Kia Sorento 2013: Launch Review

words - Ken Gratton
More than just upgraded but barely facelifted, new Sorento is a well-tailored package for Oz

Kia Sorento Si V6, SLi diesel and Sorento Platinum

Local Launch
Hobart, Tasmania

What we liked:
>> Cleaner styling
>> Supple ride quality
>> Appropriate performance and driveability

Not so much:
>> FlexSteer is a gimmick in its current form
>> Platinum spec upholstery seems cheap
>> Supervision cluster fades out in direct sunlight

>> Cloak and dagger engineering for 'new' SUV
One car that didn't seem to need an upgrade or an all-new model replacement anytime soon was Kia's Sorento. It has been less than three years since Kia introduced to Australia the monocoque SUV based on the previous generation of Hyundai Santa Fe.

Nobody expected Kia to bring out a new Sorento on the latest Santa Fe platform less than a month after the Santa Fe's own launch in Australia. Half-way through the usual lifecycle for an SUV the Sorento has undergone the automotive equivalent of a hip replacement operation – but the significant improvements underneath have not been matched by far-reaching cosmetic changes. Some liposuction here and there to reduce weight, a little botox around the eyes... but where's the hair transplant, the silicone implants and the bottom lift? Perhaps the manufacturer could hardly justify a major redesign for a vehicle that still looks fresh.

It's as intriguing as any Robert Ludlum story, and Kia locally can't say why the company went to the trouble and expense of slotting in a new platform underneath the Sorento, extensively revising the body structure for lighter weight and greater strength – and then leaving little done to distance the new model visually from its predecessor.

One thing is certain however, Kia Motors Australia is not looking a gift horse in the mouth for the tonsillectomy. The importer welcomes the new model as "new" and predicts its sales will reach 400 units a month – well ahead of the current sales rate around 270 a month for 2012. That figure already represents a year on year gain of 34.8 per cent.

>> Offering the best value to the widest range of buyers
Kia has approached the market for Sorento on a very different tack from that taken by Hyundai with its Santa Fe. Gone is the 2.4-litre petrol four-cylinder in the Sorento range, although it may make a return down the track, if there's the right sort of demand from the buying public.

The new base-grade Sorento is a front-drive petrol V6 trimmed to the Si level and it's marginally more expensive than the Santa Fe's four-cylinder entry-level model. Kia anticipates the front-driven petrol V6 variants in the range – there's also a mid-range SLi variant with this drivetrain setup – will attract a lot of buyers who don't need to go offroad, but want the added driveability of the V6 for on-road work. And at a price only a little higher than the 2.4-litre Santa Fe, the V6 Sorento may win sales while fuel remains affordable at least.

The all-wheel drive Sorento models, which are all diesel-powered, have come down in price – and that's where competition with the Santa Fe will be fiercest (see more in COMPETITORS below).

Intersecting the petrol and diesel drivetrain layouts in the Sorento range is a three-tier model hierarchy: Si, SLi and Platinum. Petrol variants are naturally cheaper than the diesels and the otherwise equivalent-spec automatic is more expensive than the one and only manual variant in the range.

Priced at $37,490, the base model is a Sorento Si powered by the 3.5-litre V6 delivering its torque to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic. A premium of $3000 lifts the price to $40,490 for the newly introduced Sorento SLi with the same drivetrain. Kia treats the satellite navigation option for the SLi grade as a separate level of trim. It makes more sense to diesel buyers, providing customers with a more affordable alternative to the diesel Sorento Platinum, which is priced above $50,000.

The all-wheel drive diesel Sorento models kick off at $38,990 for the only manual variant in the range, trimmed to the basic Si level. A premium of $2000 pays for the automatic option ($40,990) and just like the walk-up for the petrol models, the SLi grade ($43,990) costs $3000 more than the Si trim level. Satellite navigation as a half level between mid-range and flagship, costs $1500 ($45,490 all-up) and the Sorento Platinum caps the range at $50,390.

