2014 Kia Sorento EX AWD First Drive

A very liberal take on "mid-cycle refresh."

What It Is
A display of just how far we can stretch the term "mid-cycle refresh" for this three-row crossover.
Best Thing
Kia's showing just how far it'll go to listen to what it can do better.
Worst Thing
It doesn't look different enough from last year's crossover, and its price went up considerably.
Snap Judgment
This isn't the same crossover; it's now exactly what it should be.


Chalk this one up to cognitive dissonance.

Last summer, I kept reading our sister publication Motor Trend's updates of its long-term 2012 Kia Sorento SX, kvetching every which way about it. I thought it read like a high school breakup letter, with a seemingly endless list of objections. Could it really be that bad? This was Kia's first vehicle to crest the 100,000 sales mark in the U.S. in a single model year; it's second-best seller behind the newly minted Optima. Then I drove a middle-tier 2013 Kia Sorento EX V6 AWD for myself.

Evidently, it could be.

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While fundamentally sound for a big family on a smallish budget, too many problems flaws plagued it. Its suspension was far too stiff, its steering heft was a free pass to avoid the weights at the gym, and its leather steering wheel had begun peeling after 5,500 miles of wear and tear from the sweaty palms of auto journalists. Five thousand, five hundred miles. If it made any difference, at least it wasn't ugly.

All of that made me a bit apprehensive to get behind the wheel of the 2014 Kia Sorento EX. It looks much the same, in and out. But Kia says it's 80-percent all-new. Essentially, Kia took the structure of the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport -- its corporate cousin's high-volume two-row crossover-and stuck it under the three-row Sorento. I sat in the 2014 Sorento at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show when it was unveiled, thinking to myself that it didn't look or feel that different. But looks can be deceiving.

In the middle of copper-mining country outside of Scottsdale, Arizona, Kia gave us the fob for the new Sorento and told us to have at driving it, challenging us to look at it against the crossover already on sale. Engineers confided they knew about all the shortcomings of the 2014 Sorento's predecessor and went to work on them. The results, they said, would speak for themselves.

Walkaround

If Kia dumped so much money into refreshing the Sorento, giving it a whole new platform in the process, why did they keep it looking so much the same?

The automaker has its money going to other priorities, it says. A next-generation Kia Sorento is already well under development. But the new one is nearly all-new. The only parts carrying over from the 2013 model are its basic shape, much of its interior, and the 191-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that wasn't on-hand to sample. With nearly everything else under the sheetmetal all-new for 2014, Kia tweaked its looks with a grille that features slimmer "tabs" on the top and bottom, new bumpers with a sleeker look and fewer unpainted surfaces, updated headlights and tail lights designs that look more modern, a newly available power liftgate, different wheels, and slimmer roof rails.

It's hard to spot all the changes unless you're comparing the 2014 Sorento back-to-back with the outgoing version, but they do the trick: The 2014 Kia Sorento looks fresh enough that it should have enough life left in the design to keep Kia's sales up through when it's fully redesigned in a few short years.

Sitting Down

Ask any seasoned auto journalist which mainstream automaker puts the best steering wheels in its cars, and Volkswagen will undoubtedly come up first. I mention this first because of the high-quality leather VW uses on the one control in the car you touch more than any other. Its padding is just right. Its ergonomics are unparalleled.

And Kia completely ripped it off from VW. Good.

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In the previous Sorento, Kia used a pebble-grain leather for the steering wheel and seats. We had no issues with the seats, but the leather felt like rubber on the steering wheel and started peeling itself apart in our still-young tester last year. The smoother cowhide in our mid-level Sorento EX ought to fare much better. It definitely feels much higher-quality.

Outside of that, a larger 8-inch monitor for the new UVO with eServices infotainment system, a 7-inch TFT screen in the middle of the gauges that serves as an information panel and speedometer, and a new shifter, the cabin feels much the same as the outgoing Sorento's. Not a bad thing.

The seats were still large, fairly flat, and decently plush. It's not a sports car, so no one should mind too much. In back, Kia says its new chassis provided it with the flexibility to add 1.2 inches of second-row leg, 0.35 inch of space in the third row, and 0.5-cubic-foot of cargo space. We didn't have much issue with hauling around people or stuff last time, so we consider that gravy.

Driving

This is where you can tell that the 2014 Kia Sorento clearly isn't the same crossover as last year's model.

Taking off down the curves and canyons of Arizona's mining country, we became acutely aware of just how much better things have gotten. Somehow, the 2013 managed to ride stiffly and chop over even the smoothest roads; the 2014 couldn't be bothered to exhibit even the slightest hint of instability with its upsized 18-inch wheel and tire combo. We're interested in seeing how the top-spec Sorento SX Limited does with its low-profile 19-inch rubber.

The Sorento's body motions felt controlled thanks in part to a new torque-vectoring stability control system, and with exception of a hint of wind noise, we couldn't detect much of any distraction from the outside world when we didn't mash the loud pedal. Speaking of the accelerator, it now controls a smaller--yet more powerful--3.3-liter V-6 that replaces last year's 3.5-liter unit, good for a 14-horsepower bump and what should be better real-world fuel economy. While rated at the same mpg figure as last year's Sorento, we saw 23 mpg in fairly conservative, mixed driving; by contrast, we saw less than 18 mpg in its predecessor during a week of testing in Los Angeles.

Partly responsible for the gains in fuel economy are aerodynamics--those slimmer roof rails, for instance--and switching to electric power-assist steering instead of the hydraulic pump found in the 2013 Sorento. While lacking the heft of the previous Sorento, its much lighter feel will be a welcome change everyone who will buy a Sorento, as it's much easier to use at parking-lot speeds. Available in the EX as an option and standard in the SX is Kia's new FlexSteer, which alters the heft and steering ratio in the rack at the push of a button. We didn't get a chance to try it, sadly, but we'll let you know how it works in the Sorento when we drive it during a Road Test in Los Angeles.

Summary

Without a doubt, the 2014 Kia Sorento is a better vehicle than the one it replaces. Despite its sharp design, we wish it didn't look so familiar, if only because it's a disservice to what's underneath. It's not the same vehicle as the 2011 through 2013 model -- not by a long shot. It's quiet and refined. It rides and handles well. It's a luxury crossover at Walmart prices. Well, OK, maybe Target prices now.

In dropping its old 175-horsepower base engine and going higher-class, the cheapest Sorento you can get will be a 191-horsepower, front-driver LX starting at $24,950 versus the 2013's $23,950. From there, the upgraded LX V6 will start at $28,350 (up $1,850), the now V-6-only EX will start at $30,850 (up $2,100), the formerly top-spec SX will come in at $35,850 (up $3,350), and the new luxed up SX Limited hasn't been priced, but we expect it to come in starting around $40,000 with all the bells and whistles. All-wheel drive will cost extra. Considering what you get, the Koreans still run a great bargain, even if you now have to raise your standards to those of your average Beverly Hills housewife at the top end.

We're looking forward to driving lesser-optioned vehicles -- and Sorento SX Limited -- to get a greater feel for how well-rounded the new Sorento range is. We're looking forward to driving it in Los Angeles over the ripped-apart roads traversed by millions of cars every week. And we're looking at driving examples with a few miles on them to see how their materials hold up after some abuse. But we have a hunch they'll do all right.

Basic Specs

3.3-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, 290-hp, $30,850, 18 mpg city/24 mpg hwy

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