In its entire existence, from body-on-frame SUV to unibody crossover, the Kia Sorento hasn't had nearly as much range of purpose as it does in the all-new 2021 model. Do you need an entry-level three-row? A hybrid SUV? How about a stylish and luxurious family car? You can get a 2021 Kia Sorento in all those forms, but this time, we're looking at another flavor: the new X-Line package that adds a dollop of ruggedness. When applied to the top-of-the-line SX Prestige trim as our test car was, it's quite appealing in many ways. It's stylish, has great tech and even a usable third row. And even in this truly line-topping trim, it represents a good value against the competition. Its only real weakness is that it's not quite as refined or as engaging as some other options.
As its name implies, there are two elements we're looking at with this 2021 Sorento SX Prestige X-Line. The SX Prestige bit refers to the highest trim level packed with every comfort, convenience and luxury feature available. Then, X-Line effectively refers to a package, also available on the EX trim for $2,100, that gives the Sorento a splash of Subaru Outback woodsy flavor. It includes different front and rear bumper covers with faux aluminum skid plate accents, matte black plastic cladding along the sides instead of gloss black, functional and stylish roof rails, and the option of our test car's Aruba Green. Adding to its off-pavement chops is standard all-wheel drive, a lockable center differential and an extra 1.3 inches of ground clearance over regular Sorentos for a total of 8.2 inches. That may be lower than the Outback's 8.7 inches, but well north of most other midsize crossovers, including a full inch higher than the GMC Acadia AT4, a similarly-sized three-row with more rugged styling and tires.
Both X-Line versions get the Sorento's turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 281 horsepower and 311 pound-feet of torque. It's the crown jewel of the Sorento driving experience. Its punchy power delivery, especially right off the line, makes it feel quick and never labored. It's also really quiet at low rpm. It gets a little more gruff as revs rise (the power starts to drop off up there as well), but on the whole, it's a superb engine, particularly for this use case. Fuel economy is slightly above average compared with other turbo four-cylinder engines and V6s, with 21 mpg in the city, 28 on the highway and 24 combined.
The engine is paired with an eight-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission, and it's a good one, but maybe not a segment leader. When driving, it feels like a very adept person is shifting a manual transmission. There's a very slight pause between ratios, but the shifts are done smoothly. Importantly, it's much smoother and more confident from a standstill than older dual-clutch Hyundai and Kia models. The transmission does a good job of choosing gears, keeping the revs and noise down in the Eco and Comfort drive modes while holding them longer in the Sport mode. If you do want to shift manually, that's a fine experience, too, with the transmission executing shifts promptly with each pull, if not as rapidly as some luxury car automatic and dual-clutch transmissions.
As for the ride and handling, they're average to mediocre. The ride is quite springy and it tends to rock side-to-side over bumps. It likes to lean over through corners as well. I have yet to test another Sorento with the lower base suspension, so it's unclear how much of this was the result of the X-Line's greater ground clearance. Either way, such uninspired handling is hardly a deal breaker for a three-row family crossover, but it's still worth noting that it's not especially rewarding to drive. At least the steering is quick and has good, progressive weighting, if not much feel.
The Sorento interior makes some very good first impressions. It has a nice low dash with a great blend of colors and textures. The geometric air vents and beveled edges reinforce the more truck-like image Kia is attempting to achieve. Most of the details are really good, too. The screens for instruments and infotainment are bright and crisp. The animations for transitioning between instrument themes are slick and detailed, and interacting with the systems are quick and smooth. All of the switchgear feels firm and sturdy with no wiggling or play. And everything is in easy reach, including the very welcome physical climate and stereo controls. The leather looks gorgeous on the seats, too.
That being said, there are a few letdowns in the cabin. The matte-finish wood trim is fake and it looks it. It feels a little like a cheap vinyl wrap. The good news is that opting for a black leather interior swaps in aluminum-look trim that has a nicer finish. And on the subject of trim, there are a couple of areas, such as in the front door grab handles, where the plastic trim has some rather sharp edges that feel unbecoming for the SX Prestige's design and price.
Seating in the Sorento comes out to about average. There's loads of space for the front occupants, and the second row for that matter. Even the third row is usable by adults. We wouldn't recommend adults sit back there for long periods of time, since the seats are basically on the floor, putting your knees near your shoulders, but they work for short runs. They even offer enough room without infringing on the second-row passengers' comfort. The spring-loaded second row makes it easy to access the third row quickly and easily, too, and there are even switches in the cargo area to fold them down. The Sorento has very usable cargo space, as well, with 12.6 cubic feet behind the third row, 45 behind the second and 75 with all the seats folded. The key seating issue: The front seats are oddly firm and flat and became uncomfortable on long trips.
Now we come to that high price tag. All in, our SX Prestige X-Line test car came to $44,285 versus a starting point of $43,760 (the EX version goes for $40,065). That's a fair distance from the base Sorento that starts at $30,560, but you are getting everything. Included are 20-inch wheels, a panoramic sunroof, leather interior, 12.3-inch instrument display, 10.25-inch infotainment screen, a Bose sound system, and every safety feature available for the Sorento. There is actually only one option from the factory, and that's the leather color choice of tan for $200 that our test car wore in addition to a handful of dealer-installed extras.
So, there's no denying you get a lot of equipment for the money. A price of $44,000 may be quite a bit of money, but it's hard to get the same amount of technology and luxury features this cheap elsewhere. Consider how it stacks up to two similarly smaller-than-average three-row crossovers. The Mazda CX-9's high-end Signature trim starts at $47,980 (though there's something to be said for its superior interior quality and driving experience), while the GMC Acadia Denali starts at $49,300 before option packages and V6 engine send the price soaring further. You also can't apply soft-roading upgrades like those of the X-Line to the high-end Mazda or GMC trims.
And what about Kia's other three-row crossover, the Telluride? There is definitely a case to be made that its extra size and refinement would be well worth the premium, but a comparably equipped Telluride SX Prestige still costs $47,915. And that's if you could even find one going for sticker on a dealer lot. There's also no comparable X-Line version of the Telluride.
So, the takeaway is that the Kia Sorento is an all-around solid crossover. And it comes packed with style, power and some impressive features. It also manages to be a strong value right up to the flashiest specification. And as long as you're willing to sacrifice a bit of driving fun and refinement, it's tough to top in the small-ish three-row segment.
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