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Kia Sorento: If it's not broke, don't fix it...

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” That’s the bottom line on the 2009 Kia Sorento. Debuting in 2003, the Sorento quickly captured the high ground against almost every other SUV in its class. In head-to-head on and off-road competition, 26 professional automotive writers from across the nation voted it as Best in Class and Best SUV Value, at Mudfest, the nation’s premier SUV competition.

I put the much-improved 2008 version of the Sorento through its paces at last year’s Mudfest event and then the 2009 just recently, and was every bit as impressed as I was back in 2003.

The Sorento boasts many of the best features and amenities of midsize SUVs, with its size, power, and ruggedness giving it the edge in its own market segment, while kicking butt in much of the larger, mid-size segment.

Built in South Korea, the Sorento isn’t a car-based crossover, but a real, body-on-frame, truck-style SUV, that puts the Toyota RAV 4, Honda CRV, Ford Escape, Jeep Liberty, etc., right in its crosshairs. Physically, it’s about the same size as a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Toyota Highlander.

The Sorento wins big on price and value — $20,995 for the base LX 4x2, and $26,195 for our test vehicle, the EX 4x4 — thousands less than many midsize SUVs, plus it boasts a 10-year/100,000-mile transferable powertrain warranty. However, value doesn’t mean low levels of standard equipment with a laundry list of expensive options either. Even the base LX comes with a 242-horse, 3.3-Liter V6, that delivers 228 Lb.-Ft. of torque with 3,500 pounds of towing capacity. Most competing base models only offer an underpowered 4-banger and manual transmission, making a 6-cylinder with an automatic a spendy option.

Also standard are automatic transmission, A/C, AM/FM/CD, cruise control, heated mirrors and power windows and door locks.

The Sorento’s top-of-the-line EX adds upscale options such as a power sunroof, upscale sound system, leather, alloy wheels, power driver’s seat, remote keyless entry, and auto-dimming mirror as well as a 24-valve, DOHC, 262-horse, 3.8-liter V6, with 260 Lb.-Ft. of torque, that’s married to a responsive 5-speed automatic.

Walkaround: Except for some minor trim upgrades, the Sorento’s profile hasn’t changed much since its 2003 debut.

Interior: Because of the price, the first thing you might expect is cheap interior plastic. Wrong! All the materials are a cut above average and the interior is quieter than you would expect.

The Sorento features large controls that are simple and easily reached. Instrumentation can be read at a glance.

There’s plenty of room inside for four tall adults — or even five on short trips because of the spacious rear-seat area. There’s no third-row seat — a hot item for larger SUVs, but much less so in this segment because it simply consumes too much cargo room. However, the entire rear seat, both seatbacks and cushions, fold forward to offer a significantly large cargo area — roomy even with the rear seat in its normal position.

The cargo opening is low and wide, and the spare tire is tucked out of the way below the frame.

The Sorento offers standard dual advanced front airbags, driver’s knee airbags, and full-length side curtain airbags for better side-impact protection.

Under The Hood: As noted, the Sorento offers an all-new 242-horse, 3.3-Liter V6, standard, and an optional DOHC, 24-valve, 3.8-liter, 262-horse V6.

There are two 4-wheel-drive systems offered. Both have low-range gearing for off-road driving, which is made easier thanks to rugged construction and short body overhangs. The full-time automatic Torque-on-Demand system can be left engaged on dry roads, but is offered only for the EX and comes as part of a Luxury Package that includes leather upholstery, simulated wood interior trim, heated front seats, automatic climate control and an AM/FM/CD sound system with an in-dash CD player. That same Luxury Package costs less for the 2-wheel rear-drive EX, but doesn’t contain the Torque-On-Demand system.

Behind The Wheel: The 2008 Sorento delivers respectable acceleration and passing power with steering that’s fairly quick and positive. The 106.7-inch wheelbase, coupled with a double-wishbone front suspension, provides a smooth ride that’s only occasionally bouncy.

Fuel economy is about equivalent to mid-size SUVs. The 3.3-Liter delivers an estimated 16/city and 22/highway with 2-wheel drive and 15 and 22 as a 4X4. The 3.8-Liter is rated at 15/21 in 2-wheel drive and 15/20 in 4X4 trim. The good news: regular fuel.

Whines: Tall drivers with long legs may wish that the seat moved back a few more inches. Fuel economy is marginal for this class but acceptable for something this physical size.

Bottom Line: Kia was originally perceived as an entry level, basic transportation new vehicle offering marginal quality. Not any more. Six years after its debut, the Sorento has proven its long-term durability — the question mark originally depressing resale value, and considered the trade-off for its low price.

This vehicle is fun to drive, and has a solid feel, with no shakes or rattles. The natural inclination is to automatically compare the Kia Sorento to larger, mid-size SUVs because of its size and amenities — and it looks very good at the lower end of that spectrum — while absolutely blowing away its own market segment.

 
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