The fast-moving moving sport utility market is fiercely competitive. The manufacturers which have SUVs in their books are battling each other for ever-increasing sales, and there's no sign of sales wilting worldwide. Quite simply, the SUV is the car to have if you want space in a vehicle, economy and the option of four-wheel-drive capability.
The competition is no more intense than between two Korean companies, Kia and Hyundai. Interestingly, they are partners and have a lot product and component sharing.
Nevertheless, they market independently, and in New Zealand Kia have just stolen the high ground with the launch of the new generation SUV, the Sorento.
The seven-seat Sorento lands here in four models starting from $46,490. The test car was the range-topping Premium and adds $19,700 to the base price. For that money you get a high level of specification, the major items of fitment include full leather trim with heated and cooled front seats, rear seat heaters, dual-zone climate control, panoramic sun roof, smart park assist, cruise control, hill descent control, six air bags, ISOFIX child seat tethers, and traction and stability control.
Under the bonnet sits a 2.2-litre diesel engine, there is an entry-level petrol option, but the latest development of the R series diesel is a stunner, it is built to wide acclaim. It is smooth, powerful and downright efficient.
Kia claim a 7.3-litre per 100km (38mpg) combined cycle average, that sits well with the 8.4l/100km (33mpg) constantly showing during the time I was driving the test car. It will also sip fuel at the rate of just 7l/100km (40mpg) at 100km/h, engine speed 1800rpm. There's also an eco drive mode which manages thrifty fuel usage.
The engine drives through an automatic six-speeder, the only transmission in the range. Kia rate the 2199cc turbocharged diesel at 145kW with a fabulous 436Nm of torque all of the way from 1800rpm to 2500rpm. This engine is a cracker in terms of refinement and strength. It will launch the Sorento to 100km/h in 9sec, yet it does so in a manner where you are seldom aware that it is working hard.
Drive through the transmission is sophisticated and smooth. The driver can take an active approach to gear changing through steering wheel-mounted paddles and a sequential system at the main gearshift lever.
While SUVs aren't considered a true off-road vehicle, the Sorento does have limited cross-country ability; well, the four-wheel-drive variants do, there are a couple in the range that have front-wheel-drive only.
Four-wheel-drive can be selected by a dash-mounted rotary dial, there is a differential locking system which sends power evenly to all four wheels but the power proportioning system which defaults when not in the lock mode is satisfactory for most off-the-seal applications.
I took the test car down to the tracks which run alongside the Waimakariri River near Courtenay and spent time on the loose shingle surfaces without anxiety, the drive system gleaned grip comprehensively.
Comfort and control in the loose has been engineered into the vehicle. The suspension is a sophisticated fully independent front strut/rear multiple link system with spring and gas damper rates uncompromised between what is needed off-road, and to control body balance and promote comfort on-road.
Pushing hard into the corners out of the Waimakariri Gorge, steering feel is strong while the Sorento felt composed and controlled. And that from a vehicle which isn't light at 1817kg, yet it feels agile and nimble.
While the Sorento isn't short on performance, its greatest virtue is that of its capability in the everyday role. While the rear row of seats when upright take up a lot of the cargo space, they fold down to provide a cavernous rear load area (258-litres to 2052-litres), and versatility within the folding process lends itself to a multitude of wagon-type uses.
And that user-friendly design is structured within the entire in-cabin area, the Sorento is a functional SUV which picks up where its predecessors left off. It has a carved out a huge reputation in the NZ market.
Kia have exercised restraint in the body styling process, although it does have an eye-catching shape its design cues aren't overly dramatic, nevertheless, it will appeal to a broad range or buyers and user/choosers.