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Kia Sorento holds own in SUV class


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Kia Sorento holds own in SUV class



Kia's (THREE STARS out of four stars) 2011 Sorento SUV brings a pleasant new look to the crowded market for small crossover SUVs. Despite being nearly 4 inches shorter than a Chevrolet Equinox, the Sorento offers an optional small third-row seat, a feature few small crossovers provide.

The Sorento's curtain air bags do not extend to that rear seat. That leaves the small children riding there with less protection than other passengers.

The Sorento's fuel economy is in the middle of the pack among small crossovers.

Peppy hauler seats seven in three rows

Kia's first U.S.-built vehicle, the Sorento SUV, offers a third row of seats and appealing looks to compete with popular small SUVs like the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Dodge Journey and Toyota RAV4.

The sleek Sorento has two rows of seating for five people and a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine in base trim. Three-row seating to carry seven passengers and a 3.5-liter V6 are optional.

Seven-person capacity and V6 power are relatively uncommon features among small crossover SUVs. The Honda CR-V offers neither.

The best-selling models of leading competitors like the Equinox, Escape and RAV4 have four-cylinder engines. The RAV4 and Journey have optional seven-seat models. Like the CR-V, the Escape and Equinox carry no more than five people.

Sorento prices start at $19,995 for a front-wheel drive model with a 175-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission.

The least-expensive model with an automatic transmission is a $22,395 front-drive model with a six-speed mated to the four-cylinder engine. Adding all-wheel drive to that model raises the price to $24,095.

The optional 276-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 goes for $25,395 in front-drive and $27,095 with all-wheel drive. The six-speed automatic is standard equipment with the V6.

I tested a very well-equipped V6 all-wheel drive Sorento EX that stickered at $34,045. All prices exclude destination charges.

The base Sorento has a substantial price advantage over its competitors, but the difference dwindles as you add options for well-equipped models.

The Sorento's sleek exterior design features a forward-leaning stance, sharply raked windshield, creased lines sweeping upward along its sides, and a rounded nose adorned with wraparound headlights and a bowtie-shaped grille.

It's a refined and expensive-looking vehicle. The headlights and grille design are common to Kia's Forte compact and the upcoming Optima midsize sedan and Sportage, an SUV that's a bit smaller than the Sorento.

The Sorento's attractive shape creates large blind spots. Visibility is a major weakness that should have been addressed with blind-spot mirrors or alerts, smaller D-pillars and bigger windows.

The interior provides good room for the front two rows of seats. The optional third row is best left to small children.

Access to the third row is acceptable. Larger three-row SUVs like the Chevrolet Traverse and Toyota Highlander have more practical third rows. There's very little cargo space when the third-row seat is in use.

The interior of the Sorento I tested was trimmed in dark colors and attractive materials. The controls are legible and easy to use.

Fits were generally good, though some trim pieces were not aligned.

While the Sorento has antilock brakes, stability control and front-seat side air bags, it's missing one major piece of safety equipment. The curtain air bags protect passengers in the first and second rows of seats, but leave the third row exposed to injury.

The Sorento EX I tested had a good navigation system and a large sunroof. The sound system mutes, but does not pause, CDs and iPods when you use the Bluetooth system for hands-free phone calls.

That's a common flaw in vehicles from Kia and its corporate sibling Hyundai. The audio quality of hands-free calls was good, an improvement from other Kia and Hyundai models.

The Sorento has a comfortable ride, absorbing bumps smoothly. There is little wind or road noise at highway speeds.

The V6 provides peppy acceleration. The automatic transmission shifts smoothly and decisively. The steering effort felt high at parking-lot speeds. A speed-sensitive system would help.

The Sorento V6 AWD's 3,500-pound towing capacity matches the Escape, Equinox, Journey and RAV4.

The Sorento's EPA fuel economy ratings fall in the middle among small crossover SUVs. The AWD V6 model I tested outdid similar versions of the Escape, Equinox and Journey. The V6 RAV4 essentially matches the new Kia's EPA rating.

Among the four-cylinder models that make up the bulk of small SUV sales, the Chevy Equinox has the best EPA rating by several m.p.g. The Sorento outdid the four-cylinder Escape and Journey. It tied the RAV4 again.

The Sorento comes from Kia's first U.S. assembly plant, in West Point, Ga., about 80 miles southwest of Atlanta, on the Georgia-Alabama state line.



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