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This fall Kia will introduce its new Sorento sport-utility vehicle to the media-candied public with a kind of nifty, kind of geeky marketing come-on. Drive any Kia — they probably hope it’s the new Sorento SUV, but a Spectra will do just the same — and they’ll give you a copy of the Lord of the Rings video coming out soon on DVD or VHS.

Can’t you just hear the crowd at the comic book store salivating?

The marketing ploy may in fact be the least interesting thing about the new Sorento SUV. If you were paying attention last auto-show season when it debuted, you might have guessed the Sorento to be a replacement for the hobbit-sized Sportage. It’s not — in fact, the Sportage is going away for 2003 but will be replaced when thriving Kia can find some production space for it.

Thriving? Kia says it’s on track to sell some 250,000 vehicles in the U.S. this year, after only eight years into U.S. sales. They didn’t even sell vehicles in the northeastern U.S. three years ago. That relatively target-rich environment, plus the addition of the Sorento and the recently new Sedona and Optima, gives it a three-car wedge (and a seven-car lineup) that will be used to push volumes — and profits — higher.

No, the most interesting thing about the Sorento is how quickly Kia is adapting to North American tastes. The Sorento will be the first vehicle the company sells that won’t have to prefaced with the phrase, “But I got a good deal on it” — even if that’s also true.

Sorento basics
What’s to know and critique about the new Sorento? The size is the first surprise. It is indeed larger than a Sportage — in fact, Kia says, it’s also roomier than a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Nissan Pathfinder, and quieter than those vehicles and the Toyota Highlander. And of those, it’s the only one with a full ladder frame and isolated body, putting it in a rarified SUV air, somewhere between the Chevy Tracker/Suzuki Vitara and the full-sized American utes — and, Kia folks nudge and wink, not unlike the Benz ML-Class.

Kia offers two different Sorento models – the LX and EX. The LX model is either rear-driven or four-wheel driven, the former using a simple part-time system and a low-range gear. The EX model also offers either driveline, but the EX Luxury package throws in a more sophisticated on-demand Torque On Demand system. The price barrier ranges from “under $20,000” to less than $25,000 for a 4WD EX with anti-lock brakes, which are a stand-alone option on all Sorentos.

The engine is a familiar piece. The smooth 3.5-liter V-6 engine gives enough low-end grunt to power the 4000-lb vehicle around slighter vehicles; it has less to haul here than it does in the 4700-lb Sedona minivan and feels fairly relieved about it. While the Sedona gets a five-speed automatic, the Sorento makes do with four forward gears, however. It’s a pleasant powertrain, its throaty whir rightly suited for its sporting mission.

Underneath, the Sorento has a double wishbone and coil springs in the front, a live axle located by five links in the back. At each corner is a vented disc brake and a P245/70R-16 tire – Hankooks on the LX and Michelins on the Sorento EX. And linking drivers with the wheels is either an engine speed sensitive steering rack on the LX, an electronic vehicle-speed sensing unit on EX.

In our brief drive in the mountains of northern Idaho — where “calf fries” are a delicacy, you’ll have to ask them what and why — the Sorento felt the equal of many mid-size utes in quietness, engine response and especially ride quality. The base models on Hankook tires weren’t especially communicative on gravel washes and the dusty trails we tamed, but on curving roads and highway jaunts alike, the Sorento’s composure and even-keeled handling felt more than on par with the class leaders. Braking was particularly strong, and the uplevel models had noticeably crisper, better-weighted steering, probably due to better tuning and the Michelin tire upgrade.

For true off-roaders, some critical details are handled properly. The Sorento has a 3500-lb tow rating, and a good ground clearance of 8.2 inches. The spare tire is located under the body — is there any good solution for location, other than on the nose? — so when you swap out for good off-road tires, make sure you buy five of them.

Style and substance
Styling is one of the factors Kia tested on potential customers — and one of the things they liked best, the company says. A cascading line falls from the windshield header through the front bumper; it tethers the shape to the earth – some SUVs look awkwardly balanced on their wheels, but the Sorento is pretty well grounded in that respect. There is some Lexus RX300 in the profile, but the Sorento wears enough horizontal lines across the side and the back to establish its own identity. The starburst taillamps are a neat touch, and the grille will share its theme with future Kias, we’re told.

The Sorento’s roomy cabin also sports handsome styling, as well as a comfortable, roomy second-row seat. The seats are decently sculptured and are multiadjustable (the driver seat is powered on EX models). It’s all about the copious legroom in the back, though here too the seats could use more bolstering. The rear seats flip and fold in 60/40 fashion; fold them down and the Sorento has a huge, usable area with a cargo cover and tie-down net, lots of cubbies and a storage tray beneath a carpeted panel in the floor.

A third-row seat is available in South Korea but not here, Kia says, because there’s not enough crush room between the third row and the rear glass. However, execs allude to the possibility of a longer SUV on the same flexible platform.

The dash is a fairly sophisticated shape with eye- and finger-pleasing textures. The touch and feel is far above what you might associate with Korean cars, from the felt-lined drawer in the console to the tight dash cap graining. The faux wood on EX Luxury models isn’t convincing at all, nor is it necessary to convey a quality image in this appliqué-tion. Interior storage and functionality is good: a myriad of cupholders, power points, a dual-bin glovebox and a dual-bin console will give pause even to Hold Everything freaks.

Plunging price

The killing blow leveled by the Sorento at Pathfinder, Grand Cherokee and others is price. A base Sorento LX with 4WD and anti-lock brakes will go for about $21,000, compared to roughly $27,500 for the competition. And the LX isn’t decontented in any way: it includes power windows, locks and heated mirrors; side curtain airbags; cruise control; tilt steering wheel; and an eight-speaker CD stereo. The EX adds alloy wheels, flip-up rear hatch glass, a roof rack, two-tone body cladding, a power driver seat, keyless entry, a power sunroof, and a 10-speaker Delphi CD stereo. The Luxury trim adds the faux wood, heated seats and automatic air conditioning and a six-disc in-dash CD changer. Options include anti-lock brakes on either model, leather seating and load-leveling suspension on the EX. At most, you’re looking at around $27,000 for a Sorento with everything.

After our short drive, we’re inclined to agree with Kia’s belief that this is a brand-changing vehicle. In the same way the Santa Fe made buyers think better of Hyundai, the Sorento is the right vehicle at the right time — and the price is, well, way right. The Sedona minivan may have surprised folks — but it’s the Sorento that might scare them a little bit.

2003 Kia Sorento
Base price: $19,500 (est.)
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 192 hp/217 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic, rear- or four-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 179.8 x 73.3 x 68.1 in
Wheelbase: 106.7 in
Curb weight: 4057-4255 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 15/20 mpg (2WD); 15/18 mpg (4WD)
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front and side curtain airbags
Major standard equipment: Power locks/windows/heated mirrors, air conditioning, eight-speaker CD stereo
Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles (basic; powertrain, 10-year/100,000 miles)

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