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New version of Kia’s big SUV is a car of real ambition and new powertrain options

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Any which way you judge such things – by outward appearance, by SUV-typical capability, by technical sophistication or by sheer metal-for-the-money value – the Kia Sorento is now a very serious, ambitious and distinctive player in the UK’s family SUV market.

The Sorento has long been rated – by this magazine and plenty of in-the-know owners – as a big, practical, capable, bargain-priced tow car and family holdall. But now it has really spread its wings. For this fourth iteration, its platform was renewed; its engine range was expanded; the gamut of active safety and driver assistance technology was extended just as widely; and, perhaps most notable of all, its exterior and interior design were quite radically reimagined in the hope of catching the eye of even more potential customers who may never have considered owning a Kia before.

Kia’s ‘tiger nose’ grille seems to be getting bigger, just like everyone else’s, but it hasn’t yet reached comedy proportions, and its size suits the front of the Sorento well enough.

And so, for the first time since the car’s 2002 introduction, diesel power is joined in the line-up by two petrol-electric powertrain options. One of them – the ‘self-charging’ hybrid – powers the UK’s entry-level model, and that’s the car we elected to test first. As we’ll expand on shortly, it combines mechanical four-wheel drive and seven seats with what might just be considered full-sized SUV proportions and a sub-£50,000 price. So while some things about this car clearly have changed, its mission to represent practicality and value like almost nothing else in the market hasn’t.

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If you’ve got more to spend, there are considerably more technology- and equipment-laden versions of the car you might consider; and that the plug-in hybrid combines a 30-mile electric-only range with an uncompromised seven-seat cabin could and should pique the attention of fleet drivers with bigger families.

For now, though, let’s find out whether the cheaper hybrid can serve this car as well as a diesel engine typically has – and whether it's a great family SUV as a result.

The Sorento line-up at a glance

Powertrain options for the fourth-generation Sorento are refreshingly simple, even if the hardware itself is much more complex than was offered on the model before. All versions have two driven axles and two of the three models are hybrids, including the entry-level Sorento 1.6 T-GDi tested here.

The PHEV is comfortably the most powerful – and potentially frugal – model in the line-up, as well as the most expensive. Notably, it retains the third row of seats, despite the need to carry a sizeable battery.

VersionPower
1.6 T-GDI226bhp
2.2 CRDi199bhp
1.6 T-GDI PHEV261bhp

Transmissions: 6-spd automatic (hybrids), 8-spd DCT (diesel)

DESIGN & STYLING

8
2 Kia Sorento 2021 road test review hero side

The Sorento was the first Kia model to use the Hyundai Motor Group’s N3 platform, which enabled it to grow slightly and its proportions to change a little.

Crucially, it also allowed Kia to accommodate the necessary components of both hybrid and PHEV versions of the car while keeping both a mechanical four-wheel drive system and, in all derivatives, a seven-seat cabin layout. That’s no mean feat – and one that plenty of better-established European premium car brands haven’t yet equalled with their rivals for this car.

Stretching the Sorento’s wheelbase meant pushing the front axle forward and creating a longer bonnet and a bigger ‘premium gap’ between the front axle line and the base of the windscreen

The chassis is made almost exclusively of high-strength steel, although aluminium now crops up in it in a handful of places. Kia also says it’s slightly lighter and stiffer than that of the third-generation Sorento, which, considering the car’s dimensions, is commendable too.

Measuring 4810mm in length, 1695mm in height and 1900mm in width without mirrors, the Sorento continues to sit between mid-sized and full-sized SUVs for outright size. On length, then, it’s between the Land Rover Discovery Sport and Land Rover Discovery, although it’s a slightly closer match for the latter, as its visual presence and bulk now more explicitly than ever suggests.

Whether you opt for Kia’s lighter, aluminium-blocked, 199bhp 2.2-litre diesel engine or its 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol hybrid option, the engine is mounted transversely under the bonnet and drives all four wheels through a hydraulic coupling.

In the case of the hybrid, the engine is ‘sandwiched’ alongside a 59bhp electric motor that contributes to system output peaks of 226bhp and 258lb ft. In the PHEV, the same 1.6-litre petrol engine is mated to a 90bhp electric motor, making 261bhp for the car in total. 

Whereas the diesel uses a new eight-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, both hybrids stick with a six-speed torque-converter automatic.

