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2011 Kia Sorento: Redesigned to compete with the big boys

Midsize crossover offers good value for the money
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT The completely revised 2011 Kia Sorento is one of the few midsize crossovers with optional seating for six.

Not so long ago, there were only two kinds of Sport Utility Vehicles - older truck-based ones and newer car-based Crossover Utility Vehicles, commonly called crossovers. Generally speaking, the truck-based SUVs were bigger, could haul more gear, and could go farther off road. The crossovers were easier to drive and got better gas mileage.

But nowadays manufacturers are beginning to build SUVs on their own specifically designed underpinnings. Most reviewers refer to them as crossovers and expect all of them to drive like cars. But that's not necessarily the case, as Kia has shown this year with its all new Sorento, which falls somewhere between a traditional SUV and a crossover. A midsize, it is small enough to drive easily in downtown traffic. But it also drives more like a truck than a car, especially over broken pavement.

Personally, I think it is a smart marketing move. The Sorento's ride should appeal to owners of traditional SUVs who want to downsize without giving up the security of a vehicle that feels like it can go anywhere. During a week of driving, I found the ride only a little bouncier than other crossovers on the most neglected streets and dirt roads.

And if you really want a crossover that drives like a car-like ride, Kia has completely updated its compact Sportage, which also has its own unique chasis. The Sportage does not have as much ground clearance as the Sorento, however, which means it cannot go as far off road.

Until this year, Kia also used to produce a very traditional, large SUV called the Borrego. Dropping it was a wise choice. Although the new Sorento is smaller on the outside, it has almost as much room on the inside, including an optional third row of seats that fold flat to increase cargo space when not needed. The all-wheel-drive system on the Sorento also includes a locking center differential that will probably take it everywhere the Borrego could go.

The new Sorento embraces the angular styling that now characterizes the entire Kia line up, except for the intentionally eccentric Soul. The exterior lines are clean and contemporary, including the company's signature pinched bowtie grill. The result is similar to the much more expensive Acura MDX, which is probably not a coincidence. Kia and its corporate sister Hyundai have improved their quality so much over the past few years, they want to be considered serious alternatives to higher-class vehicles.

The improvements were equally apparent in the interior of our test vehicle, which came with optional electric and heated from leather seats. The dash was smartly designed and accented with dark wood trim. The controls were logically laid out and easy to use, especially the knobs for the climate control system.

The Sorento drove very well on the road. The optional 276-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 felt strong. The responsive six-speed automatic transmission offered good acceleration from dead stops and when passing on the freeway, even without resorting to the manual shift mode. Handling was decent, except for the occasional bucking on rough roads.

Drawbacks include cramped seating in the optional third row, which is to be expected in this market segment. Another downside is the location of the spare tire. It is mounted under the back of the vehicle, just behind the rear tires. Although this arrangement frees up space for the third row of seats to fold flat, it is, of course, hard to reach, and would be especially difficult to deal with on dirt roads or in bad weather. All motorists should belong to AAA, anyway, just for situations like that.

All Sorentos come with such desirable features as USB and aux inputs, Bluetooth connectivity, a tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, and many safety features. Our EX test vehicle also had keyless ignition, a rear view camera, dual-zone climate control, a navigation system with real-time traffic updates, a 10-speaker Infinity audio system, and a two-row sunroof.

The options helped push the price up to near $35,000. That would have been a lot for a Kia a few years ago, but considering the current level of refinement, it did not seem unreasonably high compared to similarly-equipped competitors - especially when you factor in Kia's 10-year/100,000-mile warranty.

• Model: 2011 Sorento.

• Manufacturer: Kia.

• Class: Midsize crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front or all-wheel-drive (as tested).

• Style: Five door, five-passenger SUV.

• Powertrain: 2.4-liter inline 4 (175 hp); 3.5 V6 276 hp).

• Transmissions: 6-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 19/25 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $24,000 ($34,840 as tested).