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2011 Kia Sorento test drive

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Tryin to catch up on reviews!

Today I had some free time cuz the wife took the day off so I spun out to survey the new 2011 Kia Sorento.

For 2011, Kia has updated one of their signature and most popular models by moving to a new platform that is car / crossover based in hopes of giving the Sorento a more modern crossover appeal. This is what renewed the interest for me in the vehicle. That, and very attractive pricing and value in addition to handsome, if a bit bland, new styling.

For me in particular, having two crossovers in the garage (Aztek, one of the original crossovers, and a Ford Taurus X), i feel I am the type of shopper companies target with these kinds of vehicles and from a family vehicle standpoint I have interest in them. For this test though, I was interested in a market that is rarely served, a medium to large crossover or SUV with a manual transmission. The unit I tested was the base Sorento (gray, I think) with a 6 speed manual transmission and a 2.4 litre four cylinder engine.

I would guess that a lot of you think no one is interested in this kind of vehicle. For the most part that is true I guess. Although for me, what I may be looking for is something to replace my Aztek as a second vehicle in the stable. Something spacious and utilitarian, but not feature crazy or expensive. I can assure you I am not the only one who has interest in this kind of vehicle even if folks like me are rare. A previous coworker had recently an Explorer with a manual trans, and another excoworker lamented greatly when his over a decade old Pathfinder went to pasture on him and he ended up replacing it with an automatic Pathfinder.

Of course is it enough to justify a place in the market? Well, admittedly in the case of the Sorento, the manual trans is only available with front drive and low equipment level. In fact, the third row seat is not available with this configuration and the only interior color is gray. The MSRP of the tested unit was about 20,900, which for any vehicle of this size, standard features, and utility, is a very good deal. Current discounts and incentives would have the actual purchase price in the range of 18,500 or a little more. Not bad at all.

Any time you are comparing the relative quality of a vehicle you must look within its segment and see what the benchmarks are. To be honest I should do some fact checking to see who IS still offering manual trans in the SUV segment, but I do know the FJ cruiser, which is only a two door, had it. The most recent Suzuki XL7 had it, and perhaps the 4runner did..? Sorry for my lack of research. To me, the most popular option for a crossover of this focus has probably been the Ford Escape base. Another vehicle which I have driven, BTW, and its not too bad of a vehicle if a basic crossover with space and a smooth ride and low price is what you are looking for.

Apart of from that somewhat direct competitor, one must look within the price segment to see what other 'space vehicles' with manual trans are to be had in the 'about 20 grand' price range. Something akin to a Scion Xb or a Hyundai Elantra Touring? No doubt more carlike, and a bit smaller. I am not sure if they would have the same buyer. So really in essence, I am looking at this vehicle in two ways. I am comparing it vs. the Escape with manual trans, but on many aspects I will be commenting on the Sorento in terms of other popular crossovers within its price and size reach, with no regard to whether its an auto or a stick. And that is a pretty wide swath of competition. So I probably won't mention too many of the competitors directly; forgive me if I forget to make some obviously relevant comparions.

For example, in the low to mid twenties in MSRP with four cylinder, one could score a Mazda CX-7 base, or a Chevy Equinox base. I am not sure where the Venza or Highlander is in base four cylinder form. A Mitsubishi Outlander or Toyota RAV4 might be there. I hate the Honda CR-v so I won't dignify it with a comment but it does sell. One vehicle that gets neglected in mention often is the Dodge Journey....which has a NASTY interior but has great value, lots of features, and is also offered with four cylinder.

So as you can see there are plenty of choices. So, how does the Sorento stack up?

Edited by regfootball

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The previous gen Sorento was actually one of Kia's most popular models. Part of that was due to the pleasing but somewhat trucky shape that was popular during the whole SUV boom. No doubt some of the decline in the more recent years of the Sorento's popularity was due to the fact that the styling did not speak the 'crossover language'. That being, a more agressive, carlike stance, racier lines, and a larger cabin proportion. To this extent, the 2011 Sorento stands out prior to the last gen. The handsome but slightly bland new styling fits in nicely with a contemporary crossover language. The new Sorento sports Kia's new signature front end grille treatment, with what I liken to 'alert hunting dog' eyes and shape that is common to the new Forte and soon to be new Optima / Magentis as well. For its mission in a conservative segment, the styling probably succeeds without having any flaws like say, the new Outlander grille.

Up close, the visual inspection of quality is that its actually pretty competitive. Panels align, paint seems decent. I didn' crawl under the vehicle or open the hood. The doors open and shut with a very pleasing heavy and soft 'thunk'. Wheels seem nice for a base vehicle. Character lines are clean and consistent.

