tilts and slides in one movement.
The side curtain airbags extend to the third row (in many three-row SUVs, they don’t — we’re looking at you Ford Territory and Holden Captiva).
A large digital speed display in the middle of the analog instruments will help in not getting pinged and there is a full-size alloy spare in the boot. There’s not much Kia hasn’t thought about — including touchscreen navigation as standard on all models.
There are three models, Si, SLi and Platinum, ranging in price from $40,990 to $55,990 plus on-road costs. The dearer models gain a larger navigation screen, 10-speaker audio, digital instrument cluster, tinted rear windows, auto tailgate, sensor key, leather trim and roof rails.
The flagship Platinum gets all the bling: engine stop-start, high intensity headlights, LED tail-lights, sunroof, 19-inch alloys and the full safety suite, including radar cruise control, blind spot warning, rear crosstraffic alert and lane departure warning.
ON THE ROAD
Petrol models are front-drive only and the diesel variants have on-demand all-wheeldrive (the rear wheels get power only when sensors detect a loss of traction).
We start our test-drive with the price-leader, the petrol Si at $40,990. First impressions? Stunned by the quietness.
Kia has loaded the Sorento with sound deadening behind the dash and under the floor; it even has felt-lined wheel arches to reduce road roar in the dry and water-spray noise in the wet. Kumho tyres on 17-inch wheels have big juicy sidewalls to soak up most bumps, thumps and noise.
The steering feel, finetuned locally across the range, is OK but not class-leading. It’ll do the commuter work with little effort and that matters most.
Next up, the SLi diesel (this grade is also available with a petrol engine) and another welcome surprise.
The clatter of the 2.2-litre turbo diesel is muted, as is the road noise from Hankook tyres on 18-inch wheels.
I’m not normally a fan of diesels — especially for city and suburban driving where fuel economy benefits are marginal — but it’s the pick of the two. That said, the V6 is a smooth operator, is more than willing and able and is also $4500 cheaper than the diesel from the kick-off.
On average annual driving distance, it would take at least 10 years to pay off the diesel’s price premium in fuel savings. The oiler is better suited if you plan to tow or do plenty of freeway driving.
Last up is the Platinum and, unusually for a flagship, it’s noisier than the others — perhaps due to the (relatively) low profile 19-inch tyres making more road noise. The upside is that it steers a little more sharply.
The Sorento is a massive leap forward for the class and the brand but doesn’t steer as sharply as a Ford Territory.
With a bit of homework, Kia could have a class leader. Its seven-year warranty should get an honourable mention — it’s the best coverage in the business.