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An almost class-leading family 4x4, if a little pricey given its workmanlike flavour

The biggest problem facing this new Kia Sorento is its name. Because if it rings any bells for anyone at all, it will probably be one of warning. The old Kia SUV was the kind of beast only its mother would love: a slow, ugly, uncomfortable, hulking off-roader you bought because it represented probably the cheapest way of towing 3.5 tonnes.

By the starkest of contrasts, the current Kia Sorento is a thoroughly modern seven-seat SUV styled in a chi-chi California design studio to appeal to those who care as much about how they look as where they go. Kia is quite explicit about the price paid for this approach – it openly admits the Sorento is nothing like as capable off road as the 2003 Kia Sorento and that towing capacity has been cut by an entire tonne in manual form – but claims that it has been able to design a car that will appeal to a much broader audience.

The Sorento, and its little brother the Sportage, are almost dynamically deft enough to wear Land Rover badges

On the surface at least, Kia's success in that aim is evident, but the car underneath those slick surfaces isn't so mould-breaking. The Sorento is available with two diesel engines with prices rising through four equipment grades from £23,000 to a steep-sounding £32,500.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Kia Sorento headlights

Comparing this Sorento to its predecessor is like comparing an iPod and a phonograph: they’re both designed to do the same thing but there’s little profit to be gained from further examination of their relationship.

 

Styling is a world apart from the original ladder-frame Sorento

If you look at its monocoque construction, multi-link rear suspension, standard six-speed automatic gearbox or state-of-the-art engine, this flagship Sorento appears to have rather more in common with upmarket SUVs from premium European brands. And of course this is precisely how Kia would like you to think of it.

 

Like many of them, it’s not a serious off-roader. There’s no transfer box and therefore no low ratio, and while approach and departure angles of 25deg and 23deg respectively are reasonable figures, the breakover angle of 17deg seriously limits where it can go without beaching or damaging itself.

 

A Defender it ain’t. But nor is it fair to call it a soft-roader with nothing other than all-wheel drive to keep it going in the rough. You can lock the centre differential to fix the front-to-rear torque split at 50/50 and hill descent control is standard.

 

Impressively, not only does the Sorento come with a six-speed auto but it’s also one of Hyundai/Kia’s own design rather than a bought-in, off-the-shelf item. Smaller, lighter and less mechanically complex than the five-speeder it replaces, the new transmission boosts fuel consumption by up to 12 percent, according to Kia.

INTERIOR

Kia Sorento dashboard

The Sorento’s cabin design and specification is fundamentally fine, but shows evidence of Kia cutting corners when it comes to final execution. 

 

KX-3 has keyless entry and a slot between the seats to plug the key in. Starts just as well with it in your pocket…

The car is an effective seven-seater. It doesn’t need the Land Cruiser’s electrically powered third row of seats, because one tug on a single strap is all that’s required to pull them into place. We’d certainly recommend paying the extra for the added functionality that the third row brings. These are occasional seats, but comfortable ones too for the children who will invariably occupy them. There’s even a little space (270 litres) behind for small bags or some shopping. And you can fold them away just as easily and do the same to the reclining middle row of seats to create a convincingly spacious and conspicuously well shaped load area, capable of holding up to 1900 litres of gear. So far so good.

 

In the front, the driving position is respectable for all bar tall drivers, who may find the steering wheel too far away despite its standard reach adjustment. Meanwhile, those sitting behind said tall driver will find knee room limited, though this is mitigated somewhat by the ample space for your feet under the seat.

 

Where the Sorento’s cabin falls short is in the finish. All the plastics on the dashboard are hard, of a quality you wouldn’t find in a Volkswagen Golf costing less than half as much. The interlocking dials are smart enough, but the supplementary display in the middle of the dash has ugly orange graphics, while the minor switches are sensibly sited but again of a quality you’d raise an eyebrow at in a car costing 10 grand less than this.

 

However good the product may be, the reputation Kia is trying to overcome is that of a manufacturer of cheap and often not so cheerful cars, so it’s perhaps not the best strategy to ensure that the first things its customers see and touch upon entering the Sorento are materials that fit the historical stereotype all too comfortably.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Kia Sorento side profile

If you were to come up with a template for sluggish performance, the Sorento would appear perfect: a seven-seat SUV with a small diesel engine and an automatic gearbox built by Kia. And you’ve no idea how wrong you’d be.

 

Despite being longer and wider, the new Sorento is 215kg lighter than the old one; that’s monocoque construction for you

The entry-level engine in the Sorento range is the company’s 148bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel, which comes with a six-speed manual as standard and can only be had in base trim, with five seats and front-wheel drive. The high-tech 2.2-litre motor that provides the power in the range-topping car is the only other motor on offer, and can also be had in front-wheel drive at the cheaper end of the lineup.