Trimmed in black cloth upholstery and featuring chrome door handles inside, the Sorento Si comes equipped with: 17-inch alloy wheels, projector-beam headlights, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, multi-function steering wheel (four-spoke design, leather bound with switchgear for phone/audio/cruise), electric mirrors/windows, trip computer, remote central locking and two auxiliary power outlets.

In addition, the Sorento Si features as standard a CD/MP3-compatible audio system with six speakers and can stream music by Bluetooth or via USB/iPod cables. The Sorento Si also has front fog lights, static cornering lights and front and rear ultrasonic parking sensors. LED daytime running lights and the parking sensors are new to the Sorento.

The price premium of $3000 for the Sorento SLi covers the following additional features: 18-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, third-row ventilation, LED tail light clusters, auto-on/off headlights, rear spoiler, leather seat trim, 'Supervision cluster' digital instrument readout, 4.3-inch infotainment touch screen, reversing camera, sports pedals, eight-way electrically-adjustable driver's seat and FlexSteer.

Sorento SLi also comes with aero wiper blades, cloth-trimmed A pillars, metal-look decorative trim pieces, 'mood' lighting, alloy door scuff plates with footwell illumination in the front row, leather-trimmed instrument hood, seven-inch TFT instrument cluster and UV-resisting glass.

As the flagship of the range the Sorento Platinum moves up to 19-inch alloy wheels, panoramic sunroof with powered roller blind, xenon headlights, satellite navigation, privacy glass and a wash fluid level sensor. New features in the range-topping model include: upgraded audio system, memory function on powered driver's seat, four-way electrically-adjustable front passenger's seat, front-seat heating/ventilation, second-row seat window blinds, active headlights and lighting inside front door handle pockets.

>> Changes for the better, but few in plain sight
There's a lot of carry-over mechanicals from the previous Sorento, but the new model also gains the upgraded R Series diesel introduced with the new Santa Fe. The 'new' Sorento – which looks so much like the old one – has adopted new structural members and a greater proportion of the body shell is comprised of ultra-high-strength steel. Together, these under-the-skin fixes are aimed at improving crash safety, enhancing dynamics and efficiency, and reducing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). So there's been some serious structural engineering going on under the new 'top hat'. Yet Kia still refers to this new car by its current generational code, XM.

The petrol engine is a Euro 4-compliant 3.5-litre V6 that produces 204kW and 335Nm. Using just 9.8L/100km of fuel in combined-cycle testing, the V6 emits 235g/km of CO2. Slightly better than the previous car's, the new figures reflect the weight reduction for the new vehicle – as much as 100kg lower kerb mass. In the latest model of Sorento the R Series diesel – a 2.2-litre common-rail turbodiesel four – has been upgraded and now produces 145kW and either 421Nm (manual) or 436Nm (auto). In combined-cycle testing, the diesel Sorento achieves fuel consumption of 6.6L/100km (manual) or 7.3L/100km (auto), and CO2 emissions are 174g/km or 192g/km respectively, in the same test. Acceleration to 100km/h takes 8.2 seconds  for the V6, 9.7  for the diesel with manual transmission or 9.9  for the diesel automatic.

All-wheel drive models direct 100 per cent of torque to the front wheels, until the traction control system detects slip at the front, at which time it diverts as much as 50 per cent of the available twist to the rear wheels automatically. At speeds above 40km/h the system reverts to front-drive traction only. Towing capacities for the three drivetrain variants are 2500kg for the diesel/manual variant and 2000kg for all other variants.

The Sorento is suspended by MacPherson struts at the front and a new multi-link independent system at the rear, with dual-flow dampers fitted to all four corners of the car. The IRS system is more compact than before and liberates added legroom for passengers in the second-row seat.

