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First Run: 2014 Kia Sorento

By Al Vinikour and Christopher A. Sawyer

AV: I’ll admit to having to fend off dinosaurs when I went to grade school, Mr. Sawyer but, even though the Civil War was almost over by the time of your birth, you are not so young as to be unaware of what the term “mid-cycle facelift” means. That’s when an automobile manufacturer makes minor changes to a vehicle; usually it sports a different grille or front and rear fascias. If the company is really ambitious, it has a new dashboard using higher-grade materials.

CAS: If that. Often the OEM makes the most minor of changes, and calls the car “new” when “updated” would be a better word.

AV: Somehow that doesn’t apply to the 2014 Kia Sorento, what with 80% of the parts either all-new or redesigned. Talk about throwing conventional wisdom to the wildebeests! But what’s even more amazing is that it’s been only three years since Kia began producing the Sorento at its West Point, Georgia, assembly plant as a 2011 model. Now it’s doing a major overhaul on the vehicle. This just emphasizes what I’ve been saying: It’s not in the best interest of any auto company to underestimate the Koreans.

CAS: Indeed. Sales of 557,599 during the 2012 model year, a 14.9% increase over model year 2011 sales, and 18 straight years of market share growth are nothing to sneeze at. That plant, which produces the Optima and Sorento, is responsible for building more than 40% of Kia’s 2012 vehicles by volume. That means they have sold a lot of Optimas and Sorentos.

AV: I can see why, especially when you look at the 2014 model Sorento. Normally you expect a new front and rear fascia, hood, headlights and taillights. But Kia did so much more, including dropping the base 2.4-liter four for a direct-injected version of the same motor, and replacing the 3.5-liter V6 with a more powerful 3.3-liter engine.

CAS: Think about it. Hyundai just introduced the new Santa Fe with the same engines. It’s about the same size as the Sorento…

AV: So you’re saying these are the same vehicles under the skin?

CAS: Essentially. It’s almost as if Kia lifted the body off the old Sorento and slid the Santa Fe’s mechanicals under it. That puts Kia on the same page as Hyundai, and means the plant in Georgia can build Santa Fes in the future should Hyundai need more capacity. And Kia gets an essentially new vehicle in the bargain.

AV: So why didn’t Kia redesign the exterior and do more with the interior if they were going this far?

CAS: Cost. They didn’t have the budget to radically redo it, and chose to make the changes that made the most long-term sense. Plus, the Sorento isn’t a bad looking vehicle to begin with. It’s a bit boxier and subdued than you might expect, but fully in keeping with the tastes and expectations of buyers in this market. They also were able to reduce the hip point, step-in height and ground clearance by 10 mm (0.39 in) while adding 30 mm (1.2 in) to second row leg room and 9 mm (0.35 in) to the third row. But they didn’t stop there. Torsional rigidity has increased 18%, mainly through strengthened joints and crossmembers. Plus, the H-link front suspension still uses MacPherson struts, but adds new mounts and bushings, as well as more rigid strut towers.

AV: Zzzzz…. Oh, and a major focal point was to improve ride and handling, which these changes did. Arizona’s roads are, in my estimation, much closer to what the average customer will encounter, and here the Sorento was very satisfying. I was surprised by how quiet it is, though it could get a little louder than expected over coarse pavement, the stuff you describe as “grimbly”. And maybe I’m not being entirely fair because the Sorento has an almost luxury level of sound absorption. If you, as a driver, are counting on wind or road noise to drown out the incessant babble from the front passenger seat, crank up the audio system; especially if you’ve ordered the optional 10-speaker Infinity surround-sound unit. Finally, I liked the new “Flex Steer” system that lets you choose the assist for the electric power steering.

CAS: You did? I thought that was one of the Sorento’s worst features. The three settings (Comfort, Normal, Sport) were nothing to write home about and totally out of place in a small SUV. I doubt it took the Kia engineer who set the assist rates more than 10 minutes to do his job. It felt like Normal was the base setting, and the other two added or subtracted the same amount of assist, in this case, 10%. Of all the changes made to the steering, I liked the new ratio, which speeds the steering up a touch without making the car nervous, the most.

AV: Because we didn’t drive together this time, I was hoping that one of us would have been in the V6, the other in the four-cylinder model. I’m curious as to how well the smaller 2.4-liter GDI motor will perform. It’s got 191 hp and 181 lb-ft of torque — good numbers — but the real question is how hard it has to work to keep the acceleration going, and how loud it gets while doing so. The new 3.3-liter GDI V6, on the other hand, pumps out a solid 290 hp and 252 lb-ft, and is refined and quiet. Plus both come with a six-speed automatic standard.

CAS: The 2.4-liter motor would have been the real test, but you can only get it if you order the LX model. All models — LX, EX, SX and Limited — are available in either front- or all-wheel drive, but only the base model comes with the four-cylinder engine. All the others come standard with the V6. That makes the LX the price and fuel economy leader in the lineup, and means most buyers will have six cylinders under the hood. If you want to tow, the four can haul 1,650 lb. but the V6 has 3,500 lb capacity.

