2021 Kia Telluride three-row midsize crossover: surprise contender for best in class

2021 Kia Telluride

What changes will make the 2021 Kia Telluride different?

Perhaps a new color or two, maybe a little feature repackaging. Overall, though, this impressive midsize crossover will stand pat for its sophomore season. Telluride debuted for model-year 2020 as Kia’s largest-ever vehicle and quickly became a contender for best-in-class against the likes of the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Ford Explorer.

Handsome, square-shouldered styling, roomy seating for up to eight, and a compelling value story will remain among the 2021 Telluride’s highlights. Expect the 2020 lineup to carry over, with base LX, sporty S, luxury EX, and sporty-luxury SX models.

All ’21 Tellurides will continue with a V-6 engine and be available with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (AWD). The LX and EX will again have a second-row bench seat for eight-passenger capacity. Reducing capacity to seven, the S and SX will come with two second-row captain’s chairs, although the bench should remain an S-model option at a reasonable $100.

Note that driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this review are based on test drives of the 2020 Telluride. In areas where the ’21 might be different, we will reserve judgment.

Should I wait for the 2021 Telluride or buy a 2020?

Buy a 2020 Telluride. The 2021 won’t change in any way worth waiting for, but it will almost certainly cost more. Buying a ’20 gets you a fine-driving family crossover with vacation-worthy luggage space, a laudable array of standard safety features, and some technology rare for this class, such as an optional self-leveling rear suspension.

Telluride will continue atop this South Korean automaker’s crossover lineup. It’s positioned above the older and less expensive Kia Sorento, a smaller but still midsize-class seven-seater.

The ’21 Telluride will also continue to share its underskin engineering with the not dissimilar-looking Palisade crossover from Kia’s corporate partner, Hyundai. Palisade is built in Korea, though, while Telluride is assembled in the U.S., at Kia’s plant in West Point, Georgia. The automaker says it’s the first Kia designed specifically for the U.S.

Will the styling be different?

No, not until a midcycle freshening, probably around model-year 2023. Until then, Telluride will continue with a deliberately burly presence, a calculated bit of SUV retro that bucks the trend toward swoopier styling in this class.

Highlights on all ’21 Tellurides will again include stacked headlamps boxed by distinctive LED daytime running lights, a relatively upright windshield, and inverted L-shaped taillamps (striped with LED bars on EX and SX trims).

Visual differences between model grades will continue as details, such as fog lights exclusive to the SX; satin-chrome exterior garnishes for the S and SX; and on all but the base LX, satin-chrome front-bumper side airducts and a dark-gray grille insert. The size and design of the alloy wheels will also continue as differentiators. The 2021 Telluride LX will again have 18-inch polished rims, the EX machined-finished 18s, the S machined-finished 20s, and the SE exclusive black 20s.

Dimensionally, the 2021 Telluride will again run with the larger vehicles in the class and use its interior space wisely. Critically, the third-row seat has enough foot space, knee clearance, and outward visibility to qualify as truly adult-accommodating. In this segment, that’s a virtue matched only the Pilot, Highlander, Palisade, Nissan Pathfinder, Volkswagen Atlas, and the nearly full-size Chevrolet Traverse. One-button spring-loaded releases slide the second-row seats forward for good third-row accessibility, and EX and XS models have second row sunshades.

Cargo volume will remain among the segment leaders, as well, with 21 cubic feet behind the third-row seat, 46 with it folded, and 87 with both rear rows stowed. Beneath the rearmost floor panel is a useful storage cubical. Expect a hands-free power liftgate to return as standard on EX and SX. Sprinkled throughout the cabin are a variety of bins, receptacles, bag hooks, even small mesh pouches piggybacked on larger seatback pockets families will find so valuable. Every model gets four power outlets, LX and S have five USB charge ports, EX and XS get six ports plus wireless charging (and rear window sunshades).

Kudos to Kia for cabin décor that blends no-nonsense ergonomics with upscale flourishes. Large, clearly identified buttons team with responsive touchscreen icons for an uncommonly friendly control interface. The 2021 Telluride LX and S should return with an 8-inch central dashboard infotainment screen, the EX and SX with a 10.3-inch split-screen display hosting their standard imbedded navigation system. Exclusive again for the SX will be a 7-inch LCD instrument cluster that displays between the speedometer and tachometer a video view of your left or right blind spot when the appropriate turn signal is activated.