Dubbed MDPS (Motor Driven Power Steering) by Kia, the new electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion steering offers three-mode (adjustable assistance) FlexSteer in the SLi and Platinum grades. The turning circle is 10.9m diameter for both front and four-wheel drive models and the wheel turns 2.95 times from lock to lock. According to Graeme Gambold, the consulting engineer for the Sorento's localisation program, the FlexSteer system in 'Comfort' mode changes the yaw rate ratio when cornering, as well as increasing the level of assistance. Applying "three to four kilos" of weight to the steering wheel will turn the wheel roughly five degrees in 'Normal' and 'Sport' modes, but as much as 10 degrees in 'Comfort' mode. Mr Gambold says the difference is most noticeable in lane-change manoeuvres. So while there's less weight through the tiller in this mode, it's faster acting for the same torque applied. That's helpful in the event that Sorento drivers should want to enter the vehicle in a competitive slalom.

But contrary to its name, the 'Sport' mode is really designed for a high-speed blast along an autobahn, when stability counts more than steering response.

Brakes consist of ventilated discs measuring 320x28mm up front and solid discs measuring 302x11mm at the rear. For the first time the Sorento adopts Hyundai/Kia's VSM (Vehicle Stability Management) in its latest guise. This safety system is integrated with antilock, brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution.

For offroad use the Sorento is rated at 19.7 degrees, 22.4 degrees and 17.1 degrees, respectively, for its approach, departure and breakover angles.

>> Nothing to see here?
While the press images highlight the limited scope of the Sorento's facelift, the cosmetic package is a significant advance for the Sorento in reality. The car looks sleeker and smaller externally, but is also more modern.

Riding on a wheelbase 2700mm long, the new Sorento measures 4685mm from stem to stern and 1885mm across the beam – precisely the same dimensions as the superseded model, according to Kia. A lower ground clearance of 185mm has resulted in an overall height reduction of 10mm, to 1700mm. The H point is on the money for easy access to the cabin.

Although the design and layout of the interior met with our approval overall, the perforated trim in the Platinum grade's seats looked a bit downmarket. No such problem with the lower-spec'ed Si and SLi grades, however. And certainly we had no issue with the cushioning and sculpturing of the front seats, which proved to be very comfortable and yielding, but held the occupant in place during harder cornering.

A couple of the vehicles driven exhibited symptoms of 'shimmy' in the second-row seats. Over lumpy country roads in Tasmania the seat would shake lightly or vibrate with each bump or corner. It was plain enough for us to pull over and check that the seat was correctly locked in place.

Controls were rationally laid out for the driver, although the foot-operated parking brake was not to everyone's liking. It did free up space in the centre console however. The digital speedo in the SLi and Platinum grades is there to open up the real estate in the instrument binnacle for a more comprehensive trip computer readout, but the needle graphic for the 'analogue' speedo display was simply too dim, even with the rheostat set to 11. It will be hard to pick at a glance on sunnier days, if it's that faint on an overcast day in Tassie.

If the plan is to carry passengers around in the rear of the Sorento (the third row, specifically), there'll be some need to juggle seats around. With the front seats set back for maximum legroom the second-row seats won't fold flat. Nor will the narrower section on the passenger side tilt forward fully for easy access to the third row. Assuming the Sorento family is typical, the tallest member will occupy the driver's seat, adjusted to afford the right amount of legroom. But the driver's seat may need to come forward to load long, flat objects behind it.

If the front-seat passenger is shorter, the seat base can be moved forward a little closer to the firewall so that kids climbing in on the passenger side can readily tilt the second-row seat forward and hop into the third-row seat. Second-row accommodation is perfectly acceptable for adults, although the Sorento Platinum, with its standard panoramic sunroof, is stingy where headroom is concerned. The third-row seat will accommodate adults of average height for short trips, but headroom is marginal and the backrest for the second-row seat must be adjusted closer to upright for adequate knee room in the very rear.

If some concessions have to be made to accommodate a family of seven in the Sorento, that must be balanced against the Kia's usefully compact exterior footprint. The Sorento would be ideal for a family of two parents and four kids ranging in age from young adult down to pre-teen, or perhaps a four-person family and a couple of grandparents. Use all seven seats for camping however, and you'll need to use the roof rails or load up a trailer behind – because there's not a lot of room left for luggage and other goods behind the third-row seat once it's raised.

