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2021 Kia Sorento Test Drive Review
After 2,100 miles behind the wheel, it’s clear the Sorento remains a real gem in a crowded field.
After striking gold with the Telluride, Kia has doubled down on the three-row SUV segment with the redesigned Sorento. While it might not bring the same level of near-luxury refinement that has made the Telluride a smash hit, the slightly smaller Sorento arrives as a compelling option for those who value a more maneuverable family crossover.
Look and Feel
With all due respect to the more jelly-bean-inspired styling of Kia’s last-generation Sorento, the new one is a huge step forward. The new car is a very handsome crossover SUV. It loses the bubbly design of the outgoing model and swaps in a more athletic, muscular silhouette. Our Sorento test car wore SX Prestige trim with the X-Line package, complete with roof rails and a shark fin antenna to complement the rear roof spoiler.
At the front, Kia’s tiger-nose grille is more expansive than before, with a more noticeable curve toward the car’s front corners. Its bottom edge carves up toward the headlights, which are accented along their bases by the Sorento’s running lights. The headlights squint, but they’re not comically small. Along the side, a silver accent between the front fender and the door keeps things interesting. With the 2021 Sorento, Kia has grasped the visual zeitgeist of SUV styling—at least in America—and leaned in just enough. It’s not absurdly macho, but it definitely looks prepared for the great outdoors.
Headed toward the rear of the vehicle, the long, pointed rear edge of the side window results in a large D-pillar that looks like a blind spot just waiting to be cursed. But it’s a sacrifice worth making in the name of style.
The taillights are beautiful vertical rectangles, two on each side. They look more cohesive than what Kia has introduced on the 2022 Tucson—it’s hard to envision those aging well. Contrarily, the new Sorento looks more cautiously modern; we’re not as worried about it aging poorly.
The interior is filled with high-value, desirable features, too.
First, all Sorento’s get heated outside mirrors—yeah, we know those are outside, but you’ll be using them when you’re sitting inside. You’ll also find second-row air vents, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth connectivity, and keyless entry across the lineup.
The base LX trim level offers six-way adjustment for the driver, which is a little weak, but manageable. The good news is that all other trims offer 10-way driver’s seat adjustment with power lumbar support. The front passenger is in a tougher spot: Kia offers only 4-way adjustment on the LX, S, and mid-level EX trim and 8-way on the more expensive Sorento SX and SX Prestige. You need the X-Line package on the top-tier SX Prestige before your co-pilot can enjoy the same 10-way with lumbar as the driver.
More democratically, heated seats are available on all but the LX trim, while ventilation is reserved for the SX Prestige with the X-Line package.
Exterior visibility is fantastic. The Sorento’s big windows and windshield don’t have many blind spots—despite those large D-pillars—and the panoramic sunroof on our test vehicle let in plenty of light. In fact, as we tested the car along a 2,100-mile road trip through the American Southeast, we occasionally felt the big sunroof let in a bit too much hot sunlight.
Finally, cloth upholstery comes standard on LX trim, S through SX trims get leatherette, and the SX Prestige gets real perforated leather good enough to far exceed our expectations. Soft, supple, and compliant, all we wanted was a little more thigh support. These seats are very comfortable.
Kia equips the 2021 Sorento with a small range of small powertrains. Most common will be the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder powering the LX, and S trims. With 191 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque routed through a traditional eight-speed automatic transmission to either front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD), it doesn’t appear too compelling on paper. To be fair, however, this was not the engine we tested.
Our test car was equipped with Kia’s turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder, and oh what a difference that turbocharger makes. 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque run through an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT) with a wet clutch to all-wheel drive had us hustling down the interstate with very few concerns related to merging, cruising, or passing power.
Kia also sells a new, hybrid version of the 2021 Sorento, equipped with a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor. The Sorento Hybrid's powertrain comes with FWD only, and the vehicle is covered in a separate test drive review. A plug-in hybrid Sorento is also heading down the pike.
Our Sorento’s AWD system employed torque vectoring to keep traction through corners, and it featured a center-locking differential for slippery conditions. The X-Line package automatically adds the AWD system as well as an additional 1.3 inches of ride height (for a total of 8.3 inches), 20-inch alloy wheels, and the roof rack.
The suspension is made up of McPherson struts up front and a multi-link setup in the rear. This is a proven formula for myriad applications, and it results in a smooth and comfortable ride, despite our test car’s big 20-inch wheels. Shoppers looking to save some money on rubber could consider the LX (with its 17-inch wheels) or the S or EX (which both sport 18s), although we doubt they’ll crave more ride comfort than what’s available with the 20s.
The Sorento’s various drive modes make a real difference with the 2.5-liter turbo. In Eco mode, we saw well above the EPA’s estimated fuel economy but throttle response was slow and the car always felt a bit lethargic. Normal mode was business as usual, if not exciting, while Sport mode tightens things up and the throttle response noticeably improves. As most of our driving was done south of the Mason-Dixon line—not to mention it was done in June and July—we didn’t have opportunities to test the Sorento’s snow mode. Nor did we have an opportunity to take the Sorento off-road to properly test its differential's chops.
Considering it weighs in at roughly 4,000 pounds, the car’s tendency to lean in corners doesn’t come as a surprise. However, despite the vehicle’s heft, it doesn’t submit the driver and passenger to wild head-tossing, even in the tight, windy stuff. This is similar to how the Telluride behaves, and it’s a huge benefit that Kia should trumpet louder.
