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Can the new Sorento live up to the high aspirations that Kia has for it, or is the Skoda Kodiaq still the seven-seat SUV of choice?

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The progressive, clean-cut design that has fuelled Audi’s meteoric success as a premium car brand has many imitators but none that is linked quite as widely and frequently with it as Kia, which has launched the third-generation Kia Sorento SUV.

The architect of Kia ’s current design identity, Peter Schreyer, spent the formative years of his career as a designer working for Audi, and could hardly have prevented a little of his own Bavarian schooling rubbing off on the saloons, hatchbacks and crossovers that he has authored so boldly for his Korean employers.

Kia's aim is "to match and surpass not only customer expectations but also the world's best car manufacturers for engineering, technology, refinement and quality".

And to be fair, almost a decade after Schreyer’s appointment, there’s as much that’s distinctive and original-looking about Kia’s production models as there are cues ‘borrowed’ from you know who.

But the time for imitation-based flattery is now over. ‘Phase II’ of Kia’s coming of age is kicking in with this, the third-generation Kia Sorento seven-seat SUV. And, says Kia, Audi has as much to fear as anyone from where this chapter will take the firm.

Written large in the press material for this new car is a statement of quite extraordinary ambition from a car maker that, in relatively recent memory, was peddling models as rough and basic as the Pride and Kia Magentis.

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In this new chapter of its development, Kia’s aim is 'to match and surpass not only customer expectations but also the world’s best car manufacturers for engineering, technology, refinement and quality'. However much they’ve improved already, that’s a mountain to climb.

But apparently, the ascent starts here. The new Sorento is the first Kia designed and developed with new emphasis on mechanical and technological advancement; precision of build quality; material richness and solidity in the cabin; and comfort and refinement in everyday use. This same mantra has been passed on to the fourth generation Kia Sorento, the dynamically adventurous Kia Stinger saloon and the brand's first hybrid vehicle - the Kia Niro.

However, does it show those transformative strides? And are we to believe that humble Kia is truly serious about leading the car making world in so many ways?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Kia Sorento 2018 road test review hero rear

Despite already being one of the larger entrants in the £30k family 4x4 market, the Sorento has grown: by 95mm in overall length, 80mm in the wheelbase, and very marginally on width.

A decrease in height always neatly disguises such a spurt, and the new Sorento’s roofline is also 15mm lower than it was. But although it competes with many of them, you couldn’t really call this a compact SUV. A Mercedes-Benz GLS is little more than an inch longer, and the Skoda Kodiaq is smaller than both.

The new manual Sorento is rated to haul 2.5 tonnes on a braked trailer and it has a self-levelling rear-end

Some minor weight savings in the suspension and under the bonnet are claimed, but our road test on the previous Sorento confirms that the quoted kerb weight has actually risen by 41kg. But solidity, refinement and space are near-impossible qualities to engineer into a car without making it heavier. If Kia has succeeded on all three fronts, 41kg is a small price to pay.

The all-steel platform has been completely redesigned. Its body-in-white now has twice the proportion of high-strength steel, and torsional rigidity is up by 14 percent. A new rack-mounted electro-mechanical power steering set-up is intended to deliver greater directional precision to the handling, and the suspension continues to be all independent.

A new geometry is adopted for the front struts as well as new shock absorbers and hydraulic rebound springs. New repositioned shocks are fitted for the multi-link arrangement at the rear, as well as a new subframe bush to enhance ride comfort.

As for off-road ability, steel coils give a fixed ride height that delivers only modest approach and breakover angles and ground clearance of 185mm, none of which makes the Sorento desperately rugged.

But the faster-acting Dynamax clutch-based four-wheel drive system introduced on previous Kia Sportage has been adopted for its bigger brother, which allows a 50/50 front-to-rear torque split to be locked in at up to 25mph. There’s also a new brake-actuated torque vectoring system called Advanced Traction Cornering Control.

For the frequent towers who remember the first-gen, ladder-frame Sorento fondly, the new manual version is rated to haul 2.5 tonnes on a braked trailer and it has a self-levelling rear-end – both still making it relatively appealing. But of wider interest may be the conjuring of another 3bhp and 14lb ft of torque from the car’s ‘R-family’ 2199cc turbodiesel engine, as well as cutting fuel consumption and emissions.

A higher-pressure fuel injection system has been adopted, as well as a new intake manifold and exhaust gas recirculation system, and more precise variable-geometry turbo control. Although it now complies with Euro 6 emissions standards, this remains one of the gutsier, thirstier engines in the class.

