Kia with quality to become one of the family
The new Kia Sorento spearheads the next stage of the company's rapid development. William Scholes finds the jumbo SUV to be roomy, comfortable and hugely likeable
BIG and cosy, reassuring and soft, Kia's mighty Sorento SUV is a superking duvet with four-wheel-drive, seven seats and roof bars.
The Sorento is much more than that, of course. For a start, it is a fine car. But it also consolidates Kia's decade-long push from being a brand whose cars' chief attribute was their bargain bucket price to one with credible mainstream, mass market ambitions.
Ford, Vauxhall, Volkswagen and the rest already had plenty to worry about with Kia's recent upward trajectory; with the Sorento spearheading the next wave in the company's growth - and with a new version of its game-changing Sportage about to arrive - the old established order should be properly afraid.
For an idea of how serious a player Kia now is, look no further than the Sorento's price list, which tops out at more than £40k. Forty thousand-plus - for a Kia? Things have certainly changed from the days when you could buy a Kia with £1 deposit.
The smaller Sportage will sell in far greater numbers, but the Sorento is still an interesting proposition.
It can be looked upon as a large SUV with seven seats for the price of smaller, five-seat-only rivals; equally, it can be regarded as offering the same sort of space and accommodation as similarly commodious rivals from premium marques like BMW and Volvo, with a price tag lighter by at least £10,000.
Whatever you look at it, the Sorento is big. Trundling up and down the St Anne's Square multi-storey car park in Belfast before Christmas, on our way to see Rumpelstiltskin at The MAC, more than once I wished I was in something, well, more Rumpelstiltskin-sized.
Still, there are plenty of other large SUVs out there so this is less a criticism than an observation - ever tried shuttling an Audi Q7 or Range Rover around a multi-storey? - and the Sorento is longer, wider, lower and heavier, by 40kg, than the car it replaces.
What is commendable about the Sorento is the way it makes clever use of its large footprint.
It is a proper seven-seater, with more space for the traditionally hard-done-by third-rowers than you will find in something like a Ford S-Max. That's not to say that a couple of 6ft tall adults will find the rear-most seats comfortable - they'll not - but taller children and young adults should find nothing to complain about. Access to the back seats, via tilting one of the middle row pews forward, could be more generous, making them best-suited to the agile. In any case, children love the third row of seats in cars like this, and the provision of their own air conditioning controls makes using them even more appealing.
The middle row offers plenty of room for three adults, with thoughtful touches like USB sockets, on hand to keep smartphone-addicted teenagers happy, and deep door pockets.
The doors themselves are large and open wide. They also work in such a way that the sill is kept free of road muck - a big plus point in what is a very family-friendly car; it's amazing how many manufacturers get this wrong, and expose passengers to the risk of a dirty leg...
With all three rows of seats erect, boot capacity is an OK-ish 142 litres. Drop the third row - they slide flush into the boot floor - and a healthy 660 litre void presents itself. There's a useful slot under the boot floor in which to store the parcel shelf.
Tug a lever in the boot and the middle row folds flat, creating a luggage space of 1,732 litres which, in real terms, equates to Absolutely Enormous.
As is traditional when any manufacturer launches any new model, Kia claims that the latest Sorento has been imbued with a more upmarket, premium feel.
This time, though, it's more than marketing puff. Sat inside, the Sorento really does feel quite posh. Well built from nice materials, it might not be the brightest or most exciting interior you can buy, but it gets closer to the likes of BMW, Volvo and Audi than you might have thought possible.
The seats - big, plump armchairs - are a particularly highlight and the simple touchscreen satnav and infotainment system is praiseworthy.
It is well equipped too, boosting its value-for-money credentials, with even base KX-1 trim coming with air-conditioning, privacy glass, auto-levelling headlights, roof rails, cruise control, DAB radio and parking sensors.
KX-2 trim brings goodies like leather upholstery, heated seats, cruise control, reversing camera and the 7 inch touchscreen, making it arguably the pick of the range for £31,995.
Step up to KX-3 for £35,845 and you get a panoramic glass roof - always a bonus on a family car - upgraded hi-fi and electrically-powered tailgate, while top of the range KX-4 gets high-tech safety kit and bigger alloy wheels, all for £41,000.
On the move, the Sorento is pleasantly quiet and refined. On paper, it looks like it might be a little under-engined for such a large vehicle, and while it could never be called a fast car, the 2.2-litre diesel engine - the only option - actually serves up an appropriate turn of speed.
The six-speed manual gearbox is a precise affair, and a six-speed automatic alternative can be specified on KX-2 and KX-3 models for around £1,800.
The steering isn't the most feelsome or communicative, and a button allows the weight of the steering to be altered but after playing around with it for a while, I avoided sport mode and left it in normal.
However, the Sorento has plenty of grip and corners well. The suspension set-up is on the soft side - it's what helps make it such a comfortable car, after all - and understandably the big Kia leans and rolls if you try to drive it like a sports car.
Nor do you truly lose a sense of the Sorento's mass or size and beyond the inherent pleasures of its excellent cruising ability and ease of use, there is not a lot to raise the pulse of enthusiast drivers. If that is your priority, then something like the Mazda CX-5, BMW X5 or Audi Q5 are better bets.
People who need to tow large caravans or horse boxes should also investigate the Sorento's charms - it has proper 4x4 hardware, with a locking differential, and can pull 2,500kg.
The Sorento is clothed in the sort of handsome bodywork we have by now come to expect from Kia, albeit in a rather more generic guise than the stop-the-traffic styling of some of its other models.
It perfectly suits the Kia's low-key, laidback character, however.
The Sorento is a hugely likeable car. It seems tailor-made for carrying a large family in comfort, barrelling along motorways and shrinking distances with an air of invincibility.
Throw Kia's seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty into the equation and the Sorento seems even more compelling.
Big, tough, fit-for-purpose, with a healthy dose of quality, it is not hard to imagine the Sorento quickly becoming part of the family.