A final word of warning concerning the tailgate; it doesn't lift very high. Our co-driver, who is (well) over 180cm tall nearly knocked himself out when he didn't duck his head. In the raised position the tailgate is just above the line of sight for taller types, but not so far above that it won't inflict an injury when you walk into it.

>> Another five-star ANCAP rating?
The superseded Sorento scored top marks from Euro NCAP for crash safety, but the rules have changed since then and the safety testing body applies a more rigorous testing regime now, dividing vehicles into two categories: those that were tested to a standard in 2009, versus those tested subsequently. Kia is confident the new model will achieve a five-star score under the new test parameters. Certainly the new body structure is stronger and lighter, thanks to the increased use of high-tensile-strength steels. And a hot-stamping process for the front bumper, centre floor member and rear floor side members further enhances crash safety, with the rear floor side members providing added protection for the fuel tank. Kia engineers also revised longitudinal members on each side of the engine bay, a crossmember under the dash and a connecting crossmember in the rear footwell.

Passive safety features fitted as standard include six airbags – two frontal impact, two side-impact (front seats) and two side curtain airbags (front and second-row seating only). Active safety aids comprise Kia's Vehicle Stability Management, traction control, anti-lock braking, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist, hill start assist control and downhill brake control. Other equipment that has the capacity to save lives – of young children in driveways particularly – are a reversing camera with a 130 degree angle lens (SLi and Platinum models only), plus front and rear parking sensors as standard across the range. Sorento Platinum also features xenon headlights

>> Spoiled for choice
The Hyundai Santa Fe is certainly the Sorento's closest rival. It's closest in price and closest in specification, but while Kia's and Hyundai's diesel all-wheel drive variants are almost lineball, the petrol variants are very different indeed. Only Kia offers V6 options, but the four-cylinder petrol variants of the Santa Fe do boast four-wheel drive traction – something that cannot be had with the V6 Sorento, which is front-wheel drive only. Buyers thus have the choice: more performance and driveability from the Sorento on the road, or more offroad ability and lower running costs.

For around the price of the Sorento, there are plenty of alternatives, but few that will seat seven. Jeep's Cherokee with a 2.8-litre diesel provides stronger performance (at the cost of heavier fuel consumption) and can be expected to go further offroad. Land Rover's Freelander 2 TD4 comes close to the Sorento's torque, but loses out for power. Like the Jeep the Freelander has proved its mettle in the bush, but it's more expensive and is a smaller package overall.

Among the softroaders are the Mazda CX-5 – currently the darling of the medium SUV segment – and the Mitsubishi Outlander. Properly speaking these are in the segment below the Sorento, which is now considered a large SUV. That puts it up against Ford's Territory, Jeep's Grand Cherokee, Mitsubishi Pajero, Toyota Kluger and the Mazda CX-9 – which is now also available with a petrol V6/front-wheel drive model like the Sorento's offerings. All of these vehicles have virtues to recommend them and all of them will seat seven, but few can offer the value the Sorento can. If you are buying on price and still need those seven seats, Holden's Captiva 7 might be worth a look-see. Otherwise, your choice is the Santa Fe...

>> Another quiet Korean
An enlightening drive out north and west of Hobart revealed that the Sorento, in either diesel or petrol form will provide the performance and driveability that Aussie buyers demand from their SUVs – and quietly. The V6 (petrol) engine was extremely subdued when cruising, but delivered a mild snarl under load and in the higher rev range. At cruising speed the only noise to be heard in the Sorento was some wind around the mirrors.

Fuel consumption for the petrol V6 (in the case of the Si variant driven) was 11.6L/100km over the course of the drive program. Naturally the diesel (8.2L/100km with a manual transmission and all-wheel drive) was a little noisier and occasionally prone to rattle at open-road speeds, but only with some load applied. On other occasions we could detect some whistle as the turbo spooled up.

