Exclusive: New 2024 Kia Sorento driven - to an active volcano

Kia Sorento to Iceland front three quarter
Kia Sorento to Iceland front three quarter

Our journey to the Centre of the Earth started at Sneffels

It takes no time at all to travel from Iceland’s main airport to the initial site of interest for this feature.

“New car to drive. A Kia. They’ve got one available in Iceland: land of fire and ice, they say. Go and pick it up and see how close you can drive to a volcano,” they’d said at the office, breezily, which sounded like a good wheeze at the time.

But the idea seems to get considerably more glib the closer I drive to the village of Grindavík. Iceland’s south-western Reykjanes peninsula, on which Grindavík is located, is currently enduring its fourth volcanic eruption since 2021 – or one long eruption with months-long pauses, depending on who you ask.


The peninsula is located on – and has been created from – the mid-Atlantic ridge, which is part of the world’s longest mountain range, if you don’t mind that its mountains are mostly underwater.

This mid-ocean ridge is a 40,390-mile continuous line of volcanos, with an average depth to the top of its mountains some 2500m below the surface of the sea. In the Atlantic, the ridge follows where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.

Among other islands, Ascension, the Azores and Iceland are all formed from it. And the ridge crosses Iceland directly through the middle of the Reykjanes peninsula, home to not just Grindavík but also the country’s main airport and the Svartsengi power station that produces hot water and power for more than 20,000 people – and that tops up the Blue Lagoon hot spa, one of Iceland’s biggest tourist attractions.

Even Reykjavík, the capital and home to more than 60% of Iceland’s 383,000 population, is less than 30 miles away from current eruptions. An awful lot of the country’s people and infrastructure, then, are slap bang in the middle of things.

As I near Grindavík, the volcanic activity you’ll have read about since last year is immediately obvious. In late 2023, the main road was overrun by lava flow, which stretches for mile upon mile, still smoking in parts, smelling sulphury everywhere, and made up of very new, very sharp rocks. Iceland’s engineering response to it shouldn’t be understated.

When the lava flow threatened hot water pipes from the power station, engineers relaid 600m of new piping, several metres in diameter, across the top of still-hardening lava, in just three days.

A path was quickly bulldozed across the flow to reopen the road too. Signs still warn drivers not to stop on it because the latent heat might burn through their tyres. And they say not to go hiking because, well, it’s not just your shoes that could be in trouble.

Meanwhile, vast rock walls were even barged into existence to keep the flow away from the power station, the lagoon and, hopefully, Grindavík village.

Alas, that worked for the village only until fissures opened up under Grindavík itself, with both lava and earthquakes prompting its evacuation last November. There has been “no activity in the crater since 9 May”, say Icelandic authorities, but roads to Grindavík remain shut and “the area is closed for hiking and visiting due to danger of gas pollution and a new eruption starting any time without notice”.

Locals can’t move back to their homes, leaving 3800 people in limbo, which may not sound like many but is 1% of Iceland’s population, or, in relative terms, like the UK having to find new accommodation for anyone in Bristol who doesn’t already live in a van.

The norm on Iceland is for one eruption, countrywide, every five years, but since 2021 there has been one a year so, worryingly, troubling trends seem afoot.

“As we speak now, land is rising close to Grindavík, and it’s a clear sign that magma is gathering right under the surface,” Iceland president Guðni Jóhannesson told the Guardian last month.

“And soon, based on the experience of the last few years, it will find its way up.”

So it feels a little tactless to be heading there to mess around for a car magazine. But volcanos are part of the deal here and, it seems, part of the place’s appeal even for the locals.

Visit Iceland, the country’s official travel info provider, talks about a recent eruption at Fagradalsfjall being the ideal ‘tourist volcano’ because it’s dramatic-looking and not too hard to walk to.

It’s difficult to escape the feeling that even the locals think volcanos are pretty flipping exciting. Leaving the road to Grindavík, then, I opt to head to one that’s more famous and, crucially, less active. And so back to the car.

I should mention it, given it’s why I’m here, although Iceland is proving somewhat distracting. This is a new Sorento, the big seven-seat Kia SUV that isn’t the all-electric EV9.

This one’s a 2.2-litre diesel, though you can have a hybrid or plug-in hybrid too. Iceland is about a third bigger than Scotland but has only 7% of its population so I’m expecting to enjoy it through some big scenery and on some very quiet roads and, who knows, even in some iffy weather.

It’s the sort of big SUV that should prove just the ticket. I’m now aiming for Snæfellsjökull, the stepping-off point in Jules Verne’s classic sci-fi novel A Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Or in this case, and oh crivens I’m actually going to write it… perhaps a Journey to Sorento of the Earth. I know. I’m so sorry.

Verne never visited Iceland, so all he would have had were atlases, libraries and his imagination to go on. I’ve got the internet, an Airbus and now a Sorento, and very nice that is proving too. But given the limitations of his time, Verne still knew a thing or two.

“This extraordinary and curious island must have made its appearance from out the great world of waters at a comparatively recent date,” writes his novel’s hero, Axel Lidenbrock. “Like the coral islands of the Pacific it may, for aught we know, be still rising by slow and imperceptible degrees.” He was right.

