Kia Crafts a Segment Killer By Christian Wardlaw Tongue-in-cheek humor has been a cornerstone of Kia's marketing since the Asian brand landed on U.S. shores in 1994. Thus, it came as no surprise that during the press preview of the all-new Sorento, company spokespeople rounded up a Lexus RX 300 and a Mercedes-Benz ML320 to offer side-by-side "comparisons" to journalists assembled to test the mettle of the new Kia SUV. Jokingly, the Korean automaker's public relations representatives told writers and reviewers that the RX and ML would be featured in a new "guilt" advertising campaign: "You could buy the Lexus or the Benz, or you could buy the all-new Sorento and send your kid to college." Of course, this shall not come to pass. In fact, with the launch of the Sorento, Kia will be looking to establish a more mature theme for the brand. But after a day of driving the Sorento both on and off the road around Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (locals of this mountain town want me to tell all of you what an absolute pit the place is so that you'll stop moving there, driving up property taxes and building Olive Garden restaurants), we're prepared to say that the comparison with these two popular luxury sport-utes isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. The Sorento is one of the best automobiles to come out of Korea. It has the right styling, the right packaging and the right price. It's even assembled using decent interior materials that are screwed together tightly. The only time our production Sorento test trucks squeaked or rattled was when we were blasting over washboard dirt roads. Named after a city in Italy, the Sorento, according to Kia, will set a new standard for value in the SUV class. After an initial inspection, we are inclined to agree. Targeting educated men and women who are roughly 40 years of age and are part of a household pulling down $60,000 a year, Kia thinks it can move 60,000 of these new SUVs in 2003. With fully loaded models estimated to cost around $27,000, this should be an easy goal to achieve. Taking a page from the Honda playbook, the Sorento will be offered in two well-equipped trim levels: LX and EX. Standard equipment on the LX includes air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, heated power mirrors, cruise control, tilting steering wheel, a CD player, a full overhead console with sunglasses storage and four 12-volt power outlets. Additionally, an eight-way manually adjustable driver seat with lumbar support, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat, privacy glass, skid plates, a rear cargo cover, a rear defogger, a rear wiper and a front wiper de-icer feature are standard. If all of that isn't enough to entice bargain shoppers, there's also a fullsize spare tire, front and rear tow hooks, illuminated entry and exit, a cargo light, a battery-saver feature, in-door courtesy lights, an illuminated ignition ring and lit front vanity mirrors for driver and passenger. Kia says that the two-wheel-drive LX will have a base price under $20,000. For another three grand, the EX adds alloy wheels, two-tone body cladding, body-color exterior trim with chrome accents, a power sunroof, foglights, an eight-way power driver seat, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, HomeLink and a premium CD/cassette sound system with steering wheel-mounted controls. That extra coin also nets the buyer remote keyless entry; a multi-meter with thermometer, altimeter, barometer and compass; articulating front headrests; a leather-wrapped steering wheel; woodgrain, brushed metal and chrome interior trim; stainless steel scuff plates; and a cargo net. According to Kia, the two-wheel-drive EX will start right around $22,500. If all these features can't satisfy you, the EX Luxury Package is optional. To the list of EX standards, it adds additional chrome exterior trim, additional woodgrain interior trim, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, automatic climate control, automatic headlights, heated leather seats, a leather and woodgrain steering wheel and a Torque-on-Demand automatic four-wheel-drive system. This fully loaded Sorento will likely cost about $26,500. Options for both the LX and EX include a towing package, a cargo tray and mudguards. LX models can be equipped with alloy wheels, a roof rack and a cargo net but not, oddly, a remote keyless entry system. Options on EX models include a load-leveling suspension and leather upholstery. The company believes 7 out of 10 buyers will choose the