16-foot-long SUV is Kia's newest model

The Kia Borrego has strong engines, roomy, comfortable seats, top crash test ratings, plentiful features and a surprisingly quiet interior.

It's just too bad that the Borrego, new for 2009, is a sizable sport utility vehicle that comes to the United States this year as consumers are turning away from truckish SUVs toward more fuel-efficient vehicles.

At 16 feet long and with three rows of seats standard, the seven-passenger Borrego is the largest SUV from South Korean automaker Kia, topping the Sorrento, which remains at showrooms. The Borrego also is the first Kia -- car or SUV -- to offer a V-8 in the United States.

And it's the Kia with the highest starting manufacturer's suggested retail price: $26,995 for a base LX with two-wheel drive and 276-horsepower V-6.

The previous highest-priced Kia was the Amanti sedan at $26,220.

With four-wheel drive, the Borrego starts at $29,045, and with 337-horsepower V-8, the starting retail price goes over $30,000.

Both SUV engines produce more power than those in many competitors. For example, the Borrego's 3.8-liter, double overhead cam V-6 has 26 more horses and 14 more foot-pounds of torque, to 267 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm, than the 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 that's in the 2009 Honda Pilot.

Yet the base retail price for a two-wheel drive Pilot is some $1,200 more: $28,265, including destination charge.

Similar in size to the Pilot and the 2009 Ford Explorer, the Borrego looks bigger than it handles and is one of the few new SUVs that's built the way traditional SUVs were built -- as a body-on-frame model.

This contrasts with the more trendy car-based crossover SUVs that have been flooding the market and allows the Borrego to offer greater capability for off-roading and strong towing. Indeed, the Borrego with V-8 is rated to tow 7,500 pounds compared with the 4,500-pound maximum in a Pilot with V-6. The Pilot is not offered with a V-8.

Kia has never offered a truck-based SUV before, and the platform for the Borrego is new. The SUV has a front wishbone suspension configuration and an independent multilink rear suspension.

The ride in the tester with optional, uplevel 18-inch wheels and tires was hardly refined compared with that of the crossover SUVs.

Even though passengers remained above the bumps, they readily noticed a lot of jiggling as the Borrego went over sizable road bumps.

There was a sense of body lean and mass shifting, too, as the SUV went around curves. Unsprung weight -- a heavy bouncing of wheels and heavy components at the vehicle's four corners -- was a reminder that this isn't a carlike ride.

But the Borrego's hefty 4,200-plus-pound weight doesn't hold back the engine power.

The test two-wheel drive Borrego had the V-6 and five-speed automatic transmission, and I never lacked for good power. The SUV moved swiftly from stoplights and kept a brisk pace easily, and the transmission shifted smoothly.

If a buyer isn't going to do heavy towing, the V-6 -- with the best fuel economy rating of 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 21 mpg on the highway -- could be a good choice. In comparison, with the 4.6-liter V-8, the Borrego is rated at 15/22 mpg with two-wheel drive.

Both federal government mileage ratings are lower than that of many other three-row crossover SUVs, such as the Pilot and Saturn Outlook.

But in the test Borrego, I got pretty close to the 17 mpg rating for city driving, and that was without trying.

The Borrego is pleasantly styled, in a mainstream way. It looks like many other SUVs, and never turned a head during the test drive. I enjoyed the good views out the front and sides that the tall-riding Borrego afforded. But the dominating feature I saw from the driver's seat was the large, tall hood over the engine.

Thank goodness the test vehicle had optional running boards at the doors, because I would have had to hoist myself quite a bit to get inside.

I could hard believe that the turning circle on the four-wheel drive was so tidy: 36.5 feet. This is better than some sedans.

Headroom and legroom are generous, though passengers in the two rearmost seats rest on seat cushions that are near the floor, so knees sit up a bit. But thanks to second-row seats that slide forward and aft, legroom among the rows can be adjusted and apportioned as needed.

The fit and finish on the test Borrego were excellent, and controls were within easy reach. The display screen for the optional navigation system is smaller than that of Toyotas and Hondas, and the automatic transmission includes a shift-it-yourself mechanism that isn't found in a lot of other SUVs.

The Borrego, like all Kias, comes with a lengthy powertrain warranty that's good for 10 years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. Most competitors offer three years or 36,000 miles, whichever comes first.

Kia installed a long list of standard safety equipment, including frontal and curtain air bags, electronic stability control, antilock brakes and front-seat, anti-whiplash head restraints. A backup warning system is standard, too, but a rearview camera is optional.

Kia officials have modest sales goals of 12,000 this year for the Borrego.