Sorento SUV is luxe ute in Kia clothing

Among its technological features, the 2021 Sorento includes a 12.3-inch full digital meter cluster, which Kia says is a first for its SUVs. (Kia/TNS)
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Henry Payne The Detroit News (TNS)

Kia is on a roll these days with the sensational Stinger Sportback and Telluride SUV. Mainstream products with premium flair, they beg the question: Why pay 70 grand for a luxury brand when you can have the same vehicle for $45,000 under a mainstream badge?

Kia asks the question again with its all-new, mid-size Sorento SUV.

Remade from bumper to bumper, the fourth-generation Sorento takes its cues from big brother Telluride and offers a brawny bod with a brainy interior. Kinda that bearded Hugh Jackman lumberjack look.

The Telluride did it so effortlessly. You remember the ads. The three-row Telluride roguishly running with the bulls while a narrator intoned: “When we designed Telluride we asked ourselves: Would it be ruthless or beautiful? Muscular or sophisticated? Down to earth or a work of art? The answer was simple: Yes.”

Oh, we swooned over that one. And the Telluride flew off the shelves. Its value equation was absurd — a three-row SUV that looked liked a Cadillac but priced five grand less than a comparable Ford Explorer. Kia was giving away candy.

“By aiming high, Kia has created a premium product at nonpremium prices. It’s what we call a (Lexus) LS400 moment and that’s significant. Get one before Kia realizes what it’s done and raises the price,” writes Car and Driver this year in naming Telluride one of its 2020 10 Best.

Sorento copies the same formula. Not that the last-gen Sorento was a dog. It scored 11 on value, too. But with Telluride halo raising the bar, mid-size Sorento rises with it. It’s slotted between the compact Kia Sportage and Telluride and targeted at the Ford Edge, Chevy Blazer, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Murano and Honda Passport among others.

As automakers try to slake our SUV thirst, the differences between multiple segments are thin. Kia is particularly adept at slicing the roast with a buffet of choices including Soul, Seltos, Niro, Passport, Sedona (minivan), Sorento and Telluride.

But Telluride has really changed the game for the brand.

It’s enormous popularity — “we are getting customers trading in Land Rovers, Mercedes and Volvos for this SUV,” says product manager Mark Sovino — has forced Sorento to re-imagine its personality. Once Kia’s three-row family SIV, Sorento has surrendered that mantle to Telluride.

It’s now tasked to pitch empty nesters like myself and Mrs. Payne. No longer in need of a big family hauler, folks like us still covet the room of a big SUV but don’t want to show up at the dinner party driving the same ol’ Ford Explorer/Chevy Traverse/Telluride family bus.

My Sorento SX and X-line testers looked hot.

Not as hot as the Chevy Blazer RS — which appears to have been designed by Marvel Comics as Iron Man’s daily driver — but certainly a step above Passport or conservative Korean cousin Santa Fe. Gone are the rounded edges (love handles?) of the previous generation, replaced by a sculpted, high belt-line and gritty, full-sized grille. Off-road, X-line trim? Check. Sexy black wheels? Check. Distinctive LED light front and rear? Double check.

Frankly, the family Telluride still looks better, its signature square headlights and vertical taillights noticeable from miles away. I wish Sorento got the latter just as every Volvo gets vertical taillights. Where Sorento really channels Telluride’s vibe is under the sheet metal.

Indeed, it laps the Telluride when it comes to powertrain options.

Where Telluride offers a competent 291-horse, 3.8-liter V-6, little brother Sorento has a toolbox of 2.5-liter 4-banger, turbo-4, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid. This is a luxe-worthy lineup. Speed-addled monster that I am, I prefer the turbo-4 with 311-pound feet of torque that exceeds even the Telluride’s 262 number. Heck, it’s even on par with the Mazda CX-9 and its stump-pulling four (more on the Mazda in a moment).

But for those without my size 15 lead foot, the Sorento hybrid is just $39,000 — $5,000 less than a comparable SX turbo-4 model that I tested. Both boast front-wheel drive, panoramic sunroof and interior amenities galore, but the hybrid model gets a whopping 650 miles of range.

That’s on par in price and range with a Toyota RAV-4 hybrid that is a class smaller. Under the roof, Sorento brings Telluride refinement.

A slick, available digital instrument panel bleeds into a wide infotainment dash display. Clever details abound like abundant console storage and six USB ports throughout the cabin, including one each on the front seat sides so they are accessible to front and rear passengers depending on need. Soothing media sounds lurk in the console touchscreen — Lively Forest, Calm Sea Waves, Warm Fireplace — for when the news of the day just gets too nuts.

A hybrid Volvo XC60 in my driveway at the same time I tested the $43,000 Sorento noticeably lagged in tech and interior amenities despite its $70,000 price tag. The Kia is that good.

Sorento’s natural enemy is Mazda, another mainstream brand that has vaporized the gap between mainstream and luxury. Mazda’s affordable, capable CX-5 compact is my pick of the compact segment, but Mazda doesn’t not offer a tweener, mid-size SUV like the Sorento. Its CX-9 dimensions compete with Telluride.

Still, Sorento could learn a thing or two from the voluptuous Mazda, primarily in the engine room. Both Kia and Mazda offer responsive, torquey turbo-4s, but the Mazda responds instantly to my right foot, its 6-speed tranny smooth as silk. The Kia is rougher, less confident.

And the CX-9, loaded to the gunwales like the Kia with standard adaptive cruise control, leather seats, blind spot assist and invisibility shield (kidding abut that last one) comes in two grand south of the Sorento.

Apple to apples, Sorento is the value pick of the mid-size SUV litter with a volume, front-wheel-drive model with all the goodies clocking in at $42.2K — or about $2,000 less than comparable chariots from Nissan, Ford and Honda. And, ahem, Sorento still offers a useful third-row that the others don’t.

But the real eye-opener here is the apples-to-caramel apples luxury comparison.

My favorite, $43,960, X-line trimmed Sorento goes toe-to-toe with the best-selling mid-size SUV, the Lexus RX350. With similar horsepower and more torque from its turbo-4, the Sorento matches a $55,595 Lexus with panoramic roof, heated-cooled front leather seats, all-wheel drive, adaptive cruise, heated steering wheel, even 20-inch alloy wheels — while offering a more satisfying touchscreen infotainment experience.

Sorento asks if you want affordable or luxurious? The answer is yes.

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2021 Kia Sorento

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel drive, four-door, six- or seven-passenger SUV

Price: $30,560, including $1,170 destination charge ($42,205 FWD SX Prestige and $43,960 AWD SX Prestige with X-line package as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder, 2.5-liter turbo-4, Hybrid 1.6-liter turbo-4 mated to FWD electric motor

Power: 191 horsepower, 181 pound-feet of torque (2.5-liter); 281 horsepower, 311 pound-feet of torque (2.5-liter turbo-4); 227 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque (hybrid)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic; 6-speed automatic (hybrid only)

Performance: 0-62 mph, 7.6 seconds (mfr., X-line); towing, 3,500 lbs.

Weight: 4,120 pounds (X-line as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 highway/24 combined (AWD turbo-4); 39 mpg city/35 highway/37 combined (hybrid)

Report card

Highs: Sexier Sorento; affordable, multiple drivetrains

Lows: Drivetrain hiccups; handsome big brother Telluride can be had for similar price with same options

Overall: 3 stars


(Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.)
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