EX, but we think the LX is the more appealing buy. Wise Kia dealers will offer aftermarket remote keyless systems to LX buyers. On the safety front, all Sorentos come with dual front airbags, front and rear side curtain airbags, front seatbelt pre-tensioners, front seatbelt force limiters, five three-point seatbelts, five headrests and LATCH child safety seat anchors. Antilock brakes are an option on all Sorentos. Kia says that when the NHTSA and IIHS perform crash tests on the Sorento, the truck will receive a "Good" rating from the IIHS and five-star scores for three of the four NHTSA tests. Powering both the LX and the EX is a 3.5-liter dual overhead cam V6 cranking out 192 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 217 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. A four-speed automatic transmission routs power to the rear or all four wheels, depending on which model is selected. Fuel economy is not good, rating 15 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway (four-wheel-drive versions get just 18 mpg on the highway). At least the 21.1-gallon fuel tank provides decent range between fill-ups of 87 octane gasoline. Likewise, towing capacity is unimpressive given the Sorento's body-on-frame construction; it's rated to tow just 3,500 pounds. Given the displacement of the Sorento's V6, the power and torque figures are unimpressive. Acceleration is strong off the line, but as speed and revs build, the engine feels taxed. Power delivery is smooth, however, and the Sorento has no trouble keeping up in traffic or cruising on the highway at 80 mph. But we suspect that many owners who use the throttle judiciously will find their in-town fuel economy dipping below the EPA-rated 15 mpg. That's disappointing, considering that many SUVs with V8 engines achieve the same mileage. With a curb weight of 4,255 pounds in 4WD guise, the Sorento could stand to go on a diet. The transmission works well with the V6, delivering quick downshifts when prodded and upshifting smoothly no matter how the accelerator is depressed. On grades, the transmission will either hold a gear or downshift to maintain speed. There's also a handy overdrive-off switch on the gear selector, for manual disengagement of fourth gear. Base versions of the LX and EX are rear-wheel drive. Either can be equipped with a shift-on-the-fly part-time four-wheel-drive system that is easily engaged using a knob mounted to the dashboard. When the EX Luxury Package is chosen, a special Torque-on-Demand full-time 4WD system measures wheel slippage up to 200 times per second and adjusts the distribution of power front and rear accordingly. All Sorentos equipped with 4WD have low-range gearing and get a limited-slip differential. During a brief off-roading jaunt on a narrow, steep trail that most buyers wouldn't think of trying, the Sorento acquitted itself well. Four-wheel-drive models will be priced approximately $1,500 more than equivalent 2WD models. Underpinning the Sorento is an independent double wishbone front suspension and a rear five-link solid rear axle with coil springs. Stabilizer bars come standard fore and aft. Softened considerably for the U.S. market, this suspension provides a controlled ride and surprisingly adept handling, but doesn't filter out road anomalies the way a true four-wheel independent setup can. The Sorento rides like a truck over the rough stuff; not as smoothly as the refined Honda CR-V but certainly better than the jouncy Jeep Liberty. The Sorento's ground clearance measures 8.2 inches, while approach and departure angles are 28.4 and 26.7 degrees, respectively. Knobby 16-inch tires are standard. LX models ride on steel wheels, while EX versions have machine-finished five-spoke alloys. LX models have 245/70 Hankook RA07 tires, which impressed us both in the dirt and on the highway. EX versions get Michelin Cross-Trainers of the same size, which squealed with little provocation in turns and slipped on loose surfaces. The alloys that come standard on the EX can be ordered for the LX. Stopping the Sorento with surety are four-wheel vented disc brakes. Antilock brakes are optional on both LX and EX. We applaud this move; buyers on a budget and four-wheeling enthusiasts can get a Sorento equipped to meet their needs. Our test truck's pedal exhibited fine feel, and during a spirited downhill run on a curvy mountain road, we experienced no brake fade or shudder. In fact, we found the Sorento easy to threshold-brake when driven aggressively and a simulated panic stop from speed was