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FIRST DRIVE

For Kia, a small step up from the bargain basement

The Sorento SUV has a lot of sophistication -- it could even be mistaken for a Lexus -- but its ride and handling leave much to be desired.

March 26, 2003|Larry Printz | Morning Call

Some of my most unpleasant automotive experiences have been behind the wheel of Kias, made in South Korea. After all, Kia's reputation is its bargain-basement price, not rock-solid reliability.

So after a week with the new Kia Sorento SUV, I couldn't help but be impressed by how dramatically Kia has improved. This is a vehicle whose styling led some to mistake it for a Lexus on a couple of occasions. It is well equipped for the money and feels more solid than any Kia I've encountered.

With a sticker that starts at just $19,500 for a two-wheel-drive Sorento LX to $24,100 for a top-of-the-line 4WD Sorento EX, this mid-size sport utility vehicle seems like a real buy. After all, most other manufacturers offer only compact crossover SUVs in this price range.

The interior is lined in leather and wood trim. The attractively styled dash has all the controls where you'd expect to find them.

In addition to cup holders in the center console, each door contains bottle holders molded into the map pocket. The center console also has dual cell phone holders, and the driver's door has a remote release for the hatchback. There's even a felt-lined coin holder in the dash.

Overhead, there's storage space for your sunglasses. Four 12-volt power points, dual front and side airbags, rear wiper and washer are standard, along with cruise control, a CD audio system and the usual power windows, locks and mirrors. And that's just on the base model.

Step up to the EX and you'll get a power sunroof, alloy wheels, power driver's seat, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, speed-sensitive power steering and a Homelink garage door opener.

You get a lot of value content-wise, but that's to be expected in a Kia. So what's it like to drive?

Firing up the 3.5-liter V-6, this Kia seems to have enough power to move with gusto. Mustering up 192 horsepower, the silky four-speed automatic transmission made an impressively smooth and powerful drive train. But all this power resulted in fairly dismal fuel economy, yielding just 15 miles per gallon, including highway driving.

The Kia's four-wheel-drive is automatically engaged, although the four-wheel-drive low mode is available for the rough stuff. A rotary switch to the left of the steering wheel engages the different modes.

Yes, this is a real SUV, with body-on-frame construction, so it can truly go off-road -- unlike most of its competitors.

The downside to all this sophistication shows up when it comes to handling. The suspension pounds stiffly over bumps. Yet the body is softly sprung, so body lean comes on quickly and strongly. The chassis doesn't feel solid when traversing craters, and the numb power steering does little to inspire confidence.

That is what you give up when you settle for a Kia Sorento.

Otherwise, the seating is comfortable, with bucket seats up front and a bench in the rear. A third row isn't offered. The rear seats fold down easily, and the headrests do not have to be removed to complete the task.

So although the Kia Sorento is impressive when it comes to standard equipment and price, its weak point is its ride and handling. That's where the competition excels.

Still, this is a big improvement over many of Kia's past products and went a long way toward banishing my negative feeling about the automaker.

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Larry Printz can be reached at lprintz@mcall.com

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