Oh, and the Sorento uses Magna’s DynaMax all-wheel drive system. It uses an electric motor to drive a pump that controls the lockup point of the rear differential. This means it doesn’t have to wait for the difference in rotational speed between the front and rear wheels to reach a point where a mechanical system engages. It also gives the engineers (hopefully not the same guy who did the steering calibration) control over how much the differential engages, when, and for how long. That should help handling immensely, and increase fuel economy by only locking the unit when and how much it is needed. I wish I had one now to drive in the snow. The dry roads around Scottsdale didn’t give it much exercise.

AV: Exercise? Bite your tongue. As for EPA mileage figures, the front-drive four-cylinder achieves 20 mpg city/26 mpg highway/22 mpg combined. The AWD version gets 19/24/21. The front-drive V6 gets 18/25/21 while the AWD version gets 18/24/20. Judging from these numbers, all of that DynaMax mumbo jumbo works, and you don’t pay much of a penalty for going with the larger, more powerful V6.

Let’s not forget that the Sorento comes in two-row ( five passenger) and three-row (seven passenger) versions. The third row passengers will be a little cramped; even with the increase in leg room they have 7.7 fewer inches than those sitting in the spacious second row. Kia also has fitted a programmable hatch, like the one you can get on the Chevy Equinox and Cadillac SRX, which allows you to set the opening height of the hatch so that you don’t crunch it in a low garage. If you’re sitting in the back row, you might want to use it as your emergency exit since leg room is Coach Class tight.

CAS: What did you think of the interior?

AV: The instrument cluster housing is beautiful, and the dials are legible, while the center stack provides user-friendly controls. The materials were nice, and larger occupants don’t have to worry about their legs getting squeezed. Too-often occupants with larger thighs have some part of the center console or door frames irritatingly rubbing one of their shins, making the riding experience somewhat less satisfying. Two leather grains are available, and a lot of technology — including my favorite, blind spot warning — is offered. I especially liked the redesigned panoramic sunroof with its one-piece power-operated shade, the 115-volt power inverter plug and the illuminated door handle pockets. Plus you can order UVO eServices, Kia’s and Microsoft’s newest infotainment system. It’s a lot like Ford’s Sync.

CAS: I’m not as enamored as you. My driving partner had to make reservations for his wife to spend the weekend in Scottsdale with him, and this gave me an opportunity to take a good hard look around the interior. And I do mean hard, as in materials. I fully expected the instrument panel upper, door caps and cards to have some soft-touch on them at the very minimum, but only the tops of the arm rests were minimally padded. If that wasn’t enough, the grab handles over the doors had too much side-to-side play, and the handles themselves were made of the same hard plastic. It’s knobby surface was not comfortable, and the slight rattling noise made by the handle as it moved from side-to-side as I used it was annoying.

I’ll agree that the control layout is good and the sightlines are excellent. You know where the corners of the Sorento are, and it’s the right size to fit most spaces. I also liked the shift to a smooth leather on the steering wheel. It felt much more upmarket than the previous model’s, though I was shocked to see that the air bag cover on the wheel was hard plastic… or some of the hardest “soft” plastic I’ve ever seen. It was hard to tell. The two-tone interior looked nice, and the color bands were divided by a stripe of “wood” that didn’t look too bad for something that came out of a test tube. However, my biggest disappointments had to be the way the heated front seats crinkled when you sat down or ran your hand over them, and the fact that only the driver’s widow had auto up/down. Granted, I was in an EX, the model above the base LX, but you expect this level of equipment in this segment.

AV: I almost forgot. I really liked the seven-inch TFT cluster between the tach and speedometer, as well as the eight-inch navigation screen. Both were crisp and clear, though I understand you ran into a bit of a problem with the nav screen.

CAS: Yep. My driving partner and I were trying to bring up the map, and had to go through a couple of steps to do so. Then, after I zoomed out a bit, I tried to change the map orientation from North on top to the direction of travel, but got the crosshairs instead. That meant the screen stayed stuck on that part of the map, and we soon lost sight of where we were headed. I tried to work my way back to the proper setting, but only got there by jumping through the menus randomly and coming back to the map. As if to prove it wasn’t just me who had this trouble, my driving partner hit the same problem, and used the same solution to rectify the situation. Exasperating.

AV: If it hadn’t been a day’s ride and drive, I’d suggest enrolling in the Sunnyvale School for the Technically Challenged, or reading the owner’s manual. That usually works for me. But I understand what you’re saying. You expect to be able to use the thing without having to take a night course to learn the basics.

CAS: Agreed. And pricing?

AV: MSRP ranges from $24,100 for a front-drive LX up to $39,700 for a Limited with all-wheel drive. There are also a large number of port-installed options as well as factory-installed packages. That’s a pretty big price and equipment span when you think about it, but the Sorento straddles the mainstream/near luxury segments pretty well while giving buyers a trim, roomy package that’s easy to park and drive.

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