Big Changes Below, But Just A Little Off The Top

2014 Kia Sorento

It happens all the time. Three or four years into an automobile's lifecycle, the manufacturer goes back to the drawing board, making what it hopes are vital improvements to keep its product at the top of the sales charts. It's true of the vehicle we're discussing today, the 2014 Kia Sorento, but unlike many midlife facelifts, most of what's new here can't be seen with the naked eye.

Yes, there are the normal changes to the front and rear fascias, and a few nips and tucks here and there to improve the crossover's outward appearance. But, for the first time in as long as we can remember, the big news here is that the new Sorento is actually riding atop a new platform, according to Kia.

So while the bodywork has been reshaped where appropriate, it really is what's under the skin that counts with the 2014 Kia Sorento. We decided this development was worth a closer look, so we borrowed the keys to the new Korean crossover and drove a few hundred miles into the desert in Arizona with nothing but a notebook and our trusty camera.

2014 Kia Sorento side view2014 Kia Sorento front view2014 Kia Sorento rear view

Let's get the styling updates out of the way. At the front, you'll see thinner chrome trim around the familiar "tiger-nose" grille, which is now finished in an anodized silver shade or black plastic mesh. Flanking the grille are new headlight clusters, which now have LED accents at the top, forming sort of a brow shape over the projector lamps. The optional foglights are pushed to the lower corners for 2014, and the taillights at the rear feature LED bulbs as well. Nothing has changed in between the stem and stern, except for body-color cladding that replaces the thicker black plastic of previous years.

Second-row passengers now enjoy an additional 30 millimeters (about 1.2 inches) of legroom.

Judging from what we saw on the surface, we were a bit dubious when Kia engineers told us the 2014 Sorento was riding on an all-new platform. A closer look, however, reveals a few significant changes to the car's unibody structure. Starting from the top, there's a new panoramic sunroof with larger panes of glass and a single sliding cover. While this would normally reduce structural rigidity, Kia added additional strut tower bracing in the engine bay, new stiffer front and rear suspension subframes with larger bushings and new welding patterns that make the unibody structure 18-percent stiffer than before.

Not only are the guts of the Sorento beefed up, its new suspension bits, though still MacPherson struts and coil springs up front with a multi-link arrangement out back, allow for more interior room than before. Second-row passengers now enjoy an additional 30 millimeters (about 1.2 inches) of legroom and those in the third row see an additional 9 millimeters (not quite half an inch). Those aren't massive increases, but any little bit of knee room is appreciated when packing three rows into a crossover of this size.

2014 Kia Sorento grille2014 Kia Sorento headlight2014 Kia Sorento wheel2014 Kia Sorento taillight

The new platform also reduces weight. In its most basic four-cylinder trim, the 2014 Sorento weighs 3,594 pounds, whereas the last-gen machine came in at 3,845. That's significant, and it carries over to the V6 models – a top-level Sorento SX with the V6 engine and all-wheel drive tips the scales at 3,894 pounds, a very useful reduction from the 4,131-pound 2013 model.

The 2014 Sorento weighs 3,594 pounds, whereas the last-gen machine came in at 3,845.

Add up all those changes and we're pleased to say that Kia's not full of hot air when describing the 2014 Sorento's platform as redesigned.

Engine options for 2014 are also a step up from last year. Standard in the new Sorento is a 2.4-liter gasoline direct-injected four-cylinder engine that puts out 191 horsepower at a high 6,300 rpm and 181 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 revs. That engine was optional in 2013, with the base machine eschewing direct injection and losing 16 horses and 12 lb-ft in the process. Similarly, a new 3.3-liter gasoline direct-injected V6 engine can be had (the V6 comes standard in SX and SX-L trim) pumping out 290 horsepower and 252 pound-feet. It's both more powerful and more fuel efficient than the 3.5-liter engine it replaces.

A six-speed automatic gearbox comes standard with either engine, as does front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive is optional. As before, this on-demand system sends power to the wheel with the most traction, but for 2014, the system adds Torque Vectoring Cornering Control that Kia claims improves stability in certain situations.

2014 Kia Sorento engine

Rounding out the mechanical changes for 2014 is a new electronic power steering system that replaces the previous hydraulic unit. Benefits include increased fuel efficiency and a quicker ratio than before. The big drawback, as is so often the case these days, is a numb feel from the wheel, with very little feedback offered to the driver. On the positive side, Kia has fitted the 2014 Sorento with a system it calls FlexSteer that offers three distinct steering weights: Comfort, Normal and Sport (a similar system is offered in the Sorento's platform mate, the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport). Normal felt fairly appropriate, while Comfort seemed there solely to remind enthusiastic drivers that they don't care about comfort and really want to have it in Sport.

It's been fitted with FlexSteer that offers three distinct steering modes: Comfort, Normal and Sport.

Step inside the new 2014 Sorento and you'll be greeted with some fancy technological tidbits that include a seven-inch color LCD center gauge on EX models and up (optional on LX) that is really quite impressive. It takes a few double-takes to realize you're not looking at a simple needle and gauge until you start playing with the steering wheel buttons. The digital gauge can offer up multiple trip meters, fuel mileage and range, music displays, outside temperature, routing directions and more. Better yet, it is crisp, clear and easy to read in all types of light.