While the first supercontinent is believed to have appeared 1.7 billion years ago, and Pangea, the supercontinent that later broke into the continents we know today, appeared 225 million years ago, Iceland is thought to be only 16-18 million years old. It’s such a whippersnapper that nature hasn’t finished building it yet: it’s growing by 2cm a year.

For a place so inhospitably made, and that endures such chronic weather that winter vehicle modifier Arctic Trucks is based here, Iceland has some great roads.

Not great as in alpine switchback passes, but great as in impeccably surfaced, smooth and ripple-free, a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that, for much of the year, most people drive around not just with winter tyres, but studded tyres.

Even during my visit, in late spring, I hear the rattle of what must be the Reykjavík Mouse Tap Dancing Ensemble approach, only to turn my head and find it’s a Toyota Yaris on snow tyres pulling up. And the Sorento is really pleasant on roads like this: flat, open sweeping roads with 56mph speed limits, where the engine is inaudible and, after mild acceleration, which the eight-speed dualclutch auto mooches through imperceptibly.

Its seats are big and flat and comfortable, the steering light and easy, and most of the controls are actually proper, simple, easy-to-use buttons and dials and vents.

Glance out of the window at a mountain, or down at a heated seat button, and the attention monitor gets so fraught that it’s probably still throwing a wobbly as I write, but there’s loads to like here.

Snæfellsjökull is three pleasant hours on roads like this from the peninsula and it’s time that passes easily in a big, capable, comfortable car like this.

Mountains and snow and ice pass to my right, the sea to my left. As Verne explains, ‘jökull’ or ‘yocul’ is Icelandic for glacier, so rather than Snæfellsjökull, Verne merely calls the destination Sneffels, to the likely relief of his typesetter.

His hero is rather more dismayed when it’s explained to him that Sneffels is in fact a 5000ft-tall volcanic mountain with a portal to the middle of the earth at the top of it.

It’s imagined that it’s a tough climb to the top of the volcano. In truth, it would be harder still. Sneffels/ Snæfellsjökull is still considered active, but its last eruption was 1800 years ago so any crater, and any portals, will have been buried beneath four square miles of glacier long ago.

Before the ascent the adventuring party calls in at Arnarstapi, or Stapi in the novel, “a town consisting of thirty huts, built on a large plain of lava, exposed to the rays of the sun, reflected from the volcano”. So I call in too.

I’ve got to say Verne’s description of the shore’s “oval openings” in “banks of basalt rocks” that are “torn from their fastenings by the fury of the waves” are extremely astute for a bloke who never came here; though I’m pleased to say that since 1864, the “dull ill-mannered peasants” who do “not count civility among the cardinal virtues” seem to have improved considerably, and I’ve never had a fish soup so good.

Verne’s crew stay in Stapi for the night, then trek for three difficult hours before even reaching the base of the volcano. I pause for lunch, then take about 45 seconds to reach the bottom of the snow line on a gravelly road that leads up the side of the mountain, and only 15 more seconds to get the Sorento stuck fast. Sigh. Look, it’s not the car’s fault.

There’s this fork in the road, see, where I know I want to go left because I can see the stone path snaking upwards, but there are snow drifts so I can’t quite identify the exact point the road splits in two.

So I guess at it, and guess at it wrong, and bury the Sorento not just up to its axles, but up to the underside of its body in the ice. Verne’s crowd didn’t travel until late June, you see. Schoolboy error.

The Sorento has four-wheel drive and winter tyres but, honestly, that is no protection from idiot motoring writers.

Thankfully, there are passing cross-country skiers who have shovels in their car, other passing tourists with a 4x4 and, most helpfully of all (because it’s assumed no journalist should be left to do stupid things alone) I’ve been assigned a kind companion who pretends he’s not cross with me while he goes to fetch a tow rope.

A combination of these things later and the Sorento is pulled free. There’s no way up. Sneffels, I’m afraid, will have to wait, which might be for the best.

On the first night inside the volcano, Lidenbrock finds that “the bed was hard, the shelter unsatisfactory”, and later his expedition ends up on a raft in an underground sea, grappling with monsters. Ghastly.

When they do eventually emerge from under the earth, they’ve drifted as far as Stromboli, off of Sicily, and it’s August. The olives and vines sound nice.

“There are loads of volcanos. And astonishing scenery” but, look, I’ve got deadlines. And there must be other volcanos here, instead. There are.

We’re barely touching the western edge of Iceland, but there are loads of them. Astonishing scenery under your feet, in front of, and above you. Everywhere. And the Sorento? It’s very good, like all Kias.

It’s seriously relaxing on the road, easy to rub along with, and I get it stuck only once more, when I find a road that leads to Sneffels from the other side. I decide against trying to cross the first serious snow patch I find until John, our photographer, makes chicken noises at me over the walkie-talkie, which obviously means I have to try it, and it doesn’t work. So it’s his fault, really.

Anyway, Iceland. It’s a great road trip location. I know everyone who’s been to Iceland says it, but it’s true. Spectacular amounts of volcano absolutely all around you. Beautiful.

Basalt rocks that look like the moon abound, although quite a lot of them are sharp, so if you want to stop for a picnic, do take a chair. But do go, if you can. Just watch out for the fires. And the ice.