Form and Function
Three-row SUVs are popular because they’re practical. But, realistically, if you’re buying a top-of-the-line Sorento, it’s best to think of it as a four-seater. An LX or S trim has a second-row bench seat, so maybe you could fit five adults in one of those, but the upper trims swap in captain's chairs in the second row, and the third row is far too tight for an adult to sit comfortably. Moreover, the available cargo space behind the third row (12.6 cubic feet) is small enough that you’ll likely want those seats folded, anyway. If you need to transport a rec-league basketball squad, choose the Kia Telluride instead.
On the bright side, the second-row captain's chairs in our test vehicle were very comfortable. The front seats and rear seats provide ample legroom, at 41.4 inches and 41.7 inches, respectively.
Additionally, cargo space is pretty good for the little things. Kia provides a spot for a phone (which can be equipped with a wireless charger) ahead of the gear selector. There are two cupholders to the right of the Sorento’s shifter, and there’s a decent-sized center console bucket with a little tray insert.
The door pockets will hold a water bottle, so long as it’s not a fat 32-ouncer. The second-row seats also have nice cupholders built into the rear doors. They won’t hold anything massive, but they look nice and hold drinks securely.
Total cargo volume is 75.5 cubic feet, which is on the small side for a three-row, midsize crossover; it’s more in-line with a compact crossover like the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4. This is not a Chevy Suburban. The closest competitor in both size and performance is likely the Mazda CX-9.
Kia does a good job with tech, but there are some quirks to work through in the 2021 Sorento. The smaller 8-inch touchscreen display—standard on LX, S, and EX—is flanked by hard buttons, has a volume knob and a tuning knob, and can wirelessly project Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The larger, 10.25-inch screen that comes on the SX and SX Prestige trims looks fantastic, uses haptic touch buttons along either flank, keeps the knobs, and is easy to navigate. We do with Kia had included a dedicated home button for the infotainment system.
Shoppers considering the upper-level Sorento should not that the bigger screen can only project Android Auto or Apple CarPlay if your phone is physically plugged in. Further, when we hooked up Android Auto, we were disappointed to see that the right third of the screen was effectively unusable, showing arbitrary, redundant information and effectively rendering the display back down to 8-inch size. The 2021 Mazda CX-5 has a similarly sized screen but manages to project across the entire width.
The Sorento packs plenty of USB ports, although no USB-C ports. Our test car was equipped with the optional Bose stereo. While we’ve tested and been impressed with some Bose systems as of late, this one felt just OK, not great. It lacked the full, immersive audio that we’ve come to crave.
Finally, the Sorento’s navigation system needs some work, particularly when searching for specific addresses via voice or trying to find a specific store or restaurant via the Point-of-Interest search function. On the bright side, most drivers will likely use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to handle their navigation needs.
Kia has equipped the Sorento with a compelling array of standard safety features. The list includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, a driver-attention warning, lane-keeping assist, lane-departure warning, lane-following assist, and auto high beams.
Our test car also had a surround-view camera and offered front- and rear camera views at low speeds. These were undoubtedly helpful, but it did cause the more obsessive-compulsive of us to find their inner perfectionist every time it came to park.
We also enjoyed the Sorento’s adaptive cruise control, which has been a strong spot recently for Hyundai and Kia. The system works smoothly and doesn’t brake too hard or accelerate too aggressively. Occasionally, the lane-keeping assist system would get a bit too worked up, making near-constant corrections that were easily felt through the steering wheel. Overall, however, these systems worked very well and made exceptionally long days behind the wheel easy to manage.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) awarded the Sorento four out of five stars overall and in all frontal-impact crash tests and rollover. It received a perfect five out of five stars in side-impact crash tests.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) awarded a Top Safety Pick designation to the Sorento. While the expensive SX trim levels and their LED headlights get all aces, the LED reflector headlights on the more affordable LX, S, EX trims received a poor rating.
While a hybrid powertrain is significantly more fuel-efficient than either gas-powered four-cylinder, the non-hybrid version of the 2021 Sorento is moderately fuel-efficient and competitive in their segment. With FWD, the naturally aspirated four-cylinder models should return 24 mpg city, 29 highway, and 26 combined, per the EPA. AWD drops those numbers to 23/25/24. That’s a pretty big drop in highway fuel economy, but the EPA still estimates it at only a $150 per year difference in terms of fuel costs.
Choose a turbo Sorento, and you’ll get 22/29/25 with FWD and 21/28/24 with AWD. That's better than a Subaru Ascent and a Volkswagen Atlas, and about on par with a Toyota Highlander and a Mazda CX-9. During our road trip, we averaged 27.7 miles per gallon in highway-heavy driving.
Kia has priced the 2021 Sorento very competitively on the lower end, with the LX starting at an MSRP of $29,390. At the top end of the scale, however, the SX Prestige starts at $40,590 with FWD. Our test car adds AWD with the X-Line package for $2,000, plus the Rust Color Package for interior appointments, and a $1,175 destination fee brought the as-tested price to $43,965.
That’s a lot of scratch for a car that serves best as a four-seater.
Arguably the biggest question mark stopping us from wholeheartedly recommending the Sorento is that its big brother, the Telluride, packs a fair bit more and offers a lot more space… for not much more money. Telluride pricing starts at $32,790 and rises toward the $45-48K range when fully loaded. At this price point, that doesn’t represent a massive jump in the automotive industry. The shorter wheelbase Sorento might be more appealing to families in congested areas, but the larger Telluride still looks like a more fully cooked three-row family crossover.
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