It’s an impressive motor that packs 194bhp – more than the 3.0-litre turbodiesel engine that powers the Toyota Land Cruiser. But quite astonishingly, this engine also offers more torque than the Toyota: a solid 311lb ft wall way down at 1800rpm.

 

Not only does the hi-tech 2.2-litre diesel engine have strong power and torque, it interacts smartly and cohesively with the new six-speed gearbox, with the whole package aided by a car weighing a relatively modest 1960kg, or, to put it another way, nearly half a tonne lighter than the less powerful Land Cruiser.

 

In fact, the 2.2 CRDi Sorento goes remarkably well, sprinting from rest to 60mph in a brisk 9.0sec dead and offering the ability to hold on to individual gears in manual mode. Given that the 2.0 CRDi model is just £1000 cheaper than the equivalent 2.2, we’d recommend opting for the bigger motor if you can; the 2.0-litre car's performance, economy and refinement are adequate but nothing to write home about.

 

As is the case with many small-capacity, high-output diesels, the 2.2 is noisier under hard acceleration than you’d like, but it flicks up readily through all six gears to a top ratio tall enough to ensure quiet cruising. The gearbox is not quite as smooth in its automatic mode as, say, the ZF unit found in the Land Rover Discovery 4, or as swift to change as a dual-clutch unit if operated manually, but by the standards of this class rather than the one above, it’s as good as it gets.

 

The Sorento stops well for a large and upright SUV, too, offering solid retardation, a progressive pedal and fade-free operation in all normal use.

RIDE & HANDLING

Kia Sorento cornering

No new ground is broken here in class terms, though if you’re trading up from an old Kia Sorento you would be forgiven for thinking so.

 

Ride is comfortable enough but can still be caught out on UK roads

By the more exacting standards prevalent in the marketplace today, the Sorento is a competent handler which, while lacking any incentive for drivers to sniff out a decent road, will at least not frustrate them should they happen to chance upon one. It actually points rather well for such a large car, thanks to a precise and sensibly geared steering rack, though there is too much body roll, not enough body control and too little grip to offer more than token entertainment.

 

Superficially, the Sorento actually rides quite well and will let you glide along rather comfortably on smooth surfaces. But you don’t need a country as punctuated by potholes as the UK to spot the fact that, when actually given some work to do, the suspension fails to answer the more searching questions.

 

It may have a modern-sounding multi-link arrangement at the back, but this is not the first time we will have observed that the raw material is not enough on its own. It has to be expertly tuned and attached to a car of great torsional strength, and somewhere in this process the Sorento has fallen a little short of what you might expect.

 

This is unlikely to be a deal-breaker for anyone considering the Sorento, but opt for the smallest wheels available on your chosen spec to get the best ride quality.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Kia Sorento 2010-2014

Kias have not been noted for their residual strength over the years, and we’d not feel too confident about the future value of one with seven seats and a price tag of over £30k. That said, we’d expect the Sorento to outperform the car it replaces, though in itself that would not be a great achievement.

 

Covered by Kia’s headline-grabbing seven-year warranty.

Running costs, however, should be impressive for such a car. Not only is the 2.2-litre diesel one of the most frugal engines in its class – manual versions return 42.8mpg on the combined cycle, though we averaged a less impressive 28.1mpg in our automatic test car – but Kia has also extended its unrivalled seven-year, transferrable warranty to cover the Korean-built Sorento.

 

The equipment grades work up quite logically once you’re past the entry-level front-drive petrol model, so by the time you reach this range-topping KX-3 all the usual goodies you might expect are included, from cruise control to leather upholstery. And although the official options list is short, extending to special paint and self-levelling suspension, there is a long list of dealer-fit accessories you can choose to make your Sorento a little more individual.

 

The entry-level 2.0-litre CRDi betters the economy of the 2.2 by less than one solitary mile-to-the-gallon and by two grams of CO2 - more evidence of the sense in spending the extra on the more powerful car.

VERDICT

3 star Kia Sorento

As if it were needed, this new Kia Sorento provides still more evidence that the Koreans have become a motor industry force to be reckoned with. Not only is this a likeable and capable car that enters the fray close to the top of the class, but the leap forward from its predecessor is borderline mind-boggling. If it can keep up this rate of improvement, the third generation will bow to no one.

 

An attractive and capable car held back only by ambitious prices

Even as it is, this Sorento has no apologies to make; indeed, if Kia had been slightly less ambitious with its pricing it would be looking at a four-star verdict. The new engine and gearbox lead the class, while the car they power is attractive and capable.

 

Really, all it needs is a little finessing to smooth off the undoubted roughness at its edges and the Sorento would convince on all fronts. Kia’s rivals would be foolish to take the threat it poses with anything less than total seriousness.

Kia Sorento 2010-2014 First drives