Much of the appeal of crossovers is inside and clearly with some reservation, I feel Kia really did a great job in this regard. I felt material quality was very good (in a lot of cases the equal or better than my own Taurus X) and the textures, fit, finish, assembly, and touch points were all in my estimation quite acceptable for this class. The fake wood was even not bad! The steering wheel and its controls felt really good and looked good. The stalks and window switches were very nice. The armrest felt great and was wide, and it concealed a cavernous and useful storage compartment. The cupholders were placed in a very good spot next to the very nicely shaped and nice to hold on to shifter. The seats were perfect! firm and wide and very comfortable (I think the new Optima will get the same seats). The quality of the cloth was perfect and they looked ok. Seat was easily adjustable and mirrors were as well and decent sized. The door panels were very good. This did not feel like a 20,000 vehicle!

My main gripe with the interior was its simultaneously attractive and contemporary, yet somewhat dated feeling design. I can't really pinpoint exactly why I say this, aside from a sort of unimaginative and plain center stack. The action of all the switches and buttons was fine. It just seemed to me like the center stack design seemed dated in a time where so many manufacturers are getting stylish with the radio and climate controls. Let me simply say it was very functional...and a big plus is standard bluetooth and USB (which should be standard on EVERY vehicle sold in the US).

I did have a chance to sit in a new Sorento with leather in the showroom and the quality of the leather defied the price point on the (27k) vehicle. In tan leather, particularly handsome. Now at 34k, maybe not as much wow. But I only say this to prove just how startling it was to sit in a vehicle with nicer interior to me than a new Venza,

Leg room, hip room, shoulder room, head room, all in abundance for the driver and front seat passenger. I did not get back there but from the auto show I do remember that perhaps like my Aztek the Sorento could use 3-4 more inches of rear leg room. No worries, the split fold seats of the second row are quite comfortable. I will say that the third row (not available on the manual) does not seem very commodious...for kids they may be fine like on a Rendezvous but certainly its not an adult friendly third row like in the Flex / Taurus X or GM Lambdas.

Rear cargo space without the third row seemed nicely wide and tall, and deep, and the liftover was fine. Probably similar to the cargo space in an Edge, or a little more. For sure more than the Murano. Wider and deeper than the Escape for sure. Easily makes mincemeat of say, a Crosstour. A perfectly acceptable and useful cargo hold.

Visibility in and out of the Sorento I did not find any issues with in my test drive. Its possible I may have wanted more view out the back side if I had a longer drive, but as I said, no issues with visibility on the drive. In fact, the view out the front is rather panoramic, with a high seat remininscent of the GM Lambdas. Somewhat trucky feeling view, but not at all like say, an Expedition.

So how does it drive?

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Well, the drive was an odd dichotomy to me. Big word for me...lol. Why I say that....I felt that the nice quality of the interior predisposed me to anticipate a drive experience that was as consistent and well thought out as the interior itself was. This is the part where I remind everyone it was a base model, and a rather large vehicle with only a four cylinder motor. Yet, four cylinders are becoming increasingly popular in the crossover segment and to offer the Sorento with ANY four cylinder powertrains (much less one equipped with automatic and all wheel drive!) had me thinking Kia was quite confident in the performance capabilities and drive experience of the vehicle. My own Aztek has only 185hp




despite having six cylinders...yet that never has really contributed to a negative mark on that vehicle for me. I figured the 175hp four cylinder motor would be up to the task, especially with a manual transmission, and the fact that the Sorento is not an overly heavy crossover.

The engine started willingly, but my first though upon hearing the engine was its somewhat coarse tone. There was a little vibration filtering though into the cabin as well. I placed the shifter (a bit notchy and rubbery at first but afterwards nicely smooth) into gear and let out the light and easy to modulate clutch and realized that in order to coax this baby along I needed to do one of two things.

By the way, yes I did say the shifter and clutch were not bad. A manual driver would be ok with this shifter and clutch. The shifter felt nice, the throws were about the right length, the gates were spaced well and not confused and were easy to row. I don't recall any blown shifts.

So what you needed to do with this thing was either stay in a lower gear and stay in the low rpms where there was torque...or, stay in a lower gear and build up the rpm's where there was torque (and the power). There seemed to be an absence to me of midrange GRUNT, in addition to just in general a lack of willingness to rev easy (like say a GM ecotec engine). I felt the throttle response could have been sharper.

What makes the driver less willing to dip into the throttle on this vehicle is the coarse SOUND of the engine and the vibration you feel when asking it to step up to the plate in a big way. Its all relative of course. Let me be clear, this is an NVH / chassis tuning and engine smoothness (or sound deadening) issue. If we were talking 2003 I am not sure I could make an issue about this. And again, we are talking four cylinders. AND...it is possible this would not even be apparent in a Sorento with a well tuned automatic transmission. So I am not sure what to make of this. Its probable that a six cylinder automatic Sorento has no rough edges or that the four with auto is improved as well. So I am not going to be harsh with judgement. But to me what is disturbing is that there is still NVH work to be done so the drive meets the execution of the interior and cabin related bits.