INTERIOR

Kia Sorento 2018 road test review cabin

Four trim levels are available, ranging from entry-level KX-1 up to the halo KX-4. As standard, the entry-level Sorento gets 17in alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, privacy glass, rear spoiler and roof rails on the outside, while inside there is manual air conditioning controllable from the front and rear of the cabin, Bluetooth connectivity, DAB radio and cruise control.

Upgrade to the KX-2 trim adorns your Sorento with 18in alloys, a leather upholstery, front and rear heated seats, parking sensors, self-levelling suspension, dual-zone climate control and Kia's 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with sat nav and a rear-view camera. While the KX-3 adds xenon headlights, panoramic sunroof, electrically adjustable driver's seat, lane departure warning and an 8.0in touchscreen system.

Kia's new Global Quality Centre must have missed the slightly wobbly footrest on our test car. Couldn't find much else to pull them up on, though.

Topping the range is the KX-4 trimmed Sorento, which comes with luxuries such as 360-degree camera, adaptive cruise control and headlights, ventilated front seats and blind spot detection as standard.

Kia's touchscreen icons are large and easy to hit, and the generous provision of shortcut keys on either side of the screen saves you getting lost in menus. Sound quality from the audio system was adequate but not outstanding for a premium system.

With a slightly lower hip point than that of the previous Sorento, the new one should allow most people to slide straight in without needing to climb up or drop down into the driver’s seat.

Big, pudgy front seats, plentiful kneeroom and well-placed support for your elbows make you instantly comfortable, although very tall people will be aware of slightly limited head room in the first and second rows.

The fascia is generously covered in soft-touch plastics, with glossy piano black trim and satin chrome accents for decoration. The cabin ambience is dark, somewhat restrained and lacking a bit of warmth. Although the materials chosen could appeal more to the senses, their robustness and consistency is apparent.

The car certainly betters Kia’s prevailing standard on fit and finish. Some would say what it needed to do more urgently was bring greater sophistication and richness to the party.

The layout of instruments, major controls and secondary systems is very conventional so things are precisely where you expect them to be and most processes – turning up the climate control temperature, turning off the parking sensors or changing the navigation map orientation – are easy and intuitive.

Our test car had Kia’s TFT instrument screen fitted, but it only occupies the place of the car’s central speedometer and feels more like a modern trip computer with some extended menus than a truly configurable TFT-style display.

Further back in the car, occupants will find lots of space in the second row (head room apart) and a large, square boot with a convenient loading height. The third row of seats is relatively easy to put up, the load bay cover stowing in its own recess below the boot floor and the seats clicking into place at the tug of a belt tie.

Access to the third row could be better, since the second row of seats slides fore and aft but doesn’t tumble forwards. But once they’re in, passengers will find as much room back there as in most seven-seaters (enough for the smaller adults in your number) and they have their own air conditioning vents and controls.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Kia Sorento 2018 road test review engine

Only one engine is available on the new Sorento - a 2.2-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder motor developing 197bhp at 3800rpm and 311lb ft of torque from 1800 to 2500rpm.

For anyone expecting the diesel four-pot engine to have emerged from its makeover as a more whispery or dulcet-toned item, their introduction to it will likely prove disappointing. At idle, there is much the same hard-edged, sharply audible voice.

The Sorento's mid-range heave is generally obliging enough for the drivetrain not to downshift needlessly

Its vibrations have been sanded away to leave only the slightest buzz underfoot, but the clatter remains distinguishable when accelerating at slow speeds. While it is not particularly intrusive or irksome – or even unusual among its mainstream rivals – the continuous accompaniment around town does negate a certain level of polish that one might reasonably have expected for the sort of money that gets you close to a BMW straight six.

Otherwise, it is very obliging. The unit’s burliness makes it encouraging at low revs, aided no end by the swift lock-up of the torque converter and a prompt step-off. Such responsiveness is important in a car of this size because it makes it seem like a manageable prospect at roundabouts and junctions.

An absence of hesitancy – of the sort that dulled the Land Rover Discovery Sport’s get-away – helps establish a likeable easy-to-drive vibe, which the big Kia largely continues to live up to.

The power on offer, tempered by the car’s weight, hardly feels bountiful in the manner of a big-capacity modern oil-burner but, for the most part, it keeps the Sorento barrelling along with a gravel-throated enthusiasm. Predictably, the flat-out 9.3sec sprint to 60mph isn’t particularly memorable.

