Rating: 8.4
Bottom Line:
The times, they are a changin’, and the Kia Sorento is, too. No longer a body-on-frame behemoth, the 2011 Sorento is lighter, more agile and more efficient than ever before. With a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty, the SUV could make a heck of a bargain.
Pros:
  • Much lighter than previous models
  • Lots of power in the V6
  • Third-row seating
Cons:
  • Heavy torque steer on FWD models
  • Optional third-row seating difficult to access
  • Manual transmission available only on base trims

In 2003 the Kia Sorento began life as a typical sport-utility vehicle — big, heavy and embarrassingly inefficient. It was widely successful, however, primarily because it was affordable. Today, a low price tag isn't enough to sway budget-conscious Americans into buying a vehicle that will cost them an arm and a leg at the pump. They want more value for their hard-earned money, and Kia has responded.

For 2011 the Sorento is lighter, more agile and more efficient than ever before. It has an attractive unibody design with 15 percent more usable space inside. Full-time all-wheel drive replaces the electronically actuated unit of old. And it gets almost 30 mpg. The Sorento has changed so much from its beginnings, it's almost unrecognizable — and that's a great thing.

Model Lineup
The Sorento is a 4-door SUV with a full-size hatch in the rear. Typically a 5-seater, it can be outfitted for third-row seating — an option that's almost nonexistent at this price point — upping the passenger count to seven. The base version comes with a peppy and efficient 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine — new to the Sorento line — and a 6-speed manual transmission.

Step up to LX trim and a 6-speed automatic transmission takes the place of the row-your-own gearbox in the base version. The EX trim affords buyers 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lights and interior tricks such as dual-zone climate control. Of course, top-of-the line EX vehicles also allow you to chose the more powerful 3.5-liter V6 engine and opt for Premium Package options such as a huge, panoramic sunroof.

Under the Hood
One of the biggest changes to the Sorento is in the engine compartment. For the first time, an efficient 2.4-liter 4-cylinder comes standard. With 172 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque, the engine has no problem hustling this utility vehicle through traffic. Kia designed and built a brand-new 6-speed automatic transmission in-house just for the Sorento, and the new gearbox helps deliver up to 28 mpg highway.

Of course, if you need a little extra grunt, a 3.5-liter V6 engine with 273 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque is also available. When mounted to the same 6-speed automatic gearbox, the V6 is capable of up to 28 mpg in 2-wheel-drive form. Go for the optional full-time all-wheel drive and that figure only drops to 27 mpg.

Speaking of all-wheel drive, the option is available on every trim level except the base Sorento. The system is capable of pushing the engine's power across all four wheels equally, but most of the time 100 percent of the grunt from either the 4-cylinder or the V6 gets sent to the front wheels exclusively.

Inner Space
The interior of the last-generation Sorento was nothing to brag about. While there was plenty of space in the front seats, the back was particularly cramped for anyone even approaching adult size. Throw in stiff, unsupportive seats and poor visibility and the interior wasn't a place you wanted to spend time.

Kia has taken care of those woes with the 2011 Sorento. The interior is bright and airy, especially with the panoramic sunroof in the EX V6 Premium Package. Up front, snappy red instruments give the SUV a sporty feeling. The steering wheel has lost its blocky design for a more sculpted unit that fits with the rest of the dash. The seats are an absolute wonder compared with the previous model, delivering plenty of support without the sensation that you're riding on a buckboard.

The back seats seem to offer a little extra room for full-grown passengers, and behind the second row is plenty of space for luggage or other cargo. Though the third-row seat is a nice option, ingress and egress is about as problematic as every other model offering the extra row. The option is best left to kids or very small adults.

On the Road
When equipped with the 3.5-liter V6, the Sorento is downright quick. That has as much to do with the 273 horsepower on tap as the significantly lower curb weight compared with last year's model. Kia engineers say they have managed to cut 400 pounds from the Sorento — weight that affected everything from acceleration to cornering and braking. As a result, steering is quick and the SUV feels more lithe and capable on its feet.

Kia built the new 6-speed automatic transmission in-house instead of outsourcing the work to another manufacturer, and the gearbox is one of the SUV's high points. Shifts are seamless and the logic puts the vehicle in the right gear at the right time without any hesitation. We'd say it's one of the better automatic transmissions we've had our hands on recently.

Kia has loaded the Sorento with an impressive number of standard driving aids, including anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, electronic brake force distribution and downhill brake control. But aside from having an option sheet that looks like an algebra equation, the Sorento is also well-planted. The still-sizable SUV comes down from speed without any drama, and braking distances are surprisingly short for a vehicle this size.

Right for You?
Kia hasn't slipped us any pricing data for the 2011 Sorento yet, but the company does say it expects the bulk of sales to land in the $25,000 range. Get crazy with the option sheet and the company says the final tab will exceed $30,000. That puts the Korean ute in direct contention with the likes of the Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V and Nissan Murano, but the Sorento's 10-year 100,000-mile warranty is unbeatable. Kia made a point of telling us that value is the new cool, and its newly redesigned SUV is the epitome of value. If you're after a well-priced utility vehicle that's as efficient as it is powerful, and with a great warranty to boot, the Sorento is for you.

James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race team crew member before moving to the editorial side as Senior Editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trend and European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.