2012 Kia Sorento EX AWD: Affordable family-size Crossover

New engine and third row of seats adds up to a lot of value for the money
by: NORTHWEST AUTOMOTIVE PRESS ASSOCATION, The 2012 Kia Sorento is a serious challenger in he midsize Crossover category.

According to Kia, the 2012 Sorento is a value-packed, family-sized Crossover Utility Vehicle that can be outfitted with a range of engine, drivetrain and trim choices.

According to the Northwest Automotive Press Association, the Sorento is a Sport Utility Vehicle. That's essentially what it became when Kia submitted a 2012 Sorento to Mudfest, NWAPA's annual competition to select its SUV of the Year.

The confusion is understandable. Crossovers, as they are commonly called, did not officially exist when NWAPA started Mudfest 17 years ago. At the time, virtually all SUVs were built on truck frames. Crossover, which are built like cars with unibody construction, were virtually unknown back then.

The major exception was the Subaru Outback, first introduced in 1994, which was essentially a more rugged version of the company's Legacy station wagon. But even Subaru muddied the waters by advertising the Outback as the 'first Sport Utility Vehicle,' even though it was technically a Crossover. And not even the first one. AMC beat it with the Eagle, a Concorde station wagon with Jeep-related running gear, which was first sold in 1980.

As a NWAPA member, I'm not going to suggest the group stop giving out its SUV of the Year award. After 17 years, the award has a well-earned reputation that could be undermined by changing the name to SUV or CUV of the Year. But it's easy to see why people might be confused.

SUVs first gained popularity by being rugged, roomy and, when equipped with four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, capable of serious off-road driving. But, because they were essentially fully-enclosed trucks, they were also bulky gas-guzzlers that could be hard to drive around and park downtown.

Crossovers picked up sales by being more like cars. The earliest ones, including practically all Subarus, were relatively small but the hatchback versions still had more cargo space than a coupe or sedan. They also got better mileage and were easier to live with in urban settings than SUVs. And equipped with all-wheel-drive, they could still do a little off-road driving, although the principle advantage was better traction in wet weather, a plus in the Pacific Northwest

But in the past few years, vehilces like the Sorento have blurred the difference between traditional SUVs and newer Crossovers. They are not based on specific cars or trucks. Instead, they have a chassis that is unique to them or shared with only a limited number of similar vehicles, if at all. Like newer cars, they use unibody construction techniques, which means the shell does not sit on a frame but provides much of vehicle's rigidity itself. Some have additional reinforcement, however, including partial subframes.

I'm not saying we need a third category for Unique Utility Vehilces. Who needs to add UUVs to their automotive shopping list? Things are confusing enough already, especially with a vehicle like the 2012 Sorento.

The largest vehicle Kia offers, the Sorento is long enough to have a third row of seats big enough to accommodate adults, at least on short trips. It is also engineered to feel like a relatively large vehicle, an advantge going over broken pavement.

But the Sorento also comes with light, responsive steering and solid brakes that make urban driving easy. And there is no optional V8 engine. Instead, the choices are a 175 horsepower 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder engine, a new 191 horsepower Gas Direct Injection (GDI) inline 4-cylinder engine, and a 276-horsepower V6 engine.

Our test model was an EX version equipped with All Wheel Drive with a locking center differential and a host of upgrades, including a leather interior, a navigation system with back-up camera, and an upgraded stereo. The result was a surprisingly plush package from a manufacturer best known for making cheap but unimpressive economy cars not that long ago - another reason why Kia and its sister company Hyundai are doing so well these days.

The test Sorento also came with the new GDI 2.4 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission - a combination that proved surprisingly pleasant during a week of driving. The engine seemed to work a little hard getting the 3,300-pound Sorento off the line, but after that it was very response, even when passing on freeways. It's hard to imagine anyone actually needing the V6, although it would probably be fun on those occasions when you just want to cut loose (something a NWAPA member would never encourage, of course).

Kia entered the Sorento in the Family category at this year's Mudfest, where it competed against only one traditional SUV, the Chevy Tahoe. With its car-like handling, the Sorento was easier to drive on the road portions of the competition. It also did pretty well going through a light off-road course with heavy mud and deep ruts, even without locking the differential for maximimum traction. With its larger size and greater ground clearance, the Tahoe floated over the obstacles like they weren't even there, however.

All of the other competitors in the Family category were Crossovers, including their redesigned Dodge Durango, which shares its chasis with the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The Sorento lost the Family award to the 2013 Acura RDX, which was a little surprising. While the all-new RDX is an excellent Crossover and sportier than the Sorento, it cost about $8,000 more and does not have third row of seats. Anyone looking for a family-oriented Crossover with maximum value would be well-advised check out the Sorento, especially one with the new GDI 2.4-liter engine.

Interestingly, the NWAPA's 2012 SUV of the Year is the Evoque, Land Rover's first Crossover.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2012 Sorento EX AWD.

• Manufacturer: Kia.

• Class: Mid-size crossover.

• Layout: Front-motor, front and all-wheel-drive

• Styles: Four-door hatchback.

• Engines: 2.4-liter inline 4 (175 hp, 169 ft-lbs); 2.4-liter GDI inline 4 (191 hp, 181 ft-lbs); 3.5-liter V6 (276 hp, 248 ft-lbs).

• Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 18/24 to 22/32, depending on engine and FWD or AWD.

• Prices: Starting around $21,250 ($32,300 as tested).