In hitting the maximum reset button, Kia has given the Gen II Sorento a comprehensive makeover that moves it from the ranks of conventional SUV into crossover territory. Along with that swerve into the people-pampering lane, the 2011 Sorento - there is no 2010 model - also becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen. Starting in November, the first American-made Kia vehicle 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 pre-production 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. It has sleeker sheetmetal previewed in the KND-4 Concept. Also, a large single-piece liftgate in back and 17- 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 overall length expands by just 3.7 inches and the wheelbase actually shrinks 0.3 inch, interior volume has risen by some 15 percent over the outgoing 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 in a five-passenger Sorento. And for those 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 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 effective NVH-abatement effort that pays off handsomely in reduced levels of wind noise and road rumble.

The base Sorento LX comes standard with 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. The EX upgrades upholstery/trim combos, adds dual-zone auto climate control with ionized-air purification, push-button start, and rear backup sonar, while the EX V-6 adds the third-row seat and a rear A/C unit and such options as leather, touch-screen nav with real-time traffic, panoramic sunroof, premium Infinity sound system, and rear-seat DVD player. Standard safety includes ABS discs, stability control, Electronic Brake Assist/Distribution, Hills Start Assist/Downhill Brake Control, and front/front-side/side-curtain airbags.

The Sorento moves from body-on-frame to unitized construction shared with its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Santa Fe. Beyond shedding 300-470 pounds in the process, the Sorento gains a more rigid core structure made of 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 of front struts and a multilink IRS, imparts a 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 FWD and optional AWD configurations, the latter setup has lost its dual-range transfer case in deference to the great crossover cause. However, this 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 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-horse 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 fitted with a new Lambda II version of Kia's 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 273 horses, 11 more than the 3.8-liter six it replaces. 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.

The new Sorento should provide formidable competition for its prime rivals, which Kia sees as the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4. Pricing is pegged in the $20,000-$25,000 range when the new Sorento does go on sale in January.


2011 Kia Sorento
Base price range $20,000-$25,000 (est)
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
Transmission 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 106.3 in
Length x width x height 184.4 x 74.2 x 67.3 in
Curb weight 3550-4050 lb (est)
Max towing capacity 2000-3500 lb
0-60 mph 9.0-9.5 sec (est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 19-21/27-29 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.81-0.88 lb/mi
On sale in U.S. January 2010
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