An audio system with AM/FM/CD/MP3, Sirius satellite radio and Bluetooth streaming comes standard. If you don't like anything over the air, there are USB and auxiliary input jacks, of course. A very impressive 10-speaker sound system from Infinity is optional. Smartphone owners will also be happy to hear that Kia's latest UVO with eServices is along for the ride. The telematics suite operates through your phone's data connection and makes use of a downloadable app (iPhone available at launch, Android coming soon). Using the eight-inch center-mounted LCD panel, owners can either use the touchscreen or a long list of voice commands for music, phone services and navigation. Vehicle diagnostics, customized maintenance schedules, roadside assistance and Google Maps join entertainment bits like Pandora and Twitter. Best of all, the services are all free for the first 10 years or 100,000 miles, minus, of course, whatever you already pay for your mobile data plan.

2014 Kia Sorento interior2014 Kia Sorento front seats2014 Kia Sorento rear seats2014 Kia Sorento rear cargo area

Dual ventilated front seats are a very nice touch, and are most appreciated in the sunny climes of Arizona where we tested the Sorento. Those in colder climates will also be happy to hear that both the front and rear seats are available with optional heating elements. Of course, these are just a few of the many options available on the Sorento. There are two leather choices in addition to the standard fabric, a power liftgate with programmable height control, power driver and passenger seats, a backup camera, and Kia's first use of blind spot monitoring.

We found the ride to be on the firm side of comfortable, just as we prefer.

Seventeen-inch silver-painted wheels come with the base LX model, while the EX upgrades those to 18 inches and the SX goes all the way to 19. The EX V6 model we tested wore the 18-inch wheels, which were not only attractive, but appropriately sized to nicely fill the wheel wells.

When the unibody Sorento first debuted in 2009, many a rumble was heard about the crossover's stiff ride – so much so that Kia upgraded the 'ute with Dual Flow Damper shocks in 2011. These units are still in use for 2014, and we found the ride to be on the firm side of comfortable, just as we prefer. Handling also benefits from the high-tech shocks, as the Sorento tracks well on long stretches of highway and, though nobody will mistake it for a sportscar, it even feels a wee bit sprightly when the going gets twisty, likely helped by its smaller-than-average footprint and manageable weight.

2014 Kia Sorento gauges2014 Kia Sorento infotainment system2014 Kia Sorento shifter2014 Kia Sorento drive controls

Those somewhat downsized dimensions are a key point when discussing the Sorento. Consider: Kia points to the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge and Toyota RAV4 as the Sorento's main competitors. None of those crossovers are particularly large, and the Sorento's wheelbase is shorter than all but the RAV4's. Just as interestingly, now that Toyota has dropped the third-row option in its RAV4, the Sorento is the only one that offers seven-passenger seating. That could be an important point for families, but bear in mind that space inside will be at a premium. Think of the Sorento as something of an in-betweener nestling in the space just larger than compact but smaller than other seven-seat CUVs.

Think of it as something just larger than compact but smaller than other seven-seat CUVs.

We're happy to report that Kia has upgraded the Sorento's four-wheel disc brakes for 2014. All four rotors now measure 11.9 inches in diameter, ventilated up front and solid at the rear. It's not that there was anything wrong with the previous brakes, but who's to argue with an eight-foot reduction in stopping distance from 62 miles per hour? We found the brakes perfectly adequate and noted a firm pedal feel.

We didn't get a chance to sample the direct-injected four-cylinder engine, as all the test cars we drove were equipped with the 3.3-liter V6. Not that we're complaining – the new direct-injected engine is smooth, powerful and unobtrusive, and the six-speed automatic it's paired with executes nicely timed shifts. There's plenty of power from the V6 engine, and acceleration felt more than zippy enough, and while nobody is going to be disappointed with the six, we hope to get some seat time in a four-cylinder model soon before assuming the bigger engine is necessary.

2014 Kia Sorento rear 3/4 view

Fuel mileage comes in at 18 city, 25 highway and 21 combined (18/24/20 with AWD) with the new V6 – a small improvement over the last model's 18/24 rating. We'd have expected a bit more, considering the lack of hydraulic power steering, the addition of direct injection and the notable weight loss. Opting for the standard four-cylinder engine improves matters with ratings of 20 city, 26 highway and 22 combined (19/24/21 with AWD). None of these figures is impressive, and they are all lower than competitors such as the Ford Edge (with 2.0-liter four-cylinder EcoBoost), Chevrolet Equinox (2.4-liter four-cylinder) and Toyota RAV4 (2.5-liter four-cylinder).

It's pretty attractive, and that really matters in this segment.

Base price for an LX model with front-wheel drive and the four-cylinder comes in at $24,100 (plus $850 for destination on all models) and adding all-wheel drive bumps that to $25,800. A fully loaded SX-L trim (new for 2014, with upgraded leather and a host of premium options) pushes the price all the way to $39,700 with all-wheel drive. That's dangerously close to starting with a four, in case you didn't notice. A mid-level EX with AWD, some convenience items and a third-row seat will settle somewhere near $34,000.

So, add it all up and what do you end up with? A capable, comfortable crossover that doesn't particularly stand out in any way, good or bad. It can get pretty pricey considering its size, but it counters that by offering three rows of seating, a powerful engine option and all the technology goodies you could possibly want. Plus, it's pretty attractive, and that really matters in this segment. Before setting out on your new-car-shopping adventure, though, take some time to consider your priorities. Do you really want a seven-passenger crossover, or would a minivan suit your needs more appropriately? If it turns out you are indeed a crossover kinda family, you'd be wise to consider the Sorento.