Looking like a pill bug, the squat body of the 2014 Kia Sorento hides seating for seven, an economical engine, and an easy driving character, making it the perfect mobile bunker for the modern suburban family. The Sorento fits squarely into the class of crossover vehicles replacing the minivans and SUVs that once sat in every suburban driveway.
Inside, the Sorento made me feel safe and secure with its thick sides and small windows, a seeming appeal to that strain of American paranoia leading to gated communities and an irrational fear of home invasions. A vast panorama sunroof seems to mitigate the Sorento's shielding from the outside world, but could be a means for family members to keep an eye on spy drones soaring through the skies above.
Design aside, Kia has built up quite an arsenal of tech, and the Sorento draws its fair share for the 2014 model year. Direct injection enhances the engine's efficiency, convenient telematics features link the car with smartphones, and the virtual speedometer looks as real as any analog gauge. As an added bonus, Kia gives the Sorento driver-tunable steering.
Kia builds the Sorento in four trim levels -- LX, EX, SX, and SX-L -- with front-wheel- or all-wheel-drive available in all. Most come with a 3.3-liter V-6, while a base LX model comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Kia sent CNET a front-wheel-drive SX model, and I was impressed at how many tech features came standard. Navigation, a blind spot monitor, and an Infinity audio system were all included.
The only option in this Sorento were the third-row seats.
Access to the third row isn't easy, best reserved for the small, limber limbs of children. Put grandma back there and it will take half an hour to get her out. And with the Sorento's overall length at only 15.3 feet, you have a choice between two extra passengers in the third row or cargo -- there isn't room for both.
Surprise times two
Kia's slogan, 'The power to surprise', proved true a couple of times with the 2014 Sorento. When I first saw the new model at last year's Los Angeles auto show, the LCD speedometer was an unexpected bit of tech. Similar to that in the Kia Cadenza, the center of the Sorento's instrument cluster is an LCD, flanked by a tachometer on the left and a fuel gauge on the right.
The virtual speedometer shown on the LCD looked indistinguishable from the real thing, perfectly mimicking an analog gauge. On starting the engine, Kia uses the LCD for a little welcome show, with an image of the Sorento springing to life. When it is off, the screen is, of course, dead black.
Kia uses the center of the speedometer to show useful information, selected by the driver, for trip, stereo, navigation, phone, and settings. Because the entire thing is an LCD, Kia has great flexibility in showing different screens, for example giving full color, turn-by-turn directions. But Kia could be taking greater advantage of the display, as its audio screen shows only the currently playing source, lacking track and artist names.
The second big surprise from the Sorento came when I got in and pushed an odd little button on the steering wheel. With the button's steering wheel icon, I thought it might be a heater, but instead it launched a screen in the virtual speedometer showing the tuning of the Sorento's steering gear. Pushing the button repeatedly, I could toggle through Comfort, Normal, and Sport.
Made possible by the Sorento's electric power steering system, using the Comfort setting gives the wheel a lot of play, which can be nice on long freeway cruises when you don't want twitchy steering. However, it did not seem to give the steering any extra boost then the other modes. Sport sharpened the wheel response considerably, causing an instant reaction from the smallest steering wheel movement.
I used the Sport setting while driving the Sorento along twisty mountain roads, but this bulky crossover is no sports car. The sharper steering response did not entirely counteract the inherent understeer, and the six-speed automatic transmission's manual mode didn't change gears fast enough for quick downshifts when entering a turn.
Instead of constantly changing the steering mode for different driving conditions, I rather expect drivers to find the mode most suited to their driving style. Naturally aggressive drivers will want to keep it in Sport mode, while those who regard cars merely as transportation will find Comfort or Normal more to their tastes. It is nice that Kia offers the choice.
The Sorento also offers an Eco mode, ostensibly to improve mileage. However, I could not discern much of a difference in throttle response when the green Eco icon was lit up in the instrument cluster.
Kia's 3.3-liter V-6 demonstrates the efficiency of direct injection technology. Producing 290 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque, it has higher output than many port injection 3.5-liter V-6 engines on the market. And with the six speed automatic transmission, the Sorento earns EPA fuel economy estimates of 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. Monitoring the trip computer average, I found the vehicle stayed well within that range. My final average, after a mix of highway and city driving, came in at an impressive 22.8 mpg.
And while the transmission could be slow to kick down when I jumped on the gas, the engine responded with a very satisfying growl. A little too much throttle on hill starts made the front wheels spin for a moment before letting the Sorento take off, and when I needed to pass other cars, that engine gave the Sorento the necessary pull.
I really like this engine, and it works perfectly for Kia's larger cars.
The Sorento uses a fixed suspension, offering no modes to match the steering tuning. But I found it reasonably comfortable when driving over a variety of roads, competently handling the bumps. I noticed over one rough section a recurring bass thump in the cabin, which I verified was not coming from the speakers. But the suspension handled the associated road bumps with appropriate damping.
The suspension kept the Sorento reasonably stable in the turns, but understeer kept me from pushing the car too fast.