Suspension for the Sorento is all-independent and hydraulic self-levelling for more stable towing features on all but the entry-level grade. Ground clearance is a fairly modest 185mm. Although that’s slightly more than before, it’s not as much as some rivals offer; and while Kia has added X-Line versions in other markets with better off-road ability on paper, there’s no plan to include those in the UK range.

Towing capacity has risen to 2500kg for the diesel Sorento, but it’s 1650kg for the hybrid, which is still likely enough to pull a good-sized caravan but not the biggest trailers, and 1500kg for the PHEV. 

As for aesthetics, this car certainly catches the eye and, on balance, most testers liked what they saw. Kia’s aim was to create a more ‘technical’ look for the car, intended to better express a sense of precision of build quality and all-round technological sophistication. It’s an effect well practised by the German premium brands but – much as this wouldn’t be the first time Kia has copied their homework – it’s quietly effective.

Additional reporting by Kris Culmer

INTERIOR

14 Kia Sorento 2021 road test review front seats

Originally, the trim levels for the Sorento began at 2 (wireless phone charging, digital instrument cluster, ambient lighting), moved through 3 (leather upholstery) and culminated with 4 (nappa leather, panoramic sunroof, ventilated seats, Bose sound system). However, in 2023, Kia replaced these with Vision and Edition trims, making the kit list more comprehensive but increasing the price of the car.

Inserting 35mm in the Sorento’s wheelbase liberated yet more passenger space, and any concerns we had about head room in the outgoing model have been dispelled. Width is also unusually generous and such is the expanse between the driver and front-row passenger that the car feels distinctly American.

The knurled rotary gear selector, another subtle attempt to move upmarket, is nicely textured and a cut above what you would expect in terms of solidity and action

Large families will warm to the seven-seat Sorento especially quickly. One 6ft-tall passenger in the third row can sit directly behind another in the second row, and both will be comfortable for middle-distance journeys, at the least.

The Kia also offers considerable versatility, should you need it: the second row of seats can be slid fore and aft and can also recline, even if the 60/40 split doesn’t give you quite as much flexibility as you’d have in the Audi Q5 or the Peugeot 5008. However, the Sorento does feature usefully ‘premium’ electric switches in the boot, which make the process of folding down the second-row seats hassle-free.

In design terms, where the old Sorento was doggedly conventional, this reinterpretation feels much more modern, although it does more to superficially mimic premium brands than actually recreate what they offer. The broad digital displays and prominent air vents are Mercedes-Benz-esque, while the textured ‘metal’ is very Audi.

The Kia can’t match those brands on perceived quality, and the interior also lacks the imagination shown by Peugeot, but the place is at least coherent and offers both plenty of space and a commanding view of the road.

Kia Sorento infotainment and sat-nav

Buyers originally had the choice of two infotainment set-up: 2 trim, as seen on our hybrid test car, had an 8.0in touchscreen, whereas 3 and above upgraded that to an expansive 10.3in touchscreen with less physical switchgear. Since the switch to Vision and Edition trims, the latter touchscreen has been fitted as standard.

It’s integrated into the same Mercedes-style display panel and flows into the digital instrument binnacle. If your last experience of an interior by Kia was more than five years ago, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the technological array. Plus, the Edition model gets a Bose premium sound system.

The touchscreen is also kept usefully separate from the climate control, buttons for which sit lower on the dashboard. Kia offers both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard across the range. The touchscreen itself is decently responsive, if not quite as crisp as some. There’s also generous provision of USB ports.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

26 Kia Sorento 2021 road test review engine

Kia's implementation of a hybrid powertrain in this latest Sorento comes across as a slightly hollow gesture. This is entirely down to its underwhelming electric performance.

With more than two tonnes worth of metal to shift, the Sorento’s 59bhp electric motor simply doesn’t have the muscle required to move the SUV off from a standstill, or bring it up to speed, without the petrol engine doing the vast majority of the heavy lifting. In fact, the only instances where our testers found they could reliably run on electricity alone was when travelling downhill or while maintaining a constant speed on clear, flat, open roads.

The Americans must find us comically twee over here in Britain, with the ‘huge’ Sorento. They get the V6-engined Kia Telluride, whose wheelbase is 86mm longer and whose presence on the road really is absolutely monstrous.

