There once was a time, not too long ago, where the Kia Sorento was a bit of an also-ran in the small-SUV market. Recently, however, the Korean automaker has been doing some serious reinvention of its brand and vehicles. The 2011 Kia Sorento is the latest model to benefit from this sweeping change, getting a new look, a new crossover architecture, and a new cabin technology suite. These days, the Sorento is looking like a serious contender to its more-established Japanese rivals. We took a fully loaded EX model though its paces to see if the Hondas and Toyotas of the world have anything to worry about.
New look, new soul
New for 2011, the Kia Sorento has gone under the knife and, predictably, received the automaker's new corporate grille, affectionately known as the Tiger Nose. The general effect is that of an enlarged Kia Forte Koup. It's very angular and very aggressive, but also quite youthful. Large blacked-out lower grill openings house optional fog lamps, giving the crossover a sort of "tuner" aesthetic.
The black plastic trim that wraps the Sorento's lower edge and wheel wells is likely meant to visually reduce the vehicle's mass and further contribute to the sporty look, and on our Spicy Red example, it does just that. However, the black plastic also visually increases the negative space between the body and the wheels, making the EX trim level's 18-inch rims somehow seem too small.
However, there's more to the Sorento's changes than a simple face-lift. Underneath its skin, it has gone from the body-on-frame SUV construction of the first-generation model to a unibody crossover construction. Gone is the live rear-axle, replaced with fully independent suspension at all four corners. Standard rear-wheel drive gives way to front-wheel drive. The new Sorento is a totally new vehicle that's lighter, faster, and more efficient than it used to be.
Because the Sorento is no longer truck based, towing capacity is down, but people-hauling capability is up. The new crossover packaging makes room for a third row of seats (standard on V-6 models and optional with the I-4), boosting maximum seating from five passengers to seven.
Cabin technology and optional packages
Like all Kias of this generation, the Sorento benefits from a strong suite of standard cabin technologies. Every 2011 Sorento on the lot is equipped with standard Bluetooth wireless for hands-free calling and audio streaming with automatic phone book import and voice command. Sirius Satellite Radio and USB and analog auxiliary inputs are also standard across the board, plus iPod connectivity can be easily added with a $35 sync cable. EX models, like our tester, gain dual-zone automatic climate control and push-button start with Smart Key keyless entry.
Checking the box next to the Limited package adds a touch-screen navigation system with real-time traffic powered by Sirus NavTraffic. This is a similar 8GB solid-state-memory-based system that we've seen in the Hyundai Sonata and Hyundai Genesis Coupe, but with an attractive black-and-red Kia-appropriate color scheme. The system is quick and quite responsive when browsing the map or entering a destination; but, oddly, it features only two-dimensional maps. When reversing, the color display is also home to the rearview camera display that features distance markers, but no moving trajectory guides.
The audio system gets an upgrade to a 10-speaker Infinity-branded system that features a center-fill, a powered subwoofer, and simulated surround audio processing. Music pumped through this Infinity system benefits from clear separation, but is still a long way from audiophile quality. Bass-heavy passages exhibit noticeable distortion and the surround sound post-processing causes podcasts and talk radio to exhibit an annoying hollow quality.
Aesthetic upgrades added with the Limited package include red interior accent illumination, which adds a sci-fi edge to the cabin at night, and mirror-chrome finished wheels--a design choice that we could live without.