We are living in the age of the SUV, but many manufacturers don't seem particularly keen to emphasise the 'off-roadness' of the models they are cramming into this overstuffed part of the market. The segment is full of wishy-washy crossovers, 'lifestylish' cars – many of which seem to have been designed to look like ramped hatches and station wagons.
That's categorically not the case with the 2020 Kia Telluride – a car that owns both its SUV status and its sheer size. Built in the US and designed for American tastes, it sits above the already sizeable Kia Sorento in the brand's hierarchy with a five-metre length and – depending on whether you opt for a bench or separate seats for the second row – room for seven or eight.
There are no plans to sell it in Australia, or any right-hand-drive markets, but it has already proved a hit in the States thanks to its combination of size, style and compelling pricing. I drove one in Michigan and emerged from the experience impressed, because there’s lots to like about the Telluride.
For Americans, the most appealing quality is the one with the dollar sign in front of it. The entry-level front-driven LX versions cost US$32,785–$48,315 at current exchange rates – and although that means cloth seats, it still brings three rows of seats, a full suite of active-safety functionality, and a 217kW 3.8-litre V6 engine. But even heading straight to the other end of the range, the full-fat AWD SX version only increases the asking to US$44,585 – 10 grand less than the range-topping Ford Explorer.
Yet, nothing about the Telluride feels cheap. The solid, upright styling and chrome-heavy front grille give it both a sense of confidence and an upmarket feel at odds with both its badge and its price tag. Moving inside, the cabin makes it feel even more impressive, with a spacious, well-finished interior that feels closer to premium Europeans than the plasticky interiors that America's domestic carmakers offer in this bit of the market.
It's well finished and well designed, with abundant space in the front and centre rows, plus a clean, rational dashboard incorporating a 10.3-inch touchscreen and a row of Lexus-like controls for the heating and ventilation. Quality touches include soft nappa leather trim, and both heating and ventilation for the front- and second-row seats.
You'll be unsurprised to hear that it isn't a scintillating thrill-fest on the road. I drove the range-topping SX, but all versions use the same naturally aspirated V6. This feels big and lazy, with respectable part-throttle urge, but a gravelly soundtrack when pushed hard. It’s actually pretty quick – Kia quotes a 7.0-second 0–60mph (0–97km/h) time – although beyond being seriously late for soccer practice or a kid's softball game, it's hard to imagine any buyers wanting to experience that.
The standard eight-speed auto ’box feels a bit abrupt on throttle-stamped upchanges, too. But driven at the more respectful pace the car is designed for, both engine and gearbox soon fade into the background and cruising refinement is excellent.
The chassis sticks with the same script: composed, comfortable and mostly uninterested in faster progress. Ride quality is impressive, the Telluride's dampers maintaining order over some frost-broken Midwestern back roads without allowing harshness to creep in. Grip levels from the Michelin Primacy Tour all-season tyres are predictably modest, with squealing on dry tarmac marking the approaching limits. Body roll under harder cornering is also pretty nautical.
In short, it's definitely not as athletic as the premium alternatives, or the impressively lithe CX-9 that costs similar money in the States. But compared to the Mazda, the Telluride is bigger, classier and considerably better equipped.
Beyond the practicality that comes from sheer space, the Telluride is packed with well-considered details. There are USB charging ports seemingly everywhere and a huge number or stowage cubbies, plus an inductive charging mat up front. There's even an intercom system – dubbed Driver Talk – to help relay messages throughout the cabin, so that kids can't claim not to have heard instructions to put down their screens and look at the view.
The SX's second row of seats are power-collapsible, although it's still necessary to haul the third row out of the boot floor manually. (The closely related Hyundai Palisade has a powered third row, too.) With all seats raised there is 594L of luggage space, while toppling the rearmost increases that to 1302L, and folding the middle as well gives a panel van rivalling 2463L. Oh, and on US methodology it can also tow up to 2300kg.
Most of the American cars that don't get to leave America probably wouldn't travel that well, and beyond novelty value, their absence isn't a huge loss to the rest of the world. Yet, although created very much around US needs and priorities, the Telluride feels like it would work anywhere people want space and refinement, and especially well in Australia given our enthusiasm for both three-row crossovers and the existing Sorento.
Will the Kia Telluride come to Australia?
Sadly, the lack of right-hand-drive manufacture will deny it to us. Where have we heard that one before?
Engine: 3778cc V6
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power: 217kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 355Nm at 5200rpm
Top speed: 210km/h (limited)
Price: US$44,585 (SX, AWD)