2011 Kia Sorento – Click above for high-res image gallery

Sometimes it's hard to remember what you did just yesterday, but think back to 2003 when Kia first introduced the Sorento mid-size SUV. At the time, the market was dominated by body-on-frame vehicles with real honest-to-goodness four-wheel-drive systems and rugged part-time transfer cases. The times, they are a changin'. Releasing a brand-new body-on-frame SUV into the marketplace these days, regardless of how good it may be – see Kia Borrego – is like bringing a sledgehammer to a knife fight.

Kia was able to hit the mark back in 2003 with its full-frame Sorento on account of clever marketing and a very attractive base price. That's just not good enough any longer. The Sport Utility Vehicle has officially handed the reins over to the Crossover, and Kia was left without a player in this newly-defined and ridiculously popular segment. Until now, that is. There will be no 2010 Sorento. As if to mark the death of the old vehicle and its rebirth into something completely different, Kia decided to completely skip the 2010 model year, and we're expecting good things from the 2011 Sorento after having been suitably impressed by Kia's two most recent vehicle launches, the Soul and Forte.

By now you've likely seen pictures of the new Sorento, and it looks good. But it takes much more than a pretty face to win over legions of CUV buyers with so many credible options to choose from. So, the big question is whether or not Kia has hit the mid-size crossover target square in the center with the latest version of its shapely 'ute, or if this particular arrow falls short of its intended trajectory. Keep reading to find out where the Sorento lands.

Photos copyright ©2009 Jeremy Korzeniewski / Weblogs, Inc.
First off, let's talk style. We happen to think the Sorento, though perhaps a bit dated this far into its life cycle, has always been one of the better looking SUVs on the market. While the old and new machines look entirely different from one another when placed side-by-side, that attractive tradition carries on with the 2011 model. Blur your vision a bit and it would be easy to mistake the '11 Sorento for any number of midsize CUVs, but take a little time to pick out the details and you'll likely be pleased.

Starting up front with a grille that's becoming a trademark of Kia Design Director Peter Schreyer (he of Audi TT fame) and is quickly spreading across the rest of Kia's lineup, there's an easily recognizable link between this Sorento and the aforementioned Forte sedan. When it comes to Kia's recent design direction, sharp, geometric shapes and creases are the name of the game, especially noticeable in the case of the Sorento as the eye is drawn to the vehicle's deeply chiseled window sills and rocker panels.

We don't often comment on specific colors on our first drives, but in this case we think it's worth mentioning that the 2011 Sorento puts its best foot forward when painted up in metallic tones and lighter shades, which allow more contrast between the flat surfaces and those angular wedges and indentations. Dark shades and jewel tones seem to mask these – we asked around to verify our initial opinion and found many fellow testers agreed with our assessment. Whatever the case, the Sorento isn't likely to offend and introverted drivers should find that it easily blends into its surroundings.

The term "all-new" is surely one of the most overused phrases in all of autodom, but this is one of those times when it truly applies. This Sorento really is completely different from its predecessor. In fact, the only thing that the 2011 Sorento shares with the 2010 model is its nameplate. Underneath the new sheetmetal is a new unibody structure that replaces the old body-on-frame architecture of the last-gen model. Length is up a little under four inches while the wheelbase, at 106.3 inches, actually shrinks by a smidge. One very important bit made possible by the lack of a full steel frame underneath is a weight reduction of about 400 pounds. In this day and age of rapidly expanding waist lines, that's a big deal. Look underhood and you'll be greeted by one of two powerplants – either a 2.4-liter four cylinder with 172 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque or an optional 3.5-liter V6 that puts out 273 hp and 247 lb-ft.

Propping up the front are independent MacPherson struts with coil springs; at the rear is a fully independent multilink arrangement. Ground clearance sits at 7.2 inches, which strikes us as more than enough considering that very few owners will ever venture off-road anyway. Sitting relatively close to terra firma means entering the Sorento is a breeze for both front and rear passengers. Once inside, there's plenty of room for occupants both up front and in the second-row. And the extra two perches out back? Yeah, pretty much exactly as you'd expect – for children, chihuahuas or chia pets only. Interior space is up a useful 15 percent for a total of 103.9 cubic feet. Put those rear-most seats down and you'll find plenty of cargo space (a max of 72.5 cubes with all the seats stowed away) with a nicely-shaped opening through the single-piece rear liftgate and a good amount of floor space. You'll note, though, that there isn't a great deal of stowage available with the seats up – just 9.1 cubic feet. So configured, our camera bag fit with room to spare while our standard carry-on overnight luggage did not.

