First Test: 2003 Kia Sorento
Since Kia sold its first vehicle in the U.S. eight years ago, the Korean automaker has been known for inexpensive small cars and SUVs. In a bold step to expand market share, the company has introduced an SUV that ventures deeply onto crowded midsize sport/utility turf. But going up against the likes of the Grand Cherokee means expectations are high in regard to styling, power, off-road prowess, and liveability. Does Kia deliver?
The body-on-frame Sorento could be mistaken for a Lexus RX 300 at first glance, not a bad source of styling inspiration. Two trim levels, base LX and upscale EX, dictate whether a monochromatic or two-tone finish graces the body.
Power comes from an aluminum 3.5L V-6, churning out 192 hp and 217 lb-ft of torque. Rated to tow up to 3500 lb, this DOHC powerplant gets the Sorento off the line smartly, but sounds frenetic when wound out. It's mated to a four-speed automatic, while a single 2WD system and two 4WD systems are on the order form. Get the top-line Torque-on-Demand that includes low range for tough going. Optional ABS helps the driver maintain control on pavement, while a load-leveling system keeps the body on an even keel.
Inside, the Sorento's materials and build quality neither delight nor disappoint, but controls are well placed. Smooth and quiet at speed, this Kia handles predictably, understeering when pushed into a corner. A well-damped suspension keeps secondary body motions to a minimum.
The biggest news isn't metal, plastic, or glass; it's the bottom line. Pricing starts around $19,500, and a fully loaded Sorento EX stickers at less than $25K. That includes Kia's 10-year/100,000-mile warranty.