ATLANTA – When Kia Motors America Inc. marketers recently told journalists its redesigned-for-’11 Kia Sorento cross/utility vehicle was drawing sniffs from Lexus and Acura owners, a skeptical chuckle filled the room.

But after time behind the wheel of the Sorento SX, a top-of-the-range trim level for the 7-passenger CUV arriving now at U.S. dealers, the huckster pale of their lofty claim starts to fade.

The Sorento SX comes 10 months after lower LX- and EX- trim levels kicked off the product cadence.

Following Kia’s new go-to-market plan, this loaded-up CUV targets higher-income households in the Northeast and Southern California that typically would overlook the Korean brand, but sticks with its longtime “more-bang-for-the-buck” value pitch.

The Sorento’s redesign heralds a shift from body-on-frame construction to the more popular car-like unibody build, and also shortens and lowers the CUV, tightens its wheelbase, lowers the center of gravity and makes smarter use of interior space.

Styling also takes a major step forward. The compacted body receives a more elegant, modern exterior design. It is, simply, less truck-like, meaning it fits better with today’s in-crowd.

That’s good and bad, because as much as the restyle moves the Sorento into a tonier neighborhood of competitors, it also risks homogenizing the CUV.

Approach one on the road from the rear, and it easily is mistaken for any of the 30-some nameplates in the Ward’s Middle CUV segment.

That is not to call the Sorento entirely bland, especially trimmed in its SX dress, which adds chrome roof rails, stainless-steel skid plates fore and aft and a strip of chrome below the greenhouse and on the tailpipe.

Kia’s attractive new tabbed grille, which the auto maker wraps in chrome and trendily bookends with headlamps stretching deep into the side panels, gets repeated on SX models. Fog lamps for the Sorento SX receive a more elegant treatment, hinting from our perspective at some Audi executions. LEDs dress up the taillamps.

Kia also moves the Sorento SX even closer to the ground than its stablemates to enhance its sporty demeanor.

Plying the interstate highways around Atlanta, the Sorento SX feels solidly built with crisp interior fit and finish. Workers at the CUV’s assembly plant in nearby West Point should take this to heart amid a recent recall that toppled a high-ranking Kia executive.

Mechanically, the biggest additions to the SX trim level are dual-flow shock absorbers, a high-end technology meant to add some compliancy and eliminate the harsh feedback inherent to sport-tuned suspensions. Look for the technology to spread through Kia’s lineup later this year.

’11 Kia Sorento SX
Vehicle type front-engine, AWD, 5- or 7-passenger CUV
Engine 3.5L DOHC V-6 with aluminum block, head
Power (SAE net) 276 hp @ 6,300 rpm
Torque 248 lb.-ft. (336 Nm) @ 5,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 92 x 87
Compression ratio 10.6:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic w/sport shifting
Wheelbase 106.3 ins. (270 cm)
Overall length 183.9 ins. (467.1 cm)
Overall width 74.2 ins. (188.5 cm)
Overall height 69.1 ins. (175.5 cm)
Curb weight 3,704 lbs. (1,680 kg)
Base price $32,190
Fuel economy 19/25 mpg (12-9 L/100 km)
Competition Chevy Equinox, Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV-4, Mazda CX-7
Pros Cons
Rock-solid chassis Exterior lacks punch
Excellent V-6 powertrain $32,190 steep for a Kia
Sporty, crisp interior Luxury comparo overdone

It’s tough during our highway jaunt to make a judgment on the application. But if it explains why the CUV’s backbone feels so rigid, then it gets a thumbs-up.

The Sorento SX’s 3.5L V-6 runs as smoothly as any in its class, or a notch above, providing a torquey punch for high-speed passing and merging between highways.

An in-house, standard 6-speed automatic transmission behaves quite favorably, further cementing the Korean auto maker’s relevance among longer-established full-line manufacturers.

It’s a relatively quiet engine, too, although combined with wind and road noise over several hours of driving, we guiltily pined for the tomb-like cabins of (admittedly more expensive) Lexus and Acura products. We’d probably rate interiors of the Ford Edge and Chevy Equinox quieter, as well.

But the Sorento SX wins big style points inside. The gun-metal color of our tester features a convincing complement of faux carbon-fiber inserts and chrome- and nickel-like accents.

Stitched seams on the leather seats and door inserts, as well as illuminated sill plates, help convey richness. Red backlighting for gauges and other instruments, on top of a leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and stainless steel pedals, adds a sense of sportiness.

The Sorento SX also receives a user-friendly audio interface that is a bit more stylish than that of LX and EX models, perhaps to accentuate a modestly sized navigation and audio screen.

The 10-speaker Infinity audio system also is unique to the trim level, but underwhelming. That’s a shame given the rollout of UVO later this year, a multi-media system to rival Ford Motor Co.’s Sync and leveraging a similar partnership with Microsoft Corp.

Known for its livable third row since the lower trim levels kicked-off Sorento deliveries, the SX adds heating and air-conditioning vents for those passengers in exile.

Its more humble trim lines already have put the nameplate among Ward’s top 15 sellers this year, so expect the Sorento SX to cut further into the share of competitive products from the Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota and Honda brands.

And while it might mingle comfortably with more upscale brands, the Sorento SX still lacks the gift of luxury lineage to warrant serious comparisons.

jamend@wardsauto.com