Kia Sorento

Never mind the width, feel the quality

ANDY ENRIGHT @andyjenright

FIRST AUSSIE DRIVE

WAIT. Go back. Did Kia Man just say the words “barbecue credibility” when extolling the virtues of the thirdgeneration Sorento? Buy thirdgeneration Sorento? Buy the Kia and wield your sevenyear warranty with pride as you reduce your rivals to shrivelled husks, wearing inferiority aprons at the grille of resentment snags.

Kia also had a lovely euphemism for describing how the Sorento was a bit limited off-road: “Maintaining the promise of adventure.”

You can maintain that promise right up until that moment you realise you have no low-range and a rear overhang so long that your tow ball will be filing its own mining claim. On the plus side, there’s a locking centre diff, but it’s hard to be too critical here because a Hyundai Santa Fe or Toyota Kluger are also predominantly road vehicles that project a marginally less suburban image than an MPV, and can each tow 2000kg.

But here’s the rub. The Sorento is available in front-wheel-drive petrol guise or as an all-wheeldrive diesel, and the moment you get behind the wheel and deviate from straight ahead, you’ll realise that they’re chalk and cheese.

Despite a torque-vectoring AWD system, the diesel’s vague body control is a little unnerving, whereas the petrol car, with 50kg less burden on the front axle, feels a sharper and more gratifying experience. But you’re then faced with the prospect of buying a front-drive SUV that, while nobly pragmatic, is going to leave you catastrophically short of barbecue credibility.

That’s largely explained by the fact that both versions get the same spring rates, despite the Sorento oiler lugging an extra 117kg up the road.

The good parts? The electrically assisted power steering now has its motor mounted on the rack rather than the column, which is a big improvement, especially when you switch it to Sport mode. This adds a decent level of heft to the steering.

Unfortunately it also couples that with a spikier throttle map, which isn’t so welcome.

The four-cylinder diesel is decently refined, too, though its performance is blunted by a halfwitted six-speed auto ’box.

The Sorento is bigger than before, with an extra 80mm grafted into its wheelbase and another 15mm tacked onto the rear overhang. That provides an additional 25mm of legroom up front and another 15mm in the middle row. The boot’s bigger, too, with an extra 62L of space in seven-seat configuration.

The base Si model with cloth trim, sat-nav and reversing camera looks to be the go, and Kia reckons it will account for 35 percent of sales, while a paltry 15 percent are expected to choose the leather-bedecked SLi. The range-topping Platinum should command 50 percent of sales and gets a suite of radar-based safety features and 40kg of panoramic glass roof right where you least want the weight. There’s no AEB or idle-stop on any model.

Build quality feels reassuringly burly across the range, and the Sorento still represents punchy value for money. It’s never going to be a convincing corner-carver, but it feels a league ahead of a Kluger in terms of modernity and design cohesion.

Drive both the diesel four and the 199kW/318Nm V6 petrol and it’s clear that the ideal Sorento lies somewhere between the two.

A diesel model with beefier suspension parts might not be long in coming, so those looking to be top dog at the cook-out may prefer to wait until then.

PLUS & MINUS

Diesel model’s flabby handling; getting pricier; dullard auto Diesel refinement; equipment; build quality; practicality; safety

01 BOOTS AND ALL

Kias often come with a lucky dip of either Hankook, Kumho or Nexen tyres. This Sorento does without the Nexens and, of the other two options, the Kumhos fitted to our Platinum were noticeably better in corners and quieter than the alternative Hankooks.

02 NIP AND TUCK

The Koreans work fast. Most manufacturers will launch a car, facelift it at three years and replace it at seven, yet Kia is scheduled to present the first Sorento refresh in a mere 18 months time. Updates have already been signed off and among them is likely to be AEB.

03 FUELLING THE DEBATE

The V6 petrol front-driver returns 9.9L/100km, the turbodiesel 7.8L/100km. At 20,000km a year, you’d need to drive a diesel Sorento for more than five years to make the fuel bill maths work in your favour, but that ignores the benefits of all-wheel drive and another 123Nm.

Brand on the run

KIA is smashing it in the Aussie passenger car market, its year-to-date sales to the end of May just 279 units behind Ford.

The Sorento has always represented a hefty chunk of the overall product plan, and the third-gen model has arrived at an opportune time. Last year, Kia had a six percent slide in the full-size SUV segment, which now accounts for more than 30 percent of local sales.

The Koreans are pinning their hopes on the highend AWD diesel variants to mop up the lion’s share of sales, stretching perceptions of Kia’s brand equity upmarket.

OR TRY THESE...

Toyota Kluger Grande $67,990

BASKS in reflected Landcruiser credibility, but Toyota’s three-year warranty looks mean against the Sorento’s seven. The lack of diesel power is also a major impediment, while the US-made Kluger’s interior design is now starting to show its age compared to the all-new Kia.

Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander

$53,240 SANTA Fe now finds itself bettered in many ways by its Kia cousin. A car that was, until recently, an easy recommendation may suddenly be hard to make a convincing case for.

Next month, we’ll find out.