Sorento offers plenty of surprises

Friday, June 25, 2004

Kia Sorento has amazing warranty and features

It takes moxie to compete with the big-four SUV sales leaders Ford, Chevy, Jeep and Dodge, but that's what Kia is doing with the Sorento, a true off-road capable vehicle that also offers all the traditional SUV features. It's a fact that the only dirt most SUVs will ever see is garden dirt. But Sorento is designed for real trail busting, with its body-on-frame design and low-range four-wheel-drive.

When Kia first arrived in the United States, its entire lineup consisted of one car, the Sephia, and one SUV, the Sportage. Today, the Kia line touts five cars, one minivan, and a midsize SUV named Sorento.

The company is a subsidiary of the Korean industrial giant Hyundai, but the Sorento is evidence that Kia is a separate and distinct company because Hyundai does not have a direct competitor for the Sorento.

Named after a city in Italy, the Sorento was introduced last year as a midsize vehicle that accommodates five adults. It comes in two well-equipped trim levels: LX and EX. The LX supplies the basics: air conditioning, a CD player, cruise control and power windows, mirrors and locks.

The EX adds keyless entry, a power driver's seat, a sunroof and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. A luxury package for the EX provides leather upholstery, auto climate control, heated front seats, automatic headlights and a six-disc CD changer.

Drawing customers into the showroom is the amazing Kia warranty. Anyone buying a new 2004 Sorento isn't going to pay a powertrain repair bill until 2014! Imagine that.

And if 10 years of powertrain protection isn't enough, how about a five-year/60,000 mile basic warranty on all the components in the vehicle? Folks who actually use their SUV for off-roading will find the warranty almost irresistible. I don't know of any other serious off-road vehicle with such a lengthy warranty. But the warranty is not the only impressive feature.

When you slide into Sorento's comfortable leather seats and reach for the door handle, you'll feel that this vehicle has what it takes to last a long time and keep its owners happy. The interior door handles are beautiful and substantial. The dash is well-designed, with its smooth lines, integrated air bag and tasteful wood tones. Cup holders and storage pockets in the center console are intelligently designed.

The steering wheel is equipped with sound system and cruise controls. The automatic climate control on the EX model I tested was an unexpected luxury. The rear seat had a convenient fold-down center armrest and adequate legroom for a day's worth of travel. Even the front-seat headroom (the vehicle was equipped with a space-robbing power moon roof) was adequate for my co-test pilot, who stands 6'4".

A 192-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine is unfortunately the only engine available, but it is very smooth and provides adequate pep around town. I say unfortunately because if something in the 250-horsepower range was available I think it would be a worthwhile option. Weighing in at 4,387 pounds, the Sorento is a heavy vehicle. It doesn't really feel under-powered, but a Ford Escape is a full 1,000 pounds lighter and has about the same horsepower and towing capacity.

Buyers have their choice of two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. Those who opt for a luxury package-equipped EX model get the automatic Torque-On-Demand 4WD system. A four-speed automatic transmission driving the rear wheels is standard, though Kia has added a manual gearbox option for 2004. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, and an antilock system provides optimal performance.

Front and rear side curtain airbags and three-point belts and headrests in all seating positions provide excellent government crash results. Sorento earned four stars out of five for driver and front-passenger protection in frontal impacts and a perfect five stars for front and rear-occupant protection in side impacts.

Fuel economy is rated at just 15 mpg in the city, 20 on the highway. But for a vehicle with rugged body-on-frame construction and real four-wheel-drive, the ride is surprisingly good -- better, I think, than arch-rival Jeep Liberty's. Sorento is quiet and composed at freeway speeds, and provides a pleasant ride around town. The steering is precise, the brakes are powerful. I didn't have an opportunity to test its off-road abilities, but Sorento has all the specifications, including 8.2 inches of ground clearance, to get the job done on everything but the most severe trails.

Overall, the Sorento is an attractive effort from Kia that has a lot going for it and a lot that isn't readily apparent, like skid plates and an outstanding warranty. My fully equipped sample listed for less than $30,000.

Sorento competes well in the extremely crowded mid-size SUV market where it takes more than a pretty face and a fancy paint job to attract buyers.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at srobertson@semissourian.com.

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