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2020 Kia Telluride Test Drive Review
Kia's debuting Telluride is easily the best buy among three-row SUVs right now, and not just because of its price.
Usually, when I step out of an SUV and feel great, there's a luxury nameplate on the tailgate. Not this time. The Telluride grabbed me from the moment my white-over-grey test car arrived. And after 500 miles, the Telluride proved how impressive it is against every SUV in the $30,000 to $50,000 range.
Kia hasn't made a truly big SUV since the 2009 Borrego, which it quickly canceled after bad reviews while a nation reeled from record-high gas prices. The smaller Sorento took over as Kia's 3-row SUV, except it wasn't roomy enough for six or seven people (and still isn't). That's not to say we don't like the Sorento—it's one of our highest-rated cars—but for families who want the most space, technology, and amenities, the 2020 Telluride is Kia's new champ.
Look and Feel
Like a B student, Kia built its reputation on cheap adequacy—and it's worked like mad to erase those negative associations. The company's past five years have been especially transformative, but very few of its cars have been class-leading. The Telluride, however, appears way more expensive than it is—which means the Kia badge is hurting its style. Hard. I've spoken to Kia's chief U.S. designer—who led the Telluride team—and he agreed. This logo, enlarged on Kia's biggest grille, is from a bygone era that betrays the quality behind it. Do yourself a favor and cast away those preconceptions.
Unlike the funky Soul, frog-faced Sportage, and generic Sorento, the Telluride is a handsome fellow. It casts an upscale footprint on the driveway. It blends the boxy presence of a big Chevy with the fluid curves of a new Volvo. Upright, rectilinear themes define the front. Wide-spaced vertical headlights above thin air intakes flank three wider intakes—the silver mesh grille and two lower cutouts in black. The way the shoulder line along the vehicle's side gently protrudes away from the hood and glass along its entire length looks much like what you'll see on an XC90. It's tall and has decent ground clearance, yet the hood's height doesn't tower over people. This is a clean, minimal design that will age well. Plus, there are a few special details. On upper trims, the LED running lights are also the turn signals. They're amber, rather than white, and they're rectangular like the headlight housing. The thin taillights echo hockey sticks. The large capital "TELLURIDE" badges draped across the hood's leading edge and beneath the rear glass allude to a certain British luxury SUV. This is all done on purpose: The Telluride borrows some styling elements from leading SUVs, but its complete design remains all its own.
Inside, you could be fooled into thinking that this is a Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class. The twin grab handles in the center console, the wide air vents, ultra-wide touchscreen, matte wood, silver-painted buttons, and knurled metal knobs all look pricey. Look closer and it's not entirely real—namely, the wood—and some of the lower sections of the dash are hard plastic instead of padded rubber. Lower trim levels delete the silver coloring, strip the elegance from the climate controls, and downsize both screens on the dash and instrument panel. But still, the Telluride's interior is an inviting place. The fit, quality, and colors are very tasteful and classy. All four doors shut with a thick, solid feel. My SX-trim test vehicle with the Prestige Package added Nappa leather seats with what appeared to be mountain peaks stitched into the seatbacks, plus a soft headliner. Several people strapped into my Telluride and thought it cost 60 to 70 grand. Its shocking real cost? $46,930, fully loaded.
The Telluride comes with a single engine: a 3.8-liter V6 making 291 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. An 8-speed automatic transmission routes that power to the front wheels (FWD) or all four wheels (AWD is a $2,000 option available on every trim). There are no paddle shifters, though you can manually shift using the gear selector, and a Sport mode will keep the transmission in lower gears for improved response. But nevertheless, this response is sometimes delayed and inconsistent regardless of drive mode. Floor the gas, as you might when trying to pass a slower car, and the transmission won't always kick down right away. The shifting's feel is also rougher than in other competitors with 8-speed automatics.
But when the power arrives, it's enough to get two-and-a-quarter tons of Telluride moving in a hurry. Braking is strong and pedal feel firm, which is the opposite of how the Telluride steers and handles. The steering is slow, and there's noticeable body lean—this is something you don't get in a luxury SUV with adaptive dampers, wider tires, and steering engineered by sports-car fanatics. It's not a turnoff, only evidence that Kia didn't benchmark anything greater than a Ford Explorer for agility. The upside is a creamy ride aided by the double-paned glass and acoustic insulation that muffle wind noise. Torque vectoring, which can apply the brake to an inner wheel around corners in an effort to tighten the vehicle's trajectory, isn't really evident in hard cornering. Off-roaders will like the axle-lock feature that can split the power 50-50 between front and rear, plus a snow mode that optimizes the throttle and transmission settings for slippery winter driving.
