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2021 Kia Telluride Test Drive Review
Equipped with the right look, the right equipment, the right capability, and the right price, the 2021 Kia Telluride is one of the best midsize, three-row SUVs you can buy.
Kia’s West Point, Georgia assembly plant can’t build enough Tellurides to satisfy customer demand, earning the SUV an appropriate nickname. Within Kia, this SUV is affectionately known as the "Selluride." Given its popularity, it’s not surprising that the 2021 Kia Telluride sees few changes. A new Nightfall Edition option package debuts, the key fob gets a new remote engine starting button, the trailering harness switches to a seven-pin design, and more versions of the SUV have LED headlights. Wolf Gray is a new paint color, available only with the Nightfall Edition package.
Look and Feel
Kia sells the 2021 Telluride in four trim levels, each with front-wheel drive (FWD) or optional all-wheel drive (AWD): LX, S, EX, and SX. Base pricing ranges from MSRPs of $32,190 to $42,490, not including destination charges.
While we think the Telluride S provides significant value, many people choose the top-of-the-line Kia Telluride SX trim, which is available with a Prestige option package that essentially transforms it into a luxury SUV at a mainstream price. It adds premium stitched Nappa leather, a simulated suede headliner, a head-up display (HUD), and heated and ventilated second-row seats.
A Nightfall Edition option package is new for 2021, available with EX and SX trim. In addition to gloss black 20-inch aluminum wheels in a specific design, it gives the Telluride the popular blacked-out look, including a unique grille insert with a different texture. Our test vehicle had the Nightfall Edition package, along with AWD, the Prestige package, the Towing package, carpeted floor mats, a cargo net, a cargo cover, and a carpeted cargo and seatback mat. The sticker price came to $50,180, including a destination charge of $1,170.
Most of the time, styling is what sells any vehicle, and the 2021 Kia Telluride looks terrific, inside and out. Nary a line, detail, or proportion of the exterior styling deserves criticism, and aside from some glossy hard plastic on the lower parts of the interior, the interior is a model of contemporary design and quality execution.
As just one example, consider the transmission shifter. Placed to the left side of the center console, it preserves precious storage space. And when the driver uses it, which is multiple times with every trip, it feels solid and smooth in terms of its operation, imparting a sense of quality every time the Telluride’s owner drives the SUV.
Unfortunately, if you want an interior color other than black or gray, you need to buy SX trim. But that and the inexpensive looking plastic are the only flaws in the Telluride’s look and feel.
Technically a crossover, the Kia Telluride is offered with a single powertrain for the 2021 Telluride. It’s a 3.8-liter V6 engine paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission, supplying 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels. Kia’s Drive Mode Select technology offers a choice between Snow, Eco, Comfort, Sport, and Smart driving modes.
AWD is optional, and it includes a low-speed Lock function that splits power evenly between the axles for maximum traction. Combined with the SUV’s eight inches of ground clearance, this helps the AWD Telluride cover ground the front-driver can’t.
When Kia introduced the all-new Telluride to the media in western Colorado in the fall of 2019, weather conditions included a wintry mix of snow and rain, turning trails near Gateway Canyon into a soupy, muddy mess. Nevertheless, the Telluride successfully churned through the muck and, during sudden blizzard conditions, safely got us through the snowstorm.
This time around, we drove the Telluride in a Los Angeles suburb and on our usual testing route in the mountains near Malibu. And we noticed something new about this Kia’s ride and handling. It nearly eliminates the phenomenon known as “head-toss.”
What is head-toss in a car? It’s that feeling that you’re getting tossed around while driving, and it is most noticeable with regard to how your head is moving in relationship to the vehicle. It’s caused primarily by lateral rocking motion as a vehicle travels over uneven pavement or trail surfaces. An SUV’s taller center of gravity and ride height tend to amplify the effect.
Without getting too far into the engineering weeds, suspension tuning determines the degree to which head-toss is a problem. Kia appears to have found a solution without compromising handling.
Starting with a MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension design, Kia adds a self-leveling rear suspension to the EX and SX trim levels to ensure proper ride and handling when the SUV is loaded with people, cargo, or a trailer. Tuning produces an expected firm and connected sensation at slower speeds. As velocity increases, the Telluride softens up and becomes more compliant, almost gliding over the road and soaking up the kinds of surface anomalies that often cause head-toss.