It’s far easier to appreciate the well-matched combination of torque delivery and gear ratios while under way, and the mid-range heave is generally obliging enough for the drivetrain not to downshift needlessly.

Only by merging aggressively with the outside lane of a motorway are Sorento owners likely to find themselves triggering a kickdown manually – and we’re willing to bet that, too, will be well within their expectations.

RIDE & HANDLING

Kia Sorento 2018 road test review cornering front

For all of its reconfiguring underneath, the Sorento’s dynamic attributes remain essentially uncomplicated. This is a large car and the unconcealed pride in that fact belies the primary importance of its positioning in North American and Asian markets.

Its handling identity seems, for the most part, inextricably linked. The big Kia feels predominantly like a tool forged to convey seven in reasonable comfort – sympathetically tuned and stoutly competent, but not a product invested with the sophisticated manners of a Discovery Sport or the high-grade proficiency of a BMW X3, the cars its maker is evidently gunning for.

There's no untidy intrusion from the traction control system to put up with, and excessive lean is never a problem.

With its size taken into account, the Sorento resists well any sensation that it is unwieldy, but a sustained stretch of British B-road traversed at the national limit isn’t an experience to particularly savour. Its long-wave body undulations, those that give the Sorento its archetypal large-SUV lope in wide, open spaces, tend to become slightly more plodding when the pace and frequency of the surfacing disturbances begin to mount up.

Again, this isn’t an unreasonable compromise between control and comfort; it merely confirms the absence of that final layer of polish that a handful of premium European rivals apply so well. Elsewhere, most evidently on roads a little more conducive to the Kia’s size and disposition, it proves likeable and easy-going.

There’s a credible weightiness to the electrically powered steering rack, although it builds a little unpredictably with vehicle speed and steering angle. As for comfort, the body rarely ruminates over bumps for long, and although its isolation of the cabin isn’t exemplary, the ride is generally respectable. Unsurprisingly, long motorway trips are dismissed most deftly of all.

This is a large, confident crossover in the most modern sense, then – if short on driver reward then at least admirably long on amenability.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Kia Sorento 2018 road test review hero front

Because Kia offers few individual options on its cars, there has been no way to spend truly premium SUV money on a Sorento before.

You wouldn’t imagine that would trouble many Kia owners, but it apparently rankles with Sorento devotees. And that has been the justification for cranking up the kit level – and the price – of upper-trim cars to the point where a flagship Sorento KX-4 is within £2000 of an entry-level BMW X5.

If you don't mind paying more, have a KX-2, which gets heated leather seats, sat-nav and a reversing camera

Thankfully, the opposite end of the trim spectrum looks a lot more reasonable. Fleet drivers interested in keeping more of their own cash in their wallets should question the temptation to buy any version other than the bottom-rung, manual-equipped KX-1.

Not only is it the sole derivative with a price of less than £30k, but it’s also the only one fitted with 17in alloy wheels and therefore the only one that qualifies for company car tax at 27 percent, fully 6 percent lower than an automatic-equipped car on bigger rims.

The manual KX-1 is a compelling tax-saver, not just on company car tax but also up to £80 a year on road tax compared with higher spec models. If you don't mind paying more, have a KX-2, which gets heated leather seats, sat-nav and a reversing camera.

Kia’s seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty makes residual values on the car quite competitive, and fuel economy is entirely reasonable. Our True MPG testers produced 34.6mpg, a new Discovery Sport diesel, with similar power, torque and overall kerb weight, averaged 33.9mpg.

 

VERDICT

Kia Sorento 2018 road test review static

There are two ways, it seems, to best consider the Sorento. The first, as written on the tin, is as a potentially sub-£30k genuine seven-seater; old-fashioned Kia territory, then, and here it largely excels.

It’s sufficiently roomy, very well kitted, easy to drive, comfortable to sit in and broadly competitive to run. The second view, as Kia itself has prompted, is as a new marker of its progress. The evidence here is that the giant leaps of the past are now harder to come by.

The Kia Sorento is a real threat to volume-brand rivals but less so to the premium players

The Sorento is certainly improved, but in a way that marks it out as evolutionary rather than newly extraordinary. It's a real threat to volume-brand rivals but less so to the premium players. Consequently, for the £40k asking price of our test car, Kia’s best effort is a bit too noisy, too plain and ultimately less interesting to steer than its similarly priced European rivals.

However, trumping a raft of other more mainstream options to finish in our compact SUV top five is, in and of itself, an advancement.

Best of the rest, in a segment of ever-increasing popularity, is no bad place to be.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Kia Sorento 2015-2020 First drives