Towing capacity matches the Honda Pilot's, at 5,000 pounds, but requires the $795 Towing package, which adds a hitch and self-leveling rear suspension. That's good for the class (anything more and you will need heavier and thirstier SUVs). Fuel economy is EPA-estimated at 19 mpg city, 24 highway, and 21 combined—the latter number is what I averaged over 500 miles. FWD models net 20/26/23.
Form and Function
The Telluride can seat seven or eight passengers, depending on the trim. The base LX and third-tier EX seat eight, while the second-tier S offers eight as a $100 option. Otherwise, the S and top SX seat seven, with reclining captain's chairs in the second row. My SX added heating and cooling for these lucky riders, plus manual side-window shades and a third, separate climate zone with controls mounted on the ceiling (standard on EX and above). All trims have air vents on the ceiling, USB ports, and cupholders for passengers in the second and third rows. Kia has maxed out the Telluride's cabin—and every passenger will notice. Room in the second row is kingly, and the seats are nearly as cushy as those in front. They fold completely flat via a pull strap or two buttons mounted in the cargo area. Surprisingly, if second-row passengers sacrifice some of their generous legroom, the third row, which also reclines, is a tolerable space for a 6-foot adult for more than 5 minutes. Cargo capacity is 21 cubic feet with all seats raised and 87 cubic feet with them all flat.
Analog gauges, buttons, knobs, toggle switches, and a regular PRNDL shifter move with a damped precision. They're a perfect complement to the two displays, a 3.5-inch for the instrument panel and an 8-inch screen for the dash. Infotainment menus are configurable, the system is quick, and everything is logically oriented. EX and SX models get the 10.3-inch screen—this is what you really want. The SX also has a larger 7-inch screen for the instrument panel that can display a richer set of information, like navigation, audio, and driver-assist features, plus a color head-up display on the windshield.
Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Kia's UVO link—which can remotely locate and unlock the car via an app—come standard. A proximity key is standard. Upper trims with navigation have fast and accurate voice inputs for destinations, plus the system can search online just as you would on Google Maps. Live traffic and weather sourced from local HD Radio stations are good, but they can't update as frequently—nor are they as precise—as in other cars that source this data from SiriusXM or a manufacturer-specific service. That, plus the lack of onboard WiFi, is an odd shortcoming considering every Telluride has a cellular modem.
Everything else is impressive. When signaling, the SX can show a live feed of your left or right blind spot on the instrument cluster. That's something Honda introduced years ago for the right-side blind spot, called LaneWatch, but Honda is phasing it out of production. Kia's Highway Driving Assist, available on the EX and SX, can help brake, steer, and accelerate smoothly through traffic in limited situations on marked highways. A quiet mode can send the stereo's music to the front with a single button push, and on upper trims, the driver can speak to the third row via an intercom. There is no rear-seat entertainment option like the (very sophisticated) system on the Pilot. My SX also had bright LED headlights, dual moonroofs, and an amazing Harman Kardon surround stereo that felt like it was playing on way more than 10 speakers. The standard 6-speaker stereo doesn't sound ample for a car this size.
As of this writing, the Telluride is too new to have been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), but we predict top scores all around when they publish the results. Active driver assists are abundant in every Telluride. Forward-collision alert with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and automatic braking, lane-keep assist, a driver-attention monitor, and adaptive cruise control all come standard. So does Safe Exit Assist, a feature that uses the blind-spot system to detect when an approaching vehicle or object might make it risky to open the rear doors. If that happens, the system will prevent passengers from opening the door until it determines that the coast is clear. Surround-view cameras and front parking sensors are optional. A driver's knee airbag is standard, but the front passenger doesn't get one.
The 2020 Telluride starts at $31,690 for the FWD LX and tops out at $46,680 for an AWD SX with every option package. My AWD SX test car had everything except the Towing package, for a total price of $46,930 with a $1,045 destination charge. This alone is an incredible value and the only way to get every last feature mentioned in this review. But for the best value, CarGurus recommends one trim lower, an AWD EX that stickers for $40,135 with destination. That vehicle comes with heated and cooled front seats, 3-zone climate control, leather upholstery, a power tailgate, navigation, and the widescreen infotainment system. You won't get the captain's chairs, but the second row is just as spacious. Compared to the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Toyota Highlander, and Nissan Pathfinder, the Telluride is easily the best-equipped and most stylish 3-row SUV in this price range. It's not just newer, it's better. Even if the SX seems too expensive, at least test-drive one. You'll be as impressed as I was.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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