ATLANTA – The third new model from Kia Motors Corp. this year (fourth if you count the Forte Koup 2-door) doesn’t disappoint, as the next-generation Sorento cross/utility vehicle, now on a unibody chassis, keeps the momentum building toward a brand rebirth.

Like the Soul and Forte before it, the Sorento again shows Kia no longer is satisfied with being a brand of middling, largely forgettable vehicles.

On sale in early January, the new ’11 Sorento is a modern, functional, car-based CUV that is much better than its underpowered, body-on-frame predecessor.

The swoopy exterior design is progressive and sports the new brand-signature tabbed grille design, developed by Kia chief designer Peter Schreyer.

The interior matches the Japanese for fit-and-finish quality, and its two engines are refined and fuel efficient.

The Sorento shares the platform of – but is more advanced than – Hyundai’s 3-year-old Santa Fe. For proof, look under the hood.

The Sorento offers a 2.4L 4-cyl. and 3.5L V-6, both all-aluminum with continuously variable valve timing. They are well-suited for the midsize Kia CUV.

Although smaller, the 175-hp 4-cyl. nearly matches the performance of the Santa Fe’s 185-hp 2.7L V-6, without feeling underpowered. The 3.5L V-6 produces 273 hp, compared with 242 hp from the Santa Fe’s 3.3L V-6.

Sorento 4-cyl. fuel economy ranges from 19 mpg (12.4 L/100 km) in city driving to 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km) on the highway, depending on the engine/transmission combination and whether front- or all-wheel drive is employed. The new CUV is longer and heavier than the Toyota RAV4, which has similar fuel economy.

The 4-cyl. Sorento easily tops the Santa Fe’s 2.7L V-6, rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 18/24 mpg (13-9.8 L/100 km).

Ward’s averages 24.7 mpg (9.5 L/100 km) in a FWD Sorento EX 4-cyl. and 21 mpg (11.2 L/100 km) in an EX V-6 model on drives here between Atlanta and Kia’s new plant in nearby West Point.

While the Sorento’s 4-cyl. mileage is good, it still falls short of the new Chevrolet Equinox with its 182-hp 2.4L direct-injected 4-cyl. that recently averaged close to 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) in mixed driving by Ward’s editors.

But the Equinox’s advantage may be short-lived. Kia Motors America is pushing for best-in-class fuel economy in each of its segments. Plus, sibling Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. has a new GDI 4-cyl. debuting in the ’10 Hyundai Sonata that likely will make its way to Kia models.

On the road, a FWD Sorento EX 4-cyl. exhibits a calm and collected demeanor through a torrential downpour on Georgia’s Interstate-85. Thanks to independent front and rear suspensions, the Sorento is planted but pliable under most conditions. Spec Chart

’11 Kia Sorento EX 4-cyl.
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-door cross/utility vehicle
Engine 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl. with aluminum head, block
Power (SAE net) 175 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 169 lb.-ft. (229 Nm) @ 3,750 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 88 x 97
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 106.3 ins. (270 cm)
Overall length 183.9 ins. (467 cm)
Overall width 74.2 ins. (188 cm)
Overall height 67.3-69.1 ins. (171-176 cm)
Curb weight 3,605 lbs. (1,635 kg)
Base price TBA
Fuel economy 21/29 mpg city/highway (11.2/8.1 L/100 km)
Competition Chevy Equinox, Toyota RAV4, Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-7
Pros Cons
Fuel-efficient four No direct injection
Interior fit and finish Hard plastics
Third row Third row cramped

Drivers trying to conserve fuel no doubt will be frustrated by the tendency of the new 6-speed automatic transmission to downshift often under even moderate throttle. The added torque is nice, though.

Inside, the Sorento seats five to seven passengers, with a third row optional on LX and EX 4-cyl. trims and standard on the EX V-6.

The third row is cramped but more comfortable than with others in the segment. For instance, the Kia CUV has more legroom than the RAV4.

Interior surfaces are low-gloss and rely heavily on hard plastic, but the material does not look or feel cheap. Faux metallic touches are used sparingly and to good effect.

A beige-and-black leather 2-tone scheme optional on the EX trim is especially handsome.

The Sorento’s four grades each offer an array of features. The base Sorento has a 6-speed manual transmission and, like the Forte before it, Bluetooth hands-free phone dialing.

Stepping up to the LX grade, which Kia expects will comprise the majority of the mix, provides buyers the new 6-speed automatic, power windows and 4-wheel-disc brakes.

The EX grade adds push-button start and rear backup sonar, while the EX V-6 comes standard with the 3.5L and third-row seat.

Kia touts the EX V-6’s 3,500-lb. (1,588-kg) tow rating. The previous-generation body-on-frame Sorento could tow 5,000 lbs. (2,268 kg), but the new vehicle’s tow-rating is competitive with car-based CUVs in its segment.

Navigation is optional for the Sorento EX as part of a Limited package, and rear-seat DVD can be had on the EX V-6.

A fifth Sorento trim due next year will leapfrog the EX V-6 and bear sportier looks and more content. But Kia promises the new trim’s base price will stay under $30,000.

In keeping with its value positioning, the auto maker expects to maintain a competitive edge in pricing for the Sorento, but no final numbers have been released.

Kia isn’t stating volume projections for the Georgia-built Sorento. Production began Nov. 16 at the 300,000-capacity West Point plant, but a second shift won’t be added until next year. A second model is anticipated in September.

The auto maker traditionally has sold around 50,000 Sorentos annually, although sales the last two years have hovered 30,000. The ’11 model is sure to top its benchmark, given the expected low pricing and increasing popularity of CUVs.

It doesn’t hurt that the Sorento is a good overall package, raising the bar for the brand.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com