A byproduct of this tuning is greater body roll when taking curves and corners at speed, but the 20-inch wheels and tires available on most Telluride trims provide commendable grip. And though this isn’t a performance-oriented SUV, it can hustle down a twisty two-lane road in a calm, cool, and collected manner, in part thanks to brake-based Torque Vectoring Cornering Control technology.
As far as fuel economy goes, the EPA says a Telluride with AWD should return 21 mpg in combined driving. We averaged 20.5 mpg on our testing loop, which included switching between Smart and Sport driving modes.
Form and Function
Stylish and enjoyable to drive, the 2021 Kia Telluride also excels in its comfort and utility.
Equipped with both a power lumbar adjustment and a power-adjustable thigh support extension, the Telluride SX’s driver’s seat offers 14 different ways to find an optimal position behind the heated tilt/telescopic steering wheel. If you prefer to sit up high, the Telluride will oblige you, while offering a forward view over the SUV’s squared-off hood that is not unlike the sensation of driving a Range Rover.
Both of the test SUV’s front seats offered heating and ventilation, and the front passenger benefited from 8-way power adjustment. Kia stitches the Prestige package’s supple leather upholstery in a distinctive pattern that is refreshingly different from the quilting many automakers have cribbed from Bentley. Acoustic sound-absorbing windshield and front-door glass help to quiet noise for the driver and front passenger, too.
Our test SUV had sliding second-row captain’s chairs, and the Prestige package adds heating and ventilation to both. Side-window sunshades provide privacy or protection from the sun’s rays for babies and smaller children, and an overhead climate control panel gives rear passengers separate control over their environment.
Like in the Hyundai Palisade, adults can actually use the Telluride’s third-row seat, though it’s not quite as accommodating as what you’ll find in a Volkswagen Atlas. With the test SUV, a button automatically tilts and slides the second-row seat out of the way, making it easy to access the third-row seat. Alternatively, there is a pass-through between the captain’s chairs. When it comes time to exit, the same button moves the seat out of the way, and robust grab handles on the roof pillars help you hoist yourself out.
Regardless of the seating assignment, Kia supplies storage for your stuff. The automaker clearly takes smartphone ubiquity into account, providing a bin forward of the cupholders that holds a phone in an angled position. Long and subtle trays between the door armrests and the panel also prove perfectly designed to hold the devices.
The second-row seating area is tailor-made for modern families, with airline-style USB ports and plastic grocery bag hooks embedded into the front seatbacks, separate smartphone storage pouches on the seatback pockets, and large cupholders sitting atop the trailing surface of the front center console.
Around back, as long as you have the key fob with you, the Telluride’s “smart” hands-free power liftgate automatically rises after a few seconds. It senses the fob within a certain proximity and assumes that you want the liftgate to open if you’re standing near the back of the SUV.
The benefit of this approach is that you need not hop around on one foot while wildly waving the other one under the bumper in a futile effort to activate a sensor. After all, when your arms are full of things you’d rather not put down, any action that reduces your balance is unwise. And that’s doubly true in winter weather.
The detriment of this approach is that if you don’t want the liftgate to open, you need to remember not to stand near the back of the SUV. Fortunately, Kia provides a way to turn this feature on and off.
When the liftgate rises, it reveals 21 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third-row seats. That sounds more generous than it looks, even when considering the storage area under the cargo floor.
Fold the third-row seats down, and the Telluride supplies 46 cubic feet of cargo space. The maximum number is 87 cubic feet, and our test vehicle had buttons in the cargo area that automatically folded the second-row captain’s chairs, making it simple and fast to maximize volume.
Every 2021 Telluride has Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and SiriusXM satellite radio. The standard touchscreen display in LX and S trim levels measures 8 inches, while the EX and SX have a 10.25-inch screen, a navigation system, and other upgrades.
Kia’s UVO Link Lite connected services plan is free for five years, and it includes a 911 Connect feature powered by your paired smartphone’s data plan and signal.