And its not just the lack of torque or some of the noise and vibration coming through from the engine. The engine rpm in 6th even was a bit high (about 3,000 at 75 mph), but just the noise from under the vehicle and especially the wind noise against the windshield and front pillars. Yes it was a windy day too. But maybe this really would be a better 65+ mph vehicle with a hushed six. They still needed to do 'quiet tuning' on the vehicle...IMO. Oddly I felt it did settle into a zone in 4th-6th below that 2500 rpm mark on the tach, so I kept wanting to upshift early to avoid the engine groan, vibration, and hitting the midrange where there was a dearth of grunt.

It just feels like they are kind of close.....but just did not go all the way. Its like they said, 'well we only have so many resources so we'll get the interior done well, get most of the way with the powertrain and get it out the door'.

Is it a deterrent to purchase? Well, oddly no. Because I think they just need to work at it. If you drive it a certain way, then the impression of needed NVH improvements goes away and it becomes a nicely secure and planted riding vehicle with pretty decent steering (light with ok feel and reasonably quick), and mildly trucky but comfortable ride, and a very narrow turn radius. The sorento is very manueverable, and for the most part behaves well. It won't rival a CX-9 I don't think. But I would guess most drivers would enjoy the predictability of the chassis.

So that is why its kind of frustrating that despite the attractive and well executed wrapper, nice and surprising interior quality and accomodations, and good price and value relationship, it seems like there is just some work left to do on the NVH issue. Is it just that I am being overly picky and expect too much? Well, that could be true. Maybe I am expecting too much, but Kia just needs to tend to the NVH, cabin noise, and power delivery issues before I am convinced that every base was covered to give the owner the confidence that an upstart brand like Kia is now engineering their vehicles to the same high level as all the other industry giants.

Edited by regfootball

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Thanks for the review. It seems like Kia's latest products are 90% there - not 100% mechanically refined or polished, but they offer enough value, equipment, design, and quality to make up for it. I recall being very impressed by how nice and substantial the $15K Soul's interior was (I liked it better than the Fit's) but being unimpressed by its vague gearbox.

The new Sportage, btw, is a genuinely good and interesting looking car. The chief Kia designer used to work for VW and did the TT and Beetle.

Edited by pow

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So how do we sum this up?

Well again, the version of this vehicle I tested will not account for much of the Sorento's overall volume. So I am not going to weight my opinion greatly on what I think is fixable or is solved by selecting another version (possibly, like the V6, or one with an automatic). I just think some of the wind and road noise needs to be immediately addressed since it suggests to me that very detailed engineering and testing may be lacking in spots in this vehicle. Why not some better door sealing, or some refined aerodynamic work on the shapes, or some additional sound deadener in places? Why not spend more time getting the engine tuned with a better torque curve? Or why doesn't the engine seem more lively and more willing to rev without some of the coarse sounds?

Of course, its not like other vehicles in this class, and in general, don't have a lot of the same issues.

Well as I said, perhaps many of the drivers will drive it in such a way or adjust their driving so its not an issue, and then it becomes this....the Sorento is a value laden, spacious, and feature packed vehicle with a nice interior and a handsome, contemporary shape, backed my a nice warranty, and by gosh now its even built here in the USA?

Reality is it probably has fewer shortcomings than some of the mid size sedan cars available, everything said previously aside. In particular if the other versions of the Sorento feel more refined than this configuration, then Kia has every right to feel they have a good seller on their hands. I actually found myself liking the vehicle in spite of its NVH and power delivery issues, and would be willing to learn how to work within them. On balance the positives outweigh the negatives for me and so I give it an endorsement and think this will be another model to moves Kia up the automotive landscape. Let's give it a very nice solid B.

Quick sum (4 cyl, manual trans, front drive)


-styling that fits in and is pleasant

-spacious and nice quality interior

-lots of convenient storage and cargo capacity

-very good ergonomics, visibility, and controls

-stable and secure ride

-small turning radius, manueverability

-price / value

-many configurations and levels of equipment available



-slightly bland styling

-bland and dated looking center stack

-four cylinder lack of mid range grunt, high rpm in top gear

-sometimes coarse engine sounds and lack of willingness to rev

-wind noise and road noise from below

-some other competitors drive sportier

-Kia still establishing its reputation and dealer network

Maybe down the road I can try a V6, more loaded version and see how that compares. I would look forward to that.

Edited by regfootball

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Thanks for the review. It seems like Kia's latest products are 90% there - not 100% mechanically refined or polished, but they offer enough value, equipment, design, and quality to make up for it. I recall being very impressed by how nice and substantial the $15K Soul's interior was (I liked it better than the Fit's) but being unimpressed by its vague gearbox.

The new Sportage, btw, is a genuinely good and interesting looking car. The chief Kia designer used to work for VW and did the TT and Beetle.

agree on all of that, and I can't wait to see the new Sportage. Its cousin, the new Tucson is shockingly nice to look at and sit in and is packaged very well.

Edited by regfootball

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The big red squares on the back ruin the design for me. They are uber-bland and generic. I want to see the new Sportage.

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This vehicle feels more robust and substantial on the road than the new Outback does. Although the Outback has a larger back seat, it has less cargo room. The Outback's engine is a little smoother and more willing.

Edited by regfootball

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