The Car Enthusiast were invited to Scotland for the launch of Kia's new "premium" off-roader - the Sorento.
London was dull and it was raining, so I was pleasantly surprised to find Edinburgh bathed in sunshine, and an uncharacteristically warm 10 degrees. I met up with the Kia Sorento at the Edinburgh Hilton. First impressions were good - it looks like the Mercedes ML, which is hardly a bad thing. In fact the Kia is just 71mm shorter than the Mercedes. Finish looked good too - the Sorento is available in five colours, four of them metallic, and all models come with contrasting colour lower half bodywork. Panel gaps looked even and the paintwork on "my" light blue car was deep and lustrous. The tailgate opened either as a complete panel, or just the window section. Either way, this leads to a large boot space with cover to prevent prying eyes from becoming prying hands. The up-market theme was continued when I opened the door. Although I had the entry-level XE model, trim quality was high and the door closed with a reassuringly expensive sounding clunk.
A look around the interior to familiarise myself showed that even the basic model has a high specification including air conditioning, VDO CD-Tuner, electric mirrors and windows and electric glass tilt/slide sunroof with shade. There are storage compartments everywhere with large door pockets, a sunglasses holder in the headlining, large centre armrest area, another tray in the centre console and a built in CD storage system for four CDs. Keeping to the prestige theme, all opening compartments are nicely damped in their action, and the plastics used for the dashboard look high quality.
Time to move off. The XE model has switchable mode 2 or 4-wheel drive with a low range 4-wheel drive option controlled by an electric switch. I started off in 2-wheel drive mode (rear wheel drive). Initial impressions were of a typically high seating position endowing the driver with superb visibility over most other traffic. Bizarrely I could not see any of the bonnet despite the high seating position. This may prove more of a problem off road than on, where the Sorento shrinks around the driver. Steering at low speed is very light giving the initial impression of being very low geared, but in reality Kia have fitted the Sorento with speed sensitive power steering which firms up nicely when required, but is finger light at parking speeds. Leaving the airport area, the Sorento was easy to drive through traffic, the good visibility helping me select lanes well in advance despite the unfamiliarity of the route.
Kia had laid on an off-road course at a local quarry. I'm always suspicious of these, but this was the most demanding course I have seen. A lap of the route round the quarry took about 20 minutes using 4-wheel drive and low range. It was apparent that both ground clearance (203mm) as well as possible approach and exit angles were more than adequate. Some of the hills we traversed looked impossible, with very steep approaches on shale followed by descents that appeared steeper than 1-in-1. Despite not having fancy Electronic Brake Assist type systems such as Land Rover's "Hill Descent", the Sorento dealt with these in perfect safety, inspiring confidence in the driver. The Sorento is built on a separate chassis so it goes without saying that wheel articulation side to side is excellent, the tracks we were driving through fully testing this.
But time has moved on for off road vehicles with the advent of the BMW X5 and Mercedes ML. Poor on road behaviour is no longer acceptable. I wondered if the Sorento was up to passing the test.
With flying colours! I selected 4-wheel drive, but the only obvious on road difference was a slight resistance of all the differentials on full lock. The Kia people had mapped out a route up to St. Andrews taking in all sorts of road conditions. On the motorways the Sorento travelled at the legal limit with good stability and wasn't affected by bow waves when passing lorries. Engine noise is muted despite being a diesel and wind noise at 70mph although evident, did not require the radio volume to be turned up from town levels. Off the motorway and onto the fast B roads that Scotland is famous for - I really expected the Sorento to struggle here, but I was so wrong. Using the vast low down torque of the 2.5-litre diesel engine (maximum of 314Nm at 1850-2500rpm) and keeping the Sorento mostly in 4th and 5th gears, I was able to make very fast progress along these roads.
The expected roll and wallow through the bends just wasn't there. In fact the suspension seemed very firm and roll free. The steering had firmed up too and it was very easy to place the Sorento exactly where aimed as I clipped apex after apex where the road opened out and visibility allowed. In places the road was still damp but the Sorento was unfazed by this. The brakes (ventilated discs all round) were up to the job of slowing over 2 tonnes of Sorento quite adequately.
Taking the Sorento upwards to a height of 320m above sea level along some single-track roads showed it to be just as capable here as well. On the rare occasions another vehicle was met, the lofty driving position helped make full use of the available road width even though I couldn't see the extremities. After a very scenic 90 mile drive, I arrived at St Andrews feeling as fresh as when I had started out.
The following morning I was able to sample the XS model in automatic form - the top of the range. Main differences against the XE, aside from the auto box (XE and XS are available in manual or automatic guises) are the leather seats and door inserts, an upgrade to climate control and no 2-wheel drive option. The XS has a different full time 4-wheel drive system with Active Torque Transfer, which will transfer power to the front and rear wheels according to road conditions, from a maximum 100% rear-wheel drive through to a 50/50 split. For added fuel economy, when running in rear drive mode, a free running differential system disconnects drive to the front propshaft and wheels. The XS also brought with it more wood, more chrome, heated front seats and a wiper de-icer.
The four speed automatic gearbox is very smooth; I could not discern gear changes up or down, and a push on the throttle provoked an instant downchange noticeable only by a change in engine note and rev counter reading.
The controls in the Sorento are well laid out and easy to understand without needing to resort to the handbook. What didn't I like about the Sorento? Very little. My only real gripe concerns the bank of switches in the centre console. The XE model suffers from more blanking plates than switches and even the XS model has one blank position despite the only option offered being metallic paint! This is poor attention to detail and reduces the prestige a tad.
I have left prices until last. There isn't really a direct competitor to the Sorento. In size and style it mimics the Mercedes ML and BMW X5, but they start on the wrong side of £32,000. The Kia is almost as capable as the entry level ML270CDi but prices start at just £17,995 rising to £21,395 for the 2.5 CRDi XS automatic. If you can live without the prestige badge, its difficult to justify the premium required for a BMW or Mercedes, even more so when standard equipment is taken into account - an area where the Sorento wins hands down.
There is only the 2.5 CRDi diesel option available at present, giving 138 bhp at 3800 rpm and a combined fuel economy of 33.2mpg (31.7 for the automatic). A 193 bhp 3.5-litre V6 petrol version will be announced later in the year and will only be available in XS trim and with the automatic gearbox. Watch these pages for more information later in the year.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kia UK: www.kia.co.uk
First drive review: 2003 Kia Sorento
Story by Trevor Nicosia
Trevor Nicosia currently races Lancias in Britain. Find out more at his site - www.nyssaracing.com.