Additionally, Care, Plus, and Ultimate plans are available, all free for the first year and requiring a subscription after that. Highlights include Rear Occupant Alert, an ultrasonic motion-sensing rear-seat reminder that notifies you via text message if you may have left a child or a pet inside of the Telluride. Depending on the package, UVO Link also provides remote engine start and climate-control operation, a car finder function, Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility, alerts related to vehicle speed and curfew times, and more. But if you want a WiFi hotspot, you are out of luck.
However, you can pair two smartphones to the Bluetooth connection at the same time, and upper trim levels provide wireless smartphone charging. Additionally, the infotainment system is simple and easy to use thanks to menu shortcut buttons, stereo knobs, and intuitive touchscreen operation. The voice-recognition system isn’t as good as it should be, but it mostly succeeded in responding to our standard test prompts without requiring specific pathways and commands.
A 10-speaker Harman Kardon surround-sound system is standard with SX trim. The fancy speaker grilles add to the sense of luxury, but the merely good sound quality does not. This SUV deserves a high-end audio option.
Driver Talk is standard with EX and SX trim. It uses the voice-recognition system’s microphone to amplify the driver’s voice through the stereo speakers, making it possible to issue commands to unruly passengers without yelling. “Children, please stop arguing, or we will need to cancel our plans and return home” is so much calmer and rational, though possibly less effective, than screaming, “Hey you kids! Knock it off! Don’t make me turn this SUV around!”
Quiet Mode is another upgrade with EX and SX trim. This allows the driver to limit stereo volume to the front speakers, allowing rear passengers to sleep after a long day. If they deserve it, of course.
The Prestige package adds a head-up display to the Telluride, and it provides a wealth of information, including blind-spot notifications when it is unsafe to execute a lane change.
Part of the Telluride’s standard Drive Wise collection of advanced driving assistance systems, the blind-spot warning is just one of eight standard safety technologies that Kia installs on every version of this SUV. Others include lane-maintenance technology with lane-keeping assistance, forward-collision warning with both pedestrian- and cyclist detection, rear cross-traffic alert, a driver-monitoring system, and, of course, automatic emergency braking.
Highway Drive Assist is standard with EX and SX trim. It pairs an adaptive cruise control system with stop-and-go capability with the lane-centering assistance system to create a true Level 2 semi-autonomous driving aid. Drivers must keep their hands on the steering wheel and remain alert and ready to respond to changing traffic conditions, but Highway Drive Assist is a remarkably smooth, sophisticated, and accurate piece of technology.
Additional safety systems include the previously mentioned Rear Occupant Alert as well as a Safe Exit Assist function. This uses the blind-spot warning system’s radar to indicate whether it is safe to open the doors after parallel parking on a busy street.
Exclusive features restricted to SX trim include handy front parking sensors, a surround-view camera system, and a Blind-Spot View Monitor. This is a camera-based blind-spot information system that supplements rather than replaces the standard radar-based blind-spot warning technology. When the driver signals a lane change, it shows a video feed of what is in each of the SUV’s blind spots on the 7-inch screen nestled into the Supervision instrumentation display.
As far as crash-tests are concerned, the 2021 Telluride earns a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). It applies to the 2020 calendar year, and it may not continue for the 2021 calendar year due to the Poor-rated performance of the SUV’s standard headlights. Time will tell.
In testing performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), four-star frontal-impact results for both the driver and front passenger mar the Telluride’s overall 5-star rating.
One of the great things about modern Kias is that the company’s excellent 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, and five-year/60,000-mile roadside assistance plans are almost an afterthought when it comes to assessing the wisdom of purchasing one. Instead of serving as the main reason to buy a Kia, this protection level is simply the dessert following a fantastic appetizer, drink, and main course.
Historically, however, Kias have not done an excellent job of holding their value over time, and the Telluride isn’t winning any resale value awards (yet). But if you choose a new family SUV based solely on what it will be worth in the future, you’ll end up in a Toyota Highlander or Honda Pilot, and wishing you’d gotten the Telluride. Besides, a quick scan of used Tellurides on CarGurus shows just 26 listings within 100 miles of where we tested ours (which includes the second-largest city in America), and prices are not far off the original window stickers when new.
Based on this SUV’s design, packaging, equipment, utility, performance, and outright value, it’s a cost-effective choice in its segment. Not only that, but in our opinion, it’s the best midsize three-row SUV money can buy, unless you want an electrified model or something made for outright on-pavement or off-road performance.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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