Kia takes design leap

One of the more muscular and longest-serving members of the Kia family is changing its stripes along with its country of origin.

Yes, the Sorento, Kia's truckish sport utility vehicle that specialized in traveling well past the point where the pavement or the trail ends, has become a lot more civilized as it prepares to enter the 2011 model year in early 2010. The Sorento also represents the first Kia product to roll out of the company's new West Point, Ga., assembly plant.

The original 2003-'09 Sorento focused on providing a well-equipped and cost-efficient alternative to the Nissan Pathfinder, Jeep Grand Cherokee and other small or midsize five-passenger off-road-capable rigs. Its credentials included stout body-on-frame construction, rock-clearing ride height, damage-protecting skid plates and an available low-range transfer case.

The off-road fraternity loved it, but ultimately Kia saw greener pastures in selling the next-generation Sorento to a broader group of buyers seeking a stylish, comfortable wagon that takes its highway-cruising role seriously, regardless of weather or road status. The new ride also offers a split-folding third-row-seating option for folks needing to transport up to seven passengers on their excursions.

For its new and expanded role, the Sorento relies upon a platform that's similar to that employed with the Hyundai Santa Fe (Hyundai and Kia originate from the same corporate conglomerate). Compared to the outgoing model, overall length and width has been extended by around 4 inches and 1 inch, respectively, while passenger space and cargo volume have grown significantly.

Visually, the Sorento is an attractive piece of work and represents a giant leap forward for Kia in the design department. The rounded hood and front fascia are familiar shapes used to identify other Kia products, such as the compact Forte and midsize Optima passenger cars. In addition, the nonpainted front and rear bumpers and lower-side trim help display at least a sense of ruggedness as opposed to being simply unfinished.

The interior shows off Kia's newfound attention to detail that permeates its more recent products. From the easy-to-read triple-pod gauges to the clearly identifiable control-panel switches and dials, the new Sorento presents an inviting appearance that wouldn't be out of place in more premium-priced vehicles.

Shoppers will have to choose between two powerplants for their new Sorento: a 172-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder; or optional 273-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6. According to Kia's own estimates, both engines are closely matched in terms of fuel economy, which means your final choice will likely boil down to affordability.

A six-speed manual transmission is standard with the four-cylinder, with a six-speed automatic optional, but standard with the V-6.

All-wheel-drive is available with either motor, except on the base manual-transmission model.

The standard-feature list includes air conditioning, tilt and telescopic steering column, steering-wheel-located audio controls and Bluetooth networking. Along with the automatic transmission, LX versions include a few extra touches, while the EX adds dual-zone climate control, power-adjustable driver's seat, push-button-start ignition, backup warning and 18-inch alloy wheels (17-inchers are standard).

Selecting the top-dog EX V-6 makes rear air conditioning and the third-row seat standard, however that model is the only way you can obtain an extra-cost panoramic sunroof or the overhead DVD entertainment system.

Other menu items, such as heated front seats, leather seat covers, rear-view backup display, premium sound package and a navigation system are also available.

Pricing has yet to be announced, but expect a starting point of about $23,000 including destination fees. For that kind of cash, you'll be hooked up with a good-looking leading-edge package that's capable of getting you and your family everywhere you want to go.