The petrol engine delivered its power in the time-honoured way of oversquare V6s – with grunt gathering itself geometrically at speeds of 4500rpm and higher. In contrast the R Series diesel's power/torque curves were 'arithmetic' and the Kia diesel is one of the better examples of a powerplant with turbo lag largely engineered out of it. Since the manual transmission's ratios were close enough together and the turbo was ready to spool up at a moment's notice, the diesel variants allowed drivers to match engine revs to road speed with a degree of ease and rapidity.

Shifting gear was made simple by the light and precise throws of the manual box, but the clutch pedal – which our co-driver described as 'dead' – didn't take up until near the top of its arc and required a little acclimatisation after a recent diet of auto tranny cars. The diesel-engined Sorento Platinum with standard automatic transmission returned a fuel consumption figure of 8.8L/100km, according to the trip computer.

Kia's local engineers aimed to achieve the ride comfort of Ford's Territory and the dynamic ability of the BMW X5. They have come pretty close to the ride comfort standard if, in fact, they haven't exceeded it. But they don't suggest that the Sorento offers the X5's level of steering, handling and roadholding. The Sorento certainly rides well, objectively. It's very slightly better on the base model's 17-inch wheels than either the 18-inch wheels of the mid-range SLi variants or the 19-wheel alloys of the Platinum flagship. But the difference in ride comfort is miniscule to the point where you wouldn't choose the higher-profile tyres over the 18s and 19s for any additional comfort. Perhaps to put the Sorento in context, the ride comfort even on 19-inch wheels seems closely comparable with that of the Lexus RX 350 F Sport has been driving recently – and the Lexus SUV is something like $35,000 more expensive.

While the Sorento is agile enough in corners and easy to place on the road, it didn't feel as lively as the Grand Cherokee with the Pentastar V6 or Ford's Territory. Graeme Gambold says that the Territory's dynamics are too "sharp" for most users, but we're not entirely convinced. Maybe it must wait for another multi-car comparison.

Whether front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the Sorento's grip and composure was generally good. There was some sign of torque steer on dry bitumen from the V6 models and the all-wheel drive Sorento was more prone to understeer than expected on looser gravel. Other SUVs on similar surfaces are just as likely to oversteer, if anything. According to Graeme Gambold there are global targets set by Kia that must be met – and these include tuning the suspension for more understeer in given circumstances, since the vehicle has a high centre of gravity. In other words – and justifiably – the manufacturer will not burden an SUV with natural oversteer traits, since they might result in the vehicle rolling onto its roof. That justification stated however, we would prefer our SUVs oversteer on dirt.

It's also our view that the different thresholds of assistance available through FlexSteer are blurry at different speeds and while the Comfort mode can be picked easily enough just by hauling on the wheel at a set speed, it's hard to discern the line between 'Normal' and 'Sport'. We were advised to leave the steering set to Normal for corners, since the Sport setting might prove too heavy for a winding road. But we didn't find that to be the case at all. Audi's DriveSelect system provides a better outcome than the Hyundai/Kia FlexSteer system does. You can feel the difference in weight between different modes and the feedback through the wheel is better too. Some buyers could arrive at the conclusion that the standard Sorento Si offers more communicative and more consistent steering without the FlexSteer system of the higher-grade SLi and Platinum models.

But we would take the SLi and Platinum variants for their better contact patch, grip and handling. The 65-series Kumho tyres on the 17-inch wheels fitted to the Sorento Si seemed to make that model a little skatey on gravel, as noted above.

While we do harbour minor doubts about the Sorento's dynamics, there's little cause for concern that it will meet the needs of the vast majority of prospective buyers. Kia's latest SUV represents very good value with appropriate levels of comfort and convenience equipment, and it delivers the right combination of build quality, safety, performance and efficiency in a practical package.

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Published : Friday, 12 October 2012
In most cases, attends new vehicle launches at the invitation and expense of vehicle manufacturers and/or distributors.

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