It's an all-change season for the Sorento. In hitting the maximum reset button, Kia has given the Gen II iteration a comprehensive makeover that moves it from the ranks of conventional SUV into unambiguous crossover territory. Along with that carefully calculated swerve into the people-pampering lane, the 2011 Sorento -- yes, there will be no 2010 Sorento -- also becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen. Starting in November, the first Kia vehicle to be made in America will start rolling out of a new $1.2-billion manufacturing facility in West Point, Georgia. We ponder both points while slipping behind the wheel of some preproduction models and heading down I-85 from rain-ravaged Atlanta to see what this recasting effort has really accomplished and to tour its nascent home base.

Subtle but meaningful tweaks to the 2011 Sorento's proportions yield big gains on the visual and functional fronts. Sleeker sheetmetal previewed in the KND-4 Concept boasts more pronounced edge-and-wedge flair accentuated by a "flying wing" side scallop and a far bolder front fascia with a dramatically reshaped "Schreyer line" grille/headlamp treatment that design chief Peter Schreyer is establishing as a Kia signature cue. At the rear, a large single-piece liftgate serves as the centerpiece of its own more interestingly contoured fascia while 17-inch or 18-inch alloy wheels complete the mix.

However, the most tangible benefits result from a decision to move the Sorento's A-pillars forward and its D-pillars back. While its overall length expands by just 3.7 inches and the wheelbase actually shrinks 0.3 inch, interior volume on the 2011 Sorento has risen by some 15 percent over the outgoing Gen I model, improving passenger space throughout its cabin and allowing for a new, kid-friendly third-row seat. Although opting for that "seven-up" configuration does limit cargo capacity to 9.1 cubic feet, flat-folding the rearmost 50/50 perch yields the same 37.0 cubic feet of stow space as a five-passenger Sorento. And for those critical Saturday-morning Home Depot missions, dropping the backs on its fore/aft-sliding 60/40 mid-row bench creates a 72.5-cubic-foot mini cave.


Beyond a bump in volume, the Sorento interior also gets a serious injection of style and an expanded roster of standard and options. Form follows function here, with highly legible instrumentation and user-friendly control layouts complemented by detail touches like a tilt/telescoping steering column and front buckets that provide a commendable mix of touring comfort and cornering support. An obvious elevated level of fit and finish is matched by an unseen but most effective NVH-abatement effort that pays off handsomely in reduced levels of wind noise and road rumble.

Even the base Sorento LX brings a generous feature set that includes air conditioning, a full array of power assists, auxiliary steering wheel controls, trip computer, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with AUX/USB inputs and Bluetooth. Stepping up to EX upgrades the interior trappings with more elegant upholstery/trim combos, dual-zone auto climate control with ionized-air purification, push-button start and rear backup sonar, while the EX V-6 also adds the third-row seat and a rear A/C unit. Taking the EX route also brings more upscale option choices like leather upholstery, a touch-screen navigation system with real-time traffic link, panoramic sunroof and a premium Infinity sound system. The EX V-6 even offers a rear-seat DVD player. However, when it comes to safety, all Sorentos are created equal, and boast ABS discs, stability control, Electronic Brake Assist/Distribution, Hills Start Assist/Downhill Brake Control, and front/front-side/side-curtain airbags.

In line with its new mission, the Sorento moves from body-on-frame to unitized construction that is shared with its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Santa Fe. Beyond shedding some 300-470 pounds in the process, the Sorento gains a more rigid core structure made from 70.4-percent high-strength steel. That solid foundation plus a quicker steering ratio, a 2.0-inch-lower center of gravity, and a suspension revamp that jettisons control arms and a live rear axle in favor front struts and a multilink IRS, imparts a decidedly more refined and confident character to the new Sorento's ride and handling whether you're cruising down the freeway or pushing the limit on some twisty back road. Although the 2011 version continues to offer both FWD and optional AWD configurations, the latter setup has lost its dual-range transfer case in deference to the great crossover cause. However, this new more street-oriented full-time torque-on-demand package can transition from a 100/0 percent front/rear bias to a 50/50 split and features an Intelligent Lock Mode to help it master more challenging bits of both on- and off-road rambling.


Final element in the rewritten Sorento formula is a wholesale change to its powertrain menu, which starts with the introduction a four-cylinder engine to the mix. This econo-oriented 172-horsepower version of Kia's Theta II 2.4-liter inline-four can be backed by a six-speed manual transmission or a new six-speed automatic. The pilot-built EX models we drove were both fitted with a new Lambda II version of the firm's 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 273 horses, 11 more than the 3.8-liter six it replaces. Also slated for other future Kia product, this smooth and enthusiastic 3.5 comes only with the new autoshifter and is almost as fuel efficient as the I-4. However, its extra muscle boosts the Sorento's maximum towing capability from 2000 pounds to 3500.

While our first encounter was admittedly less than definitive -- the Atlanta area was in Day 1 of recovery from a 100-year flood event -- even this quick drive left no doubt the new Sorento is destined to provide some formidable competition for its prime rivals, which Kia sees as the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Pricing is pegged to open in the $20,000-$25,000 range when the new Sorento does go on sale in January. And Kia has already confirmed plans to introduce an even higher-spec version of this reinvented CUV within months of its arrival in dealers.


2011 Kia Sorento
Base price $20,000-$25,000 (est)
Vehicle layout Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5/7-pass, 4-door, SUV
Engines 2.4L/172-hp/166 lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4; 3.5L/277-hp/247 lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmissions 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic
Curb weight 3550-4050 lb (est)
Wheelbase 106.3 in
Length x width x height 184.4 x 74.2 x 67.3 in
EPA city/hwy fuel e con 19-21/27-29 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.81-0.88 lb/mi
On sale in U.S. January 2010

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