A third-generation Kia Sorento seven-seat SUV wings in, delivering better quality, superior refinement, a reassuringly stellar crash rating and a tall stack of standard equipment to fight the likes of the Toyota Kluger and homegrown Ford Territory.
WHAT IS IT
The Kia Sorento forged its reputation on offering a lot of metal for the money. As it tiptoes upmarket, is this seven-seat SUV still the standout bargain it used to be? That's debatable, but the Koreans have done a great job shoe-horning it full of gear and making it as safe as possible.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
Kia is killing it in the passenger car market, with its year-to-date sales just 279 units behind Ford in Australia. The Sorento has always represented a hefty chunk of the overall product plan, so we've been invited to see whether those who aren't very good at contraception will continue to form an orderly queue for this seven-seat SUV.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The third-gen Kia Sorento is undoubtedly better, but as this car moves upmarket, it's open to question whether the improvements will result in more sales. The petrol version handles better, but its fuel figures will see the refined but lumbering AWD diesel mop up most sales.
PLUS: Diesel refinement; equipment, build quality, practicality, safety
MINUS: Diesel's flabby handling; getting expensive, dullard auto 'box
THE WHEELS REVIEW
WAIT. Rewind. Did Kia man really just say the words 'barbecue credibility' when extolling the virtues of the third-generation Sorento? Clearly things have moved on. Golf clubs and school gates are no longer the preferred venue for delivering a crushing blow to the ego of your peers. Your seven-year warranty is clearly something designed to reduce your rivals to shrivelled husks, wearing the inferiority apron at their grill of resentment snags.
Kia also had a lovely euphemism for describing how the Sorento was a bit of a clunker off-road. “Maintaining the promise of adventure,” they said. You can maintain that promise right up until that moment that you realise you have no low range and a rear overhang so long that your tow ball's going to be filing its own mining claim. On the plus side there is a locking centre diff.
It's hard to be too critical here, because a Hyundai Santa Fe or a Toyota Kluger is no different. These are predominantly road cars that project a marginally less suburban image than an MPV and that can tow 2000kg. But here's the rub.
You can buy the Sorento as a front-wheel drive petrol model or as an all-wheel-drive 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 burdening the front axle, feels a wholly sharper and more gratifying experience.
You're then faced with the prospect of buying a front-wheel-drive SUV which, while nobly pragmatic, is going to leave you catastrophically short of barbecue credibility.
Kia's Australian chassis engineers explain this disparity in handling by admitting they specified the beefiest spring and damper rates for the petrol car and wanted even heavier duty items from the Korean factory for the diesel but couldn't get them, so the spring rates are exactly the same, despite the oiler lugging 117kg more up the road. So that's the bad bit.
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 the sport mode on. This adds a meaty level of heft to the steering. Unfortunately it also couples that with a spikier throttle map, which isn't quite so welcome.
The diesel is decently refined, even though its performance is blunted by a half-witted six-speed automatic gearbox. You can take over shifting duties yourself, but there are no paddles, the lever shifts the wrong way (forward for upchanges) and it wilfully ignores many shift requests if it doesn't like the cut of your jib.
It's a bigger car than before, with an extra 80mm grafted into the wheelbase and another 15mm tacked onto the rear overhang. You feel it inside, with an extra 25mm of legroom up front and another 15mm in the middle row.
The boot is bigger, too, with another 62 litres of space in seven-seat configuration at 320 litres. Fold the rear pair down and there's 1077 litres to rattle about in. The vast dash moulding imparts an impression of burly build integrity and, given the Sorento’s price point, materials quality throughout the cabin impresses.
The base Si model, with its cloth trim, sat nav and reversing camera, looks to be the go, and Kia reckons it'll account for 35 percent of sales, with a paltry 15 percent of buyers set to choose the leather-bedecked SLi with its LED tail lights, power tailgate and 10-speaker Harman Infinity stereo.
Should you wish, you can thrill your friends by pointing out that this is the first Kia to do away with a CD slot. There's no clever Apple CarPlay or Android MirrorLink available, which seems a bit of a weird omission, as is the lack of active city braking or an idle-stop system.
Kia explains the latter away by claiming it didn't make sense from a cost/benefit perspective, which would suggest that every item inside the Sorento has really had to work to justify its inclusion.
The range-topping Platinum is expected to command 50 percent of all Sorento sales and gets a suite of radar-based safety features and over 40kg of panoramic glass roof right where you need the weight least.
Make no mistake; the Kia Sorento still represents punchy value for money. It's never going to appeal to those who like an SUV that will convincingly carve a corner but it feels a league ahead of a Toyota Kluger in terms of modernity and design cohesion.
Drive both diesel and petrol models and you can't help but come away with the feeling that the ideal Sorento is somewhere between the two. A diesel model with beefier suspension might not be long in coming. Those looking to be top dog at the barbecue may well prefer to wait until then.
Model: Kia Sorento Platinum
Engine: 2199cc inline-4, dohc, 16v turbo-diesel
Max power: 147kW @ 3,800rpm
Max torque: 441Nm @ 1750-2750rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 9.6 sec
Economy: 7.8L/100km (combined)
On sale: Now
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