Would you spend $50,000 on a Kia? It's the question the flagship Kia Sorento Platinum soft-roader poses shoppers in the market for a full-size SUV.
Those who remember (or rather, can’t forget) the Kias of the past may say the answer is a no-brainer, while others more familiar the South Korean brand’s recent maturation might agree, although to a completely different end.
The $49,190 price for the Kia Sorento Platinum may sound steep ($50,630 before on-roads for our test car that was optioned with satellite navigation and metallic paint), but it’s around $15,000 cheaper than the comparative range-topping variants of the Ford Territory and Toyota Kluger.
Price-wise, the Sorento Platinum actually competes more directly with the base model AWD variants of the Territory and Kluger, giving the Kia a significant advantage in terms of standard equipment. Its South Korean sibling, the Hyundai Santa Fe, offers a similar package in the $48,490 Highlander, while the Jeep Grand Cherokee is another tempting proposition at $50,000 for the entry-level Laredo diesel.
From the outset you should know there’s an updated version of the Kia Sorento headed our way in October. Kia’s mid-life upgrade for the second-generation Sorento will take the peculiar step of adopting a brand new platform (shared with the upcoming Santa Fe) while essentially carrying over the current model’s powertrains, exterior design and interior dimensions. If you can hold off until the end of the year, it should be worth the wait, with the facelifted Sorento to get a new suspension set-up tuned specifically for Australia’s road conditions while retaining it current pricing.
The Kia Sorento range actually starts at $36,990 with the 204kW/335Nm 3.5-litre V6 petrol Si variant, which comes standard with a six-speed automatic transmission. Although it’s strictly a front-wheel-drive, the base petrol variant is a reasonable alternative to the diesels if you don’t plan to take it off-road and price is your primary consideration. The petrol has an identical 2000kg braked towing capacity to the auto diesels (the manual diesel can pull 2500kg), although its fuel consumption, at 10.0 litres per 100km on the combined cycle, is considerably higher than the diesels (6.7-7.4L/100km).
The 145kW 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine is less powerful but offers 87-101Nm more torque – 422Nm with the six-speed manual and 436Nm with the automatic. All that torque also comes on much lower in the rev range (1800-2500rpm versus the petrol’s 5000rpm peak level), making it tremendously responsive to your calls for more go.
The characteristic diesel rumble at idle and a slight lag at your initial throttle prod are soon forgotten as the Sorento accelerates smoothly and effortlessly. There’s little theatre about the way the sophisticated and quiet engine goes about its business, and always a sense that it’s got more to give. It takes freeway on-ramps and overtaking manoeuvres in its stride, and doesn’t blink an eye if you’re loaded up with five adults and a weekend’s worth of luggage. It’s also a refined cruiser, happily sitting below 1500rpm in fifth gear at 60km/h around town and remaining quiet and settled in top gear on the highway.
Fuel-wise, our test car sipped in the low 7s on the highway between Sydney and Newcastle, although banked-up city traffic saw it scull disturbingly at a rate well into the teens.
All diesel variants come with a part-time four-wheel-drive system but essentially remain front-drivers for everyday trips. For the more adventurous, the Sorento’s AWD Lock function distributes power evenly between the front and rear axles at speeds up to 30km/h for enhanced traction on rough terrain. Downhill braking and hill-start assist systems give the driver more control on low-speed gradients.
The Sorento’s ride is best at high speeds where it irons out imperfections in typically higher quality surfaces well and exhibits an encouraging stability. But its harsh, choppy performance over rough patches and potholes found commonly around Australia’s suburban streets puts the big Kia off the pace of the segment leaders.
The steering is reasonably weighted but the underlying sensation is one of a vague lack of connection with the road.
The 18-inch tyres of the SLi and Platinum variants transmit some road noise into the cabin; and ambient noise is even more intrusive in the Platinum as a side effect of its double sunroofs, which offer less insulation than a conventional hard roof.
The cabin features an attractive dashboard and a utilitarian design. The red and white instrument cluster lights are particularly striking and easy to read, although the chrome rings around the binnacles reflect sunlight into your eyes at times. The absence of soft-touch plastics is a sign of cost cutting and another reminder the Sorento trails the overall refinement of many of its Japanese and European rivals.
There’s a refreshing simplicity to the centre console, however, aided by the large colour touchscreen. In the high-grade Platinum, it facilitates all audio functions including iPod integration via USB or Bluetooth, phone connection, satellite navigation, and rear-view camera display with guiding lines.
The Sorento’s storage options are another highlight, with cavernous door pockets, centre bin and glove box, and cup holders for all three seating rows.
The twin third-row seats are designed primarily for small kids and short trips, and fill most of the boot when in use. Pull cords make them simple to erect and stow, while a rolling left second-row seat aids third-row access. Individual air vents in SLi and Platinum grades enhance comfort in the back.
There’s no shortage of space in the second-row, with my three adult passengers admitting to being cosy but comfortable over a three-hour journey and praising the pillar-mounted vents. The second-row seats fold almost completely flat to create a van-like space if you need to haul long items or loads of kit.
Visibility from the driver’s seat is impeded somewhat by the thick A-pillars and wide D-pillars at the rear.
The Sorento Si comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, front and rear fog lamps, electric folding side mirrors, tinted windows, cloth seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear stick, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, and a six-speaker audio system with AUX/USB/Bluetooth connectivity.
For an extra $4200, the mid-range Sorento SLi adds 18-inch alloys, automatic headlights, roof rails, rear spoiler, LED tail-lights, rear-view camera with reversing sensors, leather upholstery and silver interior trim, eight-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support, alloy scuff panels and sports pedals, and an electrochromatic rear-view mirror.
The flagship Sorento Platinum is $3000 more than the SLi and adds a smart key with push-button start, HID headlights, panoramic sunroof, second- and third-row privacy glass, and an enhanced audio system with six-disc CD changer and subwoofer.
All Sorento models are equipped with six airbags and electronic stability control and have earned ANCAP’s maximum five-star safety rating. Like all Kias, the Sorento is also covered by a five-year unlimited-kilometre warranty, a rare level of aftersales protection.
It may not be as cheap as you’d expect, but with the versatility of seven seats, plenty of standard features and an impressive powertrain line-up, the Kia Sorento makes a strong case against its large soft-roader rivals. But with an unsettled low-speed ride, lifeless steering and a cabin short on soft-touch surfaces, we recommend holding out for the 2013 model due later this year.
2012 Kia Sorento manufacturer’s list prices (excluding government and dealer charges):
- Sorento Si petrol 2WD auto – $36,990
- Sorento Si diesel 4WD manual – $39,990
- Sorento Si diesel 4WD auto – $41,990
- Sorento SLi diesel 4WD auto – $46,190
- Sorento Platinum diesel 4WD auto – $49,190