As a result, the Sorento hybrid is only an averagely efficient car in the sorts of stop-start, inner-city driving environments where you’d typically expect a hybrid to excel. We saw an overall average economy figure of 35mpg during our time with the car, making it only marginally more efficient than the 177bhp diesel-powered Land Rover Discovery Sport (31mpg) that we road tested at the beginning of 2020. And given that even the most powerful oil-burning Discovery Sport is still only a few benefit-in-kind tax brackets higher than the Sorento, it’s difficult to see exactly what it is you’re gaining by opting for this particular electrified powertrain. In reality, it doesn’t feel or perform like anything more than a glorified mild hybrid.

Viewed as such, it’s a bit easier to appreciate. As feeble as the electric motor is in isolation, it combines effectively with the petrol motor to lend the Sorento a respectable turn of real-world pace. On Millbrook’s mile straight, it bettered its claimed 8.7sec 0-60mph time by 0.2sec, and the 30-70mph run was dealt with in a respectable 7.9sec. By way of comparison, the Discovery Sport required 10.3sec to hit 60mph and 10.5sec to cover the 30-70mph dash.

Acceleration off the line is generally pretty smooth, too, thanks to the torque fill provided by the electric motor, although sudden throttle inputs at speed can easily catch the six-speed ’box out. Smaller applications made while on the move aren’t always answered swiftly, either, leaving the electric motor to feel as though it’s occasionally playing catch-up. The switch from electric to petrol power could be less conspicuous, too.

Still, it’s refined at a cruise, and on the motorway its fuel efficiency is a degree more respectable: we extracted a touring economy figure of 43.3mpg.

Things are improved in the PHEV, which has a more powerful, 90bhp electric motor and a much larger, 13.8kWh battery. Around town, performance in EV mode feels quite sufficient, and nor does it feel especially lacking when you hit faster stretches. And don’t fret: if you’ve locked it into EV mode (done via a button) but suddenly need a burst of serious acceleration, the engine will jump in to help.

Fuel economy is also potentially better: the official figure is 177mpg, and this would be achievable if you charged it every day and drove only around town, thus barely using the engine. We even got around 40mpg after draining a full battery and then doing another 40 miles on the motorway – not bad at all. And yes, it proved itself capable of those 35 miles of electric-only driving in reality, even though we spent most of our test out of town.

What’s more, the PHEV can provide some serious finance benefits: company car drivers will incur just 12% benefit-in-kind tax, rather than 32% for the hybrid.

RIDE & HANDLING

27 Kia Sorento 2021 road test review on road front

Kia has struck an appreciably sensible handling balance with the latest Sorento. It doesn’t attempt to change direction with the heightened sense of agility or responsiveness you find in the likes of the Mercedes GLB or even the Seat Tarraco.

Instead, it matches a more lax attitude to body control with a medium-paced steering rack that builds resistance in a manner that feels well matched to its lateral roll rates. The weighting of the steering itself does come across as slightly contrived – particularly in Sport mode – but it nonetheless keeps you abreast of what’s going on beneath you reasonably well.

It’s primarily a soft, comfort-led set-up, so it doesn’t take much for its nose to veer away from the apex on damp roads, but it remains predictable and stable

Which is just as well, because the Sorento doesn’t generate huge amounts of mechanical grip. On damp stretches of road, its nose will begin to push into understeer relatively easily, but such transgressions are calmly and quickly corrected by its ESC systems.

And if, for whatever reason, you’ve switched them off, a gentle lift of throttle is all that’s required to right its line. That said, even though the efficiency-focused Continental EcoContact 6 tyres fitted to our hybrid test car would have minimised the effort required to reach the limit of grip, this is a big, heavy car that you would instinctively drive pretty gently.

It keeps enough suspension travel up its sleeve to prevent it from severely glancing off any ruts you might encounter halfway round a bend, but its softer set-up doesn’t always play to its favour. On more uneven stretches of road, its body control can wallow in a way that’s particularly noticeable at speed.

Such movements by no means feel dangerous or serve to greatly hinder stability, or the car’s sense of connection with the road underfoot, but it does fractionally undermine some of the confidence that its sure-footed handling can muster on unblemished surfaces.

Kia Sorento comfort and isolation

On smooth roads and motorways, the Sorento behaves in a largely composed and comfortable fashion. Its softer suspension set-up allows its body to rise and settle again in time with long-wave inputs and provides a welcome level of pliancy.

