The 2017 Kia Sorento is a prime example of how far the Korean brand has come since its early days as a cheap (and not always cheerful) manufacturer, challenging established Japanese and European marques for features, cabin quality and design.
As most readers know, my family and I are big fans of Kias – so much so that a previous-generation Sorento and Sportage are parked in the family garage – because they're great value for money, offer high-quality cabins, and locally-tuned suspension that works a treat on Australian roads.
In its latest generation, the Sorento has grown far larger than it has ever been before (4780mm long and 2780mm wide), no longer straddling the medium and large SUV segments a-la the Mitsubishi Outlander and Nissan X-Trail, instead now competing directly with the likes of the Mazda CX-9 and Toyota Kluger.
On test we have the new GT-Line, kicking off at a near-premium $58,490 (all prices excluding on-road costs). That means, at least in terms of price, the big Kia is also not far off medium luxury SUVs like the Mercedes-Benz GLC (from $67,500), BMW X3 (from $63,800), Audi Q5 (from $63,600) and the Lexus NX (from $53,550) – though admittedly these do not offer third-row seating.
So what do you get for your hard-earned cash? All Sorento models come standard with alloy wheels, automatic headlights with static cornering lights, fog-lights, LED daytime-running lights, one-touch power windows all round, three 12V power outlets, two USB points, a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with satellite navigation, dual-zone climate control with air vents for the second and third rows, and two ISOFIX anchor points for the outward seats in the second row.
Across the range, safety is taken care of with dual front, side and curtain airbags, along with ABS, ESC, vehicle stability management, hill-start assist, emergency stop signal, seatbelt warning lights for all seats, front and rear parking sensors, a rear-view camera, and a speed-sensing auto door lock.
Our top-of-the range GT-Line gets extras like 'ice cube' quad-LED fog-lights, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), 19-inch chrome alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof, 7.0-inch TFT driver's instrument display, rear sun blinds, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, red leather trim with diamond-pattern perforations, stainless steel side steps, red brake calipers, steering-mounted paddle-shifters and GT-Line badging inside and out.
It's quite a comprehensive package, and offers great value for money – though the active safety features and a number of luxury lines can be found in the slightly cheaper and former flagship Platinum grade, which will set you back a still-substantial $56,590.
However, compared to flagship all-wheel drive versions of the Mazda CX-9 and Toyota Kluger, the Sorento GT-Line – while slightly less spacious – is around $5000-$10,000 cheaper.
Under the bonnet of the GT-Line and all other all-wheel driven Sorento models is the company's 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine, which develops a healthy 147kW of power at 3800 rpm, and 441Nm of torque between 1750 and 2750 rpm.
Claimed fuel consumption for the oiler is rated at 7.8L combined, which is more frugal than the petrol-powered CX-9's (8.8L/100km) and Kluger's (9.5L/100km) claims, though the gap widens when driving in the real world.
From the outside, the Sorento GT-Line is understated, and more classy than sporty. The 19-inch chromies are in this reviewer's opinion what the Catalans call "lleig" – which means ugly – and are more suited to the US market than ours.
Positives, however, include the quad-LED fog-lights, red brake calipers and the stainless-steel side steps – the latter looking almost like side skirts while also making entry and exit of the vehicle that little bit easier for older or less able passengers.
Hopping inside, the GT-Line's red leather trim is a point of difference compared to its rivals, adorning the seats and door inserts, while the diamond-pattern perforations again add a touch of class. The woodgrain-look trims of the Platinum have been replaced with a gloss-black trim on the centre tunnel, steering wheel and doors, though the material itself feels incredibly solid and smooth to the touch.
Soft-touch plastics are everywhere, including both higher and lower sections of the dash and doors, and this continues through to the second row – don't laugh, a lot of cars put hard plastics in the back and softer ones in the front.
Up front the seats are comfortable, offering plenty of support and ample bolstering, while all the instruments and controls are easy to read and within arm's reach of the driver. The 7.0-inch central touchscreen looks a little small considering the size of the car and its dashboard, and doesn't offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto unlike the newer system in the new Rio light hatch, but it is relatively snappy and easy to use even on the move.
