UPDATE 10/28/21: This review has been updated with test results.
Kia faces a formidable challenge with the launch of its redesigned fourth-generation 2021 Sorento SUV, which comes to market on the heels of the Korean brand's immensely successful and 10Best-winning Telluride crossover. Yet, while both SUVs compete in the same mid-size, three-row segment, the slightly smaller Sorento makes a compelling case with its attractive design, more affordable pricing, and a diverse range of powertrains that includes two gas engines, a hybrid, and a plug-in hybrid.
The new Sorento may not have the same bold style as the chunky Telluride. But its chiseled lines look handsomely modern and set off its more prominent styling details, such as the hexagonal pattern in its grille and its eye-catching LED taillights. A $2800 X-Line appearance package is available on all-wheel-drive SX models; it adds a model-specific roof rack and front and rear bumpers along with a number of additional features. The X-Line is also available in a fetching Aruba Green color that pairs nicely with the Sorento's optional brown leather interior.
While we've only driven well-equipped SX models thus far, we're impressed with the design and material quality of the Sorento's cabin. Its fake wood trim is convincing, its quilted leather upholstery is soft, and its shapely door panels feature attractive stitching and plush armrests. The dashboard's abundance of air vents can look busy, but the SX's crisply rendered 10.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system sits within easy reach of the driver, and the climate controls are straightforward to operate. Lesser LX, S, and EX models have a smaller 8.0-inch touchscreen with wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, but strangely the SX's larger screen requires you to plug your phone in with an old-fashioned USB cable in order to access those features.
With a wheelbase that's 3.4 inches shorter than the Telluride's, the Sorento is closer in size to two-row mid-size crossovers such as the Honda Passport, yet the Kia comes standard with a questionably useful third row of seats. Accommodations in the way back simply aren't comfortable for adults, with limited stretch-out space and a low bottom seat cushion that forces your knees up toward your chest. Plus, we only fit two carry-on suitcases in its cargo area with the third row raised versus the four we fit in the Telluride's aft hold. If we owned a new Sorento, we'd probably leave the third row folded until we absolutely needed to ferry additional riders for short distances. Lower trim levels have a second-row bench seat and seven-passenger capacity, but higher trims are limited to six riders with their second-row captain's chairs.
The Sorento offers four powertrain options, including a base 191-hp 2.5-liter inline-four, a turbocharged 2.5-liter four, a hybrid that pairs with a 1.6-liter turbo four, and a plug-in hybrid with a larger battery pack that enables a claimed 32 miles of electric range. We've driven the optional 281-hp turbo 2.5-liter so far, and we enjoyed its responsiveness and smooth power delivery. We also reviewed the hybrid separately.
Although the Sorento's optional turbo four (EX and SX models only) is somewhat unusual in a segment where naturally aspirated V-6s remain the norm, that the engine mates to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is even more unconventional. Kia claims that this setup enables quicker shifts and better fuel economy. Indeed, the 2.5-liter turbo's 24-mpg EPA combined estimate for an all-wheel-drive model is identical to the figure for an equivalent Sorento with the significantly less powerful naturally aspirated engine and conventional eight-speed torque-converter automatic.
We did notice a slight lag in throttle response when starting from a stop with the dual-clutch, but the transmission otherwise performed smoothly and unobtrusively. We measured a relatively swift zero-to-60-mph time of 6.3 seconds for the turbocharged model, which is quicker than the Telluride and on pace with many V-6 competitors. We estimate that the naturally aspirated Sorento will be roughly 2.5 seconds off that pace.
Compared to the floaty ride and handling of the previous-gen Sorento, the new model feels considerably more solid and planted on the road. While the new model's 0.84 g of grip around our skidpad and 70-to-0-mph braking distance of 173 feet were both identical to a 2019 model we tested, the new car rides more confidently. Even large bumps produce little noise from the suspension and minimal vibrations through the steering wheel. The tuning of the primary controls also is much improved, with nicely weighted steering and a firm brake pedal.
Starting at $30,565 for a front-wheel-drive LX model and ranging up to $43,765 for a top-spec all-wheel-drive SX Prestige X-Line, the Sorento costs less than the larger Telluride, which starts at $33,415 and can top $50K with options. Given the Telluride's presence and excellent packaging, it remains a highly tempting option among three-row utes. But the new Sorento is attractive in its own right. For sensible shoppers who don't need its larger sibling's extra size (and cost), Kia's latest mid-size SUV has a lot to offer.
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