Its cabin is impressively hushed at motorway speeds, too. At a 70mph cruise, our microphone returned a reading of 66dB – the same result that we got in the Aston Martin DBX. Add to all of this a lofty driving position that affords excellent visibility and comfortable proximity to the car’s primary controls, and the Sorento makes a very competent companion over distance.

But outside of these sorts of long-haul, low-stress driving environments, its approach to ride comfort isn’t always quite as assured. That aforementioned long-wave softness can cause it to feel heavy, spongy and poorly controlled over particularly uneven surfaces, but worse is that this then combines with a firm, leaden-feeling secondary ride over sharper edges. Even on those balloon-like tyres, it can thump quite noisily and forcefully over expansion joints and drain covers.

This leaves the Sorento open to inadvertently painting itself as an at times cumbersome and awkward SUV; one that doesn’t always know quite how to react when it’s taken out of its immediate comfort zone. And it is arguably this slightly imbalanced disposition that most starkly differentiates the Kia from the more polished, upmarket family SUVs that reside north of the £50,000 mark.

Assisted driving notes

Our 2-grade Sorento hybrid was well-endowed with driver assistance technology, most of which was integrated in a way that makes it easy to use. Given that there’s limited inherent driver appeal about this large seven-seat SUV, that additional level of assistance was, more often than not, appreciated.

There are a few niggles, though. On country roads, the lane-keeping assistance and lane-departure warning systems piped up frequently. If they become too frustrating, you can swiftly deactivate the systems via a button on the steering wheel.

Things were markedly worse in our later (2023) PHEV test car, which featured the full gamut of modern tech: blindspot monitoring, lane-keeping assistance, driver attention monitoring, automatic emergency braking, collision avoidance assistance, intelligent speed-limit assistance, parking-collision-avoidance assistance and Kia’s Highway Driving Assist system.

As well as being heavy-handed in their working, each of these systems has its own loud bong. This overrides the radio or music that you’re trying to listen to and isn’t accompanied by an obvious message on the dashboard. They often go off for no obvious reason, too, so we had no idea what we were being warned about. Within only a few miles, we felt like screaming.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Kia Sorento 2021 road test review hero front

With even the diesel coming in at £50,000 now, the Sorento is no longer a car you can compare at a cursory glance with the very cheapest seven-seat SUVs for list price, although when you correct for specification and equipment, it still has plenty of value appeal.

Pick a Skoda Kodiaq with a matching power level and it will be cheaper than the entry-level Sorento, if less fuel efficient and pricier to run. Our test suggests the hybrid’s fuel economy won’t be stellar but – depending on where you do most of your motoring – it could just about match that of the diesel. The 43.3mpg touring result, mentioned earlier, isn’t too bad and you’d be unlikely to get considerably better from the diesel.

Kia’s cars are no longer depreciation magnets: the Sorento beats the Skoda Kodiaq and almost matches the Discovery Sport

The hybrid’s economy advantage would be more likely to come in urban use; and if you do a lot of town miles and don’t mind doing them pretty unhurriedly, you might just average 40mpg. From a diesel used in the same way, you’d expect 10% to 20% less. And as for the PHEV, potential mpg varies wildly depending on your use case.

VERDICT

28 Kia Sorento 2021 road test review static

The Sorento may look like a car that’s at last ready to take on premium SUV opponents, but it still doesn’t quite drive like one.

Its hybrid powertrain’s extremely limited capacity for emissions-free running frustrates, as do the limited gains in efficiency that its tepid electric motor affords. And although it handles in a sure-footed and confident fashion, you don’t have to look too hard to find a road surface capable of shining an unflattering light on the less savoury aspects of its ride.

It lacks polish, but abundant utility appeal and value shine through.

What the Sorento still lacks in dynamic finesse, however, it makes up for in sheer usefulness. It is a spacious, well-made, well-equipped and impressively versatile seven-seat SUV that’s handsomely formed and strategically priced. In that sense, it builds on Kia's traditional strengths very well indeed.

A better balance between performance and efficiency is struck by the plug-in hybrid, although it doesn’t make up for the car’s dynamic shortcomings. Those shortcomings aren’t huge but, given the car’s bold design and enduring practicality, they’re certainly among the very last things holding the Sorento back.

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 First drives