The steering wheel is trimmed in a nice smooth leather along with a top section finished in gloss black, while all the controls for audio, cruise control and the 7.0-inch driver's instrument display are all clearly-labelled and logically laid out. Adding to the GT-Line's sporty theme are steering-mounted paddle-shifters finished in an aluminium-look plastic, which are a nice touch.
In the second row, there's plenty of leg- and headroom – even for six-foot-plus fellows like myself despite the panoramic sunroof – while map pockets, in-built sun blinds, rear air vents and a 12V socket provide ample amenities for kids and teenagers alike.
Meanwhile, the third row shows the Sorento is more of a 5+2 seater than a full seven-pew bus, with limited headroom for those around six-foot tall and a high floor, though kids will be fine in the back and will make full use of the rearmost cupholders and storage cubbies, along with the independent fan controls.
The Sorento has six cupholders (two front, two second row and two third row), four bottle holders (front and rear doors), a sunglasses holder up front, a large centre console box with bucket tray, and luggage net hooks in the boot.
Speaking of the load area, the Sorento's boot measures 605 litres (VDA) with five seats in use, expanding to 1662L with the second and third rows folded down. Even with the third row in place, the Kia has 142L of volume, allowing larger families to carry light luggage or shopping with all seven seats in use. It's still behind the CX-9 (810L/230L) but betters the Kluger (529L/195L), at least in five-seat configuration.
Heading out onto the road, the Sorento impresses with its refinement and competent road manners.
The 2.2-litre oiler provides decent urge from low in the rev range, though there can be hints of turbo lag at low speeds.
Despite featuring a turbo-diesel up front, the Sorento suppresses the characteristic clatter of this type of engine pretty well, though it's still noticeable at idle.
The big Kia's steering is light enough to make tight manoeuvres a simple task while also being direct and providing a decent amount of feedback. By no means is the Sorento a sports car, but it has good turn-in, and doesn't feel cumbersome like some rivals.
Like the rest of the Korean company's line-up, the Sorento benefits from local suspension tuning, which really shows on country highways and Melbourne's inner-city roads.
The ride smoothes out even the largest of imperfections, while also insulating the cabin well from road noise – particularly on coarse surfaces like those on the Hume Highway.
Once at speed the diesel engine is barely heard, while tyre roar is well suppressed – leaving the cabin more than quiet enough to hold a normal conversation or blast some tunes without any interruptions.
The standard-fit active safety systems also work well without being overly intrusive, though the lane departure warning and blind-spot monitoring systems make annoying beep noises even when you know you can make the gap.
Real-world fuel consumption was also pretty good – we averaged around 8.9L/100km in a mix of city and highway driving, not a world away from Kia's 7.8L/100km combined claim.
One major drawback from the driving experience is the Sorento's brake feel. There's a little too much pedal travel before the brakes suddenly bite, and it can take quite a while to get used to.
At times, particularly under harder braking, it can seem like you won't stop in time – which definitely doesn't inspire confidence and can be quite concerning if you need to make an emergency stop.
Like all Kia models, the Sorento is covered by the company's industry-leading seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty with seven year's capped-price servicing and roadside assistance.
Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km, with servicing costing between $403 and $664 – totalling $3509 for the life of the plan.
Compared to the model before it, the Kia Sorento has made leaps and bounds when it comes to cabin quality, practicality and refinement.
It perfectly encompasses the company's progress over the last decade, offering premium levels of technology and performance for mainstream pricing.
Little niggles like icky brake feel, dated infotainment and small third-row seating dull what is otherwise a very compelling and value-packed family SUV.
However, the slightly cheaper Platinum offers even better value, while a mid-life upgrade – which will introduce Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – arrives later this year which should make an already very good vehicle great.
Furthermore, for those who need to use seven seats regularly, the larger CX-9, Kluger and Pathfinder offer better people-hauling abilities.