Interior materials are middle-of-the-road. There's plenty of hard plastic that fails to pass the standard tap-tap test with the back of the knuckles, but at least it's nicely grained and doesn't cast much glare on the somewhat rakish front glass. Compared to natural rivals like the brand new Chevrolet Equinox and even the few-year-old Ford Edge, the Sorento might be a half-step behind when it comes to plastics, fabrics and leathers. Overall interior design, on the other hand, leaves very little to complain about. The instrument cluster is nicely shaped with three chrome-ringed gauges displaying speed front-and-center, flanked by a tachometer to the left and a combination fuel/temperature gauge on the right. The white-on-black dials are nicely legible and the digital readout at the bottom of the speedometer displays your transmission gear along with the driver's choice of various selectable functions such as a temperature gauge or trip odometer. Perhaps the most unfortunate piece of the interior puzzle is the high-gloss fake wood trim. Avoid it and stick to the optional matte finish, which makes the plastiwood much less noticeable. We wish there were a high-gloss piano black or matte aluminum trim option.

Directly in front of the driver is an attractive four-spoke steering wheel with the expected audio and cruise controls, but we found the leather wrapping rather hard and plasticky. The center of the dash is made up of the stereo, climate control and optional touchscreen satellite navigation controls. Everything is mostly uncluttered and within easy reach, and we appreciated the standard auxiliary USB input jack. The optional 7.1 surround sound Infinity audio package strikes us as a good idea, especially since the new Sorento is commendably quiet both in busy urban settings and longer, high-speed stretches on the highway – all the better to properly enjoy your tunes. A large panoramic sunroof is another intriguing option as it gives the cockpit a nice, airy feeling for both front and second-row passengers.

So, we like the way it looks and have established that its guts are a thorough improvement over the model it replaces. Fortunately, the best thing about the 2011Sorento is how it drives. Calm, quiet and composed are the first words that come to mind behind the wheel, an impression that's especially true on the highway. Steering is nicely weighted for its intended application, and the ratio is a bit quicker than the majority of its competitors. Ride is definitely biased towards smooth and comfortable, but thankfully, it's never floaty and there weren't any exaggerated motions to give our passengers seasickness at high speeds over rough terrain. Handling? Sure... everything reacts just as you'd expect from a mid-size crossover, which is to say understeer, understeer and more understeer. That's especially true of the front-wheel-drive version we sampled, as the Sorento's optional full-time all-wheel drive seems does a pretty good job of diverting torque to the rear when the front wheels are overwhelmed.

Power from the base 2.4-liter is just barely what we'd classify as adequate, and it goes about its business in a rather workmanlike manner without causing any undue ruckus or protesting too loudly. Which is good, as you'll surely be winding the little motor out on a somewhat regular basis to keep up with fast-moving traffic. Our advice would be to step up to Kia's excellent 3.5-liter V6, which offers plenty of smooth power for just about any situation you're likely to encounter. Just as importantly, fuel economy doesn't suffer all that much with the bigger mill. The most miserly combination pairs the four-banger up with front-wheel drive and nets the driver an estimated 21 miles-per-gallon city and 28 highway. Worst-case-scenario is the 3.5-liter V6 and all-wheel drive, and that's still good for 19 mpg in the city and 27 out on the highway. Either powerplant responds well to throttle inputs and seem eager to rev, but the larger six feels comparatively less stressed in this application, which likely explains why the fuel economy penalty is so minimal. Towing capacity stands at 2,000 pounds with the four and 3,500 pounds with the V6.

Both engines are mated up to a Kia-designed and built six-speed automatic transmission. Shift quality is good and the tranny was plenty eager to downshift a cog or two depending on the forcefulness of our right loafer. Not that it matters too much, but there is indeed a manual mode that's accessible by slapping the shifter to the left. Nudge the lever forward to upshift and back to downshift. Easy-peasy. But – and this is a big BUT in our opinion, not that it's specific to Kia – the manual mode is rendered particularly less useful since the transmission will still upshift and downshift as it pleases when in "manual" mode. For instance, when the engine approaches its redline, the transmission shifts up a gear, and there's no way to stop that from happening if you were purposely trying to hold it there. A six-speed manual will reportedly be offered only with the base four, but sadly none were made available for testing. Braking was strong and true regardless of which powertrain we were sampling.

For what it's worth – and to some, we expect it's worth quite a bit – the Sorento is the first Kia to be built right here in America in the automaker's brand new assembly plant in West Point, Georgia. We toured the facility, which is about an hour's drive from downtown Atlanta barring traffic, and found that it's a thoroughly modern factory with plenty of room for future expansion. Expect more models to join the Sorento in Georgia in the near future.

Final pricing has yet to be announced, but Kia did promise us that the 2011 Sorento would start below the $20,000 mark. Add the V6 engine and a few well-chosen options and you'll likely end up with a compelling package at something around $25K. Fully loaded models will surely top $30,000 and that's when things like the uninspired interior materials will start to hold it back. In any case, owners should be quite pleased by its driving dynamics and room, and that's surely the most important piece of the puzzle. As such, we'd have to say that Kia has pretty much nailed the bullseye with its 2011 Sorento by offering exactly the kind of vehicle the American consumer has proven it wants.

Photos copyright ©2009 Jeremy Korzeniewski / Weblogs, Inc.

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