Words and pictures by Grant Spolander.
Since the launch of the new Sorento, buyers have come up in favour of its radical lines. While the previous model wasn’t much of a looker, it offered practical off-road performance. The question is, has the new Kia got both beauty and brawn?
The automotive industry’s clients are fickle fellas; besides price, a vehicle’s popularity is oft en determined by just four factors: performance, features, aft er-sales support and aesthetics. Not many years back, the car-building chaps in Korea battled with the last-mentioned, but things have changed. Especially for brands like Kia and Hyundai who’ve both recently launched designs that have wowed the motoring press. Th ese days, the traditional market leaders are looking at their Korean counterparts with more than a little consternation. Buyers are visiting Kia dealers with renewed interest, realising that the brand’s new look is just part of its total off ering, making these cars very worthy of a test drive.
The Sorento’s exterior is a great example of this design metamorphosis; although some genetic traits are shared between this and the previous model, parked side by side, the latest Sorento looks like a party-animal beach babe next to her dowdy spends-Friday-nights-at-homealone older sister.
Thankfully, things are just as Baywatch beautiful in the new Sorento’s cabin, it’s ergonomically constructed off ering a harmonious blend of practical functionality and swish design. What’s more, there are loads of features: dual climate control, a reversing camera / monitor built into the rear-view mirror, ample storage space for bottles and cups, a cavernous centre console, steering wheel-mounted satellite controls and an easy-to-operate audio system. The new model is available in five- or seven-seater confi guration which we tested. While the seven seater doesn’t off er much legroom in the third row, the seating arrangement is cleverly designed, allowing both the second and third rows to fold completely fl at for a voluminous load area of 2 052 litres.
The Sorento performed well on gravel, but this had little to do with the vehicle’s 4WD system and was more a tribute to its suspension geometry. You see, ordinarily, the Sorento operates as a 2WD with the ability to transfer torque in a 50 / 50 split; this can be done manually via a centre diff-lock button or automatically if the vehicle ‘senses’ wheel slip.
However, once you drive the Sorento over 30 km/h, this invariably deactivates the centre diff-lock and puts the drivetrain back into 2WD – I suppose the intention here is to protect the transmission from potential damage. One could argue that most off-road driving should be undertaken at slow speeds, but that’s not always possible, like when driving in sand.
To make matters worse, the Sorento offers minimal suspension travel, so even if you do keep your speed below 30 km/h you’ll battle to find traction on rugged terrain, as the Sorento is very easily cross-axled.
On top of this, when wheel slippage occurs the traction control system governs engine power, limiting the motor to just 1 500 rpm. Although the Sorento has a button to disarm this system, in our test vehicle it did nothing to stop the engine limiter from cutting much-needed power. At the time of writing we weren’t able to establish whether this was problem with our vehicle, or simply the way the system works.
Being a soft roader one doesn’t expect a great deal of off -road performance from the Sorento. But even by soft roader standards the Kia comes up short. Combine the abovementioned points with a lack of ground clearance (184 mm) and poor clearance angles – 25º approach, 23º departure and 17º break-over, and you have a vehicle that’s noticeably weak on the rough stuff.
As mentioned before, the Sorento’s suspension system is praiseworthy; some may fi nd the ride a little too fi rm and bumpy but I personally liked the responsiveness of this setup on tar. Th e previous model featured a ladder-frame chassis, solid-axle suspension in the rear and a double wishbone arrangement upfront; the new Sorento sports a modern monocoque chassis with McPherson struts in the front and multi-links at the rear. Combine this with the Sorento’s sharp steering, stiff suspension and excellent weight distribution, and you have a vehicle that’s very agile on-road, particularly through tight turns where you won’t fi nd much body roll.
The Sorento is available with Kia’s 2.2-litre turbo-diesel (147 kW and 436 Nm), or the petrol 3.5-litre V6 (206 kW and 335 Nm). The diesel motor can be ordered with a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission, while the petrol version is only available in auto.
Our diesel test vehicle came coupled to the 6-speed auto box; a smooth transmission with quick shift times and good throttle response, helping the Sorento to clock some impressive acceleration times, just 9.1 seconds from 0 to 100 km/h and 3.5 seconds from 100 to 120 km/h. Altogether, not too shabby for a 2-ton oil burner. Th e diesel model achieves acceptable fuel economy fi gures. We recorded a combined cycle (urban and freeway use) of 10.9 l / 100 km. Th at would give you a range of about 642 km from its 70-litre tank. Sadly though, the diesel Sorento can only run on 50 ppm fuel, using 500 ppm will clog the particulate filter and void the vehicle’s warranty.
My first impression of the Sorento was positive; the interior boasts loads of storage space, the seat-folding arrangement is well designed, the build quality appears good and there’s a number of nice-to-have comfort features. However, aft er driving the Sorento off -road my views spun a quick 180°. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that the Sorento made me reconsider my understanding of the term soft roader. For me, a soft roader is a 4WD SUV without low-range gearing, which, in my book, implies that the vehicle is capable of transferring half of its driving power to the front axle and the other half to the rear – by driver input (usually via a centre diff -lock button).
But with the Sorento defaulting to 2WD above 30 km/h, and having a traction control system that can’t be fully disarmed, I’m inclined to regard this shapely Korean as little more than an AWD (all wheel drive) SUV. Call it a super soft soft roader if you will! And then there’s the issue of the particulate fi lter that’s going to hinder your cross-border travels, forcing you to plan your holiday around the limited availability of 50 ppm diesel.
It’s a shame. It’s almost got it all. Great looks, lots of features, praiseworthy engine performance, a reasonable price and an excellent warranty and maintenance plan. Too bad it’s let down by a bottled-up AWD system that’s too afraid to cut loose.