accomplished uneventfully. The rack-and-pinion steering offers enough play to absorb impacts off road, but speed-sensing technology (engine speed on LX, vehicle speed on EX) keeps it tightened up on the freeway. Moderate kickback makes its way through the wheel on bumpy pavement, which is not surprising given the Sorento's body-on-frame construction. A relatively tight 36.4-foot turning circle enhances maneuverability in parking lots and on tree-lined trails. Kia likes to point out how quiet the Sorento is. Around town, while four-wheeling and at moderate speeds, this SUV is impressively quiet. But get out on the highway and you'll find noise coming from the fixed mast antenna on the right front fender, the side mirrors and the A-pillars. Not deafening noise, mind you, but noticeable noise. The Sorento's interior design is quite good. Soft-touch surfaces abound on the dash and door panels, and the front passenger airbag is seamless, lending an upscale feel to the cabin. EX models combine brushed aluminum, silver paint, chrome and fake wood in a jumble of colors and patterns; we preferred the simple and relatively stark LX cabin. We also weren't crazy about the location of the cruise control activation button, down on the lower left side of the dashboard. But really, there's little else to complain about. The stereo in the LX is a single-DIN unit sourced from Kia, with simple buttons controlling most functions. The EX Luxury Package stereo is a large double DIN system sourced from Delphi, part of GM, and it resembles the Chevrolet Impala and TrailBlazer in terms of layout and function. This is a good thing: There's a large volume knob and a large tuning knob, along with big preset buttons and a large display. The Sorento's cabin is littered with storage bins, trays and cubbies, all lined with either felt or rubber. Notable among them is the two-tiered glovebox with dedicated map shelf, bottle holders molded into the rear door panels, a covered storage area under the cargo floor, a storage bin beneath the front passenger seat and a double-bin center console with armrest. A well-stocked first aid kit is standard. Seat comfort for the driver and front passenger is quite good on tall, firm seats covered with cloth (LX), velour (EX) or leather (EX with Luxury Package). It's easy to get comfortable behind the wheel in any model; the manual adjustments of the LX are simply harder to use. The cloth in the LX doesn't feel especially durable, and the leather in the EX is stiff and feels cheap. The rear seat is wide enough for three adults in a pinch, and the tall rear cushion provides decent thigh support. But toe room under the front seats is not generous, and knee room is lacking when the front seats are pushed all the way back in their tracks. Cargo space is on par with midsize SUVs when the rear seats are up at 31.4 cubic feet, but when the back seat is folded down, maximum space measures a relatively paltry 66.4 cubes. Payload ratings are 1,202 pounds for the 2WD models and 1,213 with 4WD. The new Kia Sorento is not a perfect SUV. The engine needs more power and refinement. It could use a diet to shed a couple hundred pounds. The seat upholstery could be improved upon. A few other details could be better executed. But with this kind of content packaging, at this kind of price, and with the Sorento's attractive exterior sheetmetal, it is a sure-fire winner for Kia. Plus, it comes with the added peace-of-mind afforded by the automaker's comprehensive warranty package: a 10-year or 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, a 5-year or 60,000-mile limited basic warranty, a 5-year or 100,000-mile rust perforation warranty and a 5-year unlimited mileage roadside assistance plan. Peter Butterfield, executive vice president and CEO of Kia Motors America, has a plan. That plan is to build appealing, reliable and safe cars and trucks that are packed with value. He tells a story about visiting a South Bend, Ind., Ford dealership in 1977, where a small, homely car sat forlornly in a back corner of the showroom. He asked the general manager of the dealership what the small, homely car was. "That's a Honda. You've gotta replace the engine at 50,000 miles and it rusts badly, but it's cheap." Butterfield reminds his listener that "Japanese" was once synonymous with "cheap" and "unreliable," much the same way "Korean" is today. But those opinions will change, he says, and he plans to make Kia an agent of that change, and the 2003 Sorento SUV represents a significant step forward in that direction.