First Drive: 2009 Kia Borrego

Click above for high-res gallery of the 2009 Kia Borrego

Could there be an any worse time to debut a brand new body-on-frame SUV like Kia has done with the new 2009 Borrego? Gas prices have most every new car shopper running from SUVs into small cars with four-cylinder engines. In fact, many SUV early adopters are now driving much smaller sedans like those models that make up Kia's bread-and-butter line. Enough new Korean vehicles were sold in America so far this year that the Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group managed to outpace mighty Honda in total sales as it roared into the number five worldwide automaker spot. Therefore, our immediate thought is that Kia must be crazy to go ahead and introduce the new Borrego in the American market... but Kia would have you believe otherwise.

As Kia's sales team sees it, since the Korean automaker currently offers no contenders in the true midsize SUV category, any slice of the dwindling market is a win. Is the Borrego good enough to win over any remaining SUV buyers? Read on.

All photos copyright Jeremy Korzeniewski / Weblogs Inc.

The new Borrego breaks no new ground in terms of styling. The blocky 'ute features corners just smoothed-over enough to eschew the current box-it-came-in trend, though the upswept side sightline, also currently en vogue, is present and accounted for. A large chrome grille dominates the front view, while dual rhombus-shaped headlights flank that massive mug. Pronounced wheel arches bring the current Acura line to mind -- perhaps not the wisest choice of automakers to copy. Standard light gray body cladding and bumpers are also featured all around the vehicle as is common on vehicles of the genre. It seems that Kia managed to locate and include all of the common sport utility vehicle trappings. While the look is a bit played out, the Kia manages to remain anonymous enough that it's not likely to turn off many prospective buyers based on looks alone.

Inside, the look is fairly upscale. In fact, Kia sees its new vehicle as a bargain-priced option when compared with the current entry-level luxury utility vehicles, going so far as to include the Lexus RX330 on some promotional slides shown to us during our early-morning press briefing. While it would be hard-pressed to live up to that early billing, the fit and finish of the interior was considerably better than expected and reminded us again how far Hyundai and Kia have come in initial quality. Panel gaps were tight and the graining on the soft-touch plastic was agreeable enough.

There were a few sour points, though, including the actual instrument cluster and the shiny plastic covering in which it was festooned. An oversized speedometer looms large front and center in the binnacle, flanked by a tach on the left along with temperature and fuel gages on the right side. Individual gauges those other bits of info would be more fitting in an upscale interior. Still, everything was easy to see in both daylight and at night. A totally different cluster will be standard on Limited models, which are expected to appear later in the year.

At the price point the Borrego is able to hit -- starting around $26 grand and hitting $40,000 after all the boxes are checked -- and especially since Kia intends to position it as a luxury offering, there are some expected features that are either not standard or not available. For instance, keyless starting is nowhere to be found, and Bluetooth is only available as a non-factory installed accessory. Controls for the rear air conditioning and heat are optional, though the ducting out back is well designed and part of the standard equipment. Heated seats are also optional both front and rear along with a power sunroof. A high-end Infinity sound system is optional, as is voice-activated Navigation.

We found the Borrego very easy to enter and exit, and the second row of seats fold neatly away for entry into the standard 50/50 split third row. Of course, leg, hip and shoulder room is a bit lacking back there, but it was certainly on par with what is available elsewhere. Our test vehicles were equipped with a leather interior that seemed more durable than plush and very ready to stand up to the day-to-day grind. Ten cup-holders are also available for the morning trip to Starbucks. One feature that we really appreciated was the console-mounted axillary audio jack and USB slot. Mounted just to the right of the shifter and covered by a nice and sturdy plastic door, cables can be kept free of the important buttons and levers filling up the center of the dash.

Driving the Borrego again proved that Kia has studied the segment carefully. While current trends dictate a car-like ride and handling compromise, Kia left those adjectives to its corporate sibling, the Hyundai Veracruz. As is befitting a large full-frame SUV, the Borrego rides firm and feels substantial. For those looking to haul lots of people along with their stuff, the Borrego feels ready for the job. Towing also proved a strong point, as the Borrego comes equipped with a hitch as standard equipment. Powered by either a 3.8L DOHC V6 with 276 horsepower and 267 lb-ft of torque or Kia's first-ever V8 engine that displaces 4.6L and offers 337 horsepower and 323 lb-ft of torque, the Borrego can tug between 5,000 and 7,500 pounds. A five-speed auto is hooked to the six while the V8 comes with a ZF-supplied six-speed automatic.

Both the V6 and V8 engines had plenty of power for around-town driving, though we preferred the six-speed tranny from the V8 in all circumstances. Fuel mileage stands at 17 city and 21 highway for the 2WD V6 model, which drops one mile per gallon in the city when 4WD is added. Somewhat surprisingly, the V8 is able to achieve 15 city and 22 highway in 2WD -- one better on the super slab than the six -- while highway mileage stoops to 20 mpg with 4WD. Surely, the bigger V8 engine is working less hard in situations where the driver calls up some extra forward thrust, especially as it's equipped with an extra gear, but the V6 expected to make up the bulk of sales will prove perfectly adequate in all but the most demanding of situations.

When the Borrego program was first started, Kia surely didn't expect the price of gas to skyrocket as high as it has and quite so quickly. Regardless, it's a credible contender to such SUV stalwarts as the Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Considering that none of these models has exactly been setting the world on fire when it comes to sales, nor have they have been substantially updated in years, Kia will likely be happy if it can just eke out enough sales to break even on the project. The Borrego is certainly good enough that midsize SUV shoppers should take a good look at it before making any buying decisions.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

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