All but the LX will return with standard heated front seats; EX and SX seats will again add ventilation. Leather upholstery will return as standard on ’21 EX and SX models; LX and S will stay with high-grade leatherette. Particularly impressive is the Prestige Package that should return as a tempting $2,000 option for AWD SX models. It adds sumptuous quilted Nappa leather, a head-up instrument display, a heated steering wheel, and a premium cloth headliner. It also heats and ventilates the second-row captain’s chairs. Look for the ’21 S and EX to return a single-panel moonroof, the SX a dual-pane affair.

Any mechanical changes?

No. All 20201 Tellurides will reprise a 3.8-liter V-6 linked to an eight-speed automatic transmission. The engine’s 291 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque is competitive with base V-6s in top competitors and should again furnish more than adequate acceleration. In most conditions, the transmission goes virtually unnoticed and changes down alertly to furnish extra punch for merging or passing. It did, however, resort to frequently hunting for higher and lower ratios as we cruised with fast-moving Interstate traffic carrying five adults, a toddler, and luggage. Such indecisiveness, however, isn’t out of the norm for a similarly configured midsize crossover in those conditions.

The driver will again be able to select from among drive modes labeled Comfort, Sport, Smart, Eco, and Snow. They calibrate powertrain reaction and steering weight (and the AWD front/rear power split) accordingly.

The heavy thunk of a door slam and shudder-free passage over rough roads are telltales of Telluride’s impressive structural solidity. So is its composure in changes of direction, the suspension doing a fine job channeling signals from the meaty, natural-feeling steering. Indeed, this crossover’s stability on straights and fine balance in turns conveys more Teutonic integrity than some higher-priced German-brand crossovers muster.

Best ride quality will remain with the 18-inch wheels and tires on the LX and EX, but the degree of absorbency sacrificed by the 20s isn’t a deal-breaker and no more a degradation than suffered with the 20s available on key competitors. Few direct rivals offer a self-leveling rear suspension; it’ll return as part of the $795 towing package available on the 2021 Telluride EX and SX. (It doesn’t alter the standard 5,000-pound towing capacity shared by all models.)

Special mention is due the AWD system’s torque-distributing acuity. It so quickly supplies power to the rear wheels that even quick acceleration off the line or through a sharp, low-speed corner doesn’t betray this powertrain’s front-wheel drive DNA. We dare say it approximates a rear-drive-based powertrain’s feel, even when you’re not in Sport mode, with its default 65/35 torque split. Ground clearance is a smidgen more than average, at 8 inches, though this is no off-roader. A driver-selectable Lock mode, however, delivers power evenly to all four wheels for a traction advantage away from the pavement.

Will fuel economy improve?

With the 2021 Telluride essentially a carry-over, expect its EPA ratings to repeat those of the 2020 version. That would keep it just slightly shy of the top tier for fuel efficiency among its competitive set. Look for the ’21 Telluride to rate 20/26/23 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 19/24/21 with AWD. Kia will again specify 87-octane gas.

Will there be new features?

Not likely, given that the Telluride is still so new – and that Kia has already done an admirable job apportioning features appropriate to each trim level. In fact, expect factory options to again be limited to premium paint hues and the aforementioned second-row bench for the S, the towing package, and the SX Prestige Package.

Vitally, every ’21 Telluride will return with a commendable suite of standard safety features. Foremost is autonomous emergency braking that can slow or stop the crossover to prevent a frontal collision with another vehicle, object, or pedestrian. Blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection, including rear-cross-traffic automatic braking, are standard. So is adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, even in stop-and-go congestion.

Lane departure warning and lane-maintaining automatic steering correction will again be standard, as will Kia’s Lane Following Assist, designed to keep the Telluride centered in its lane with minimal steering from the driver. All models will again come with Rear Occupant Alert designed to detect child or pet movement in the second and third row after the doors lock. Driver Talk, which uses a microphone to project the driver’s voice to the rear rows, will remain standard on EX and SX.

In addition to items mentioned earlier, standard features for all 2021 Telluride models will again include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; heated mirrors with integrated turn signals (power folding on EX and SX, with reverse tilt on the latter); and rear climate controls (automatic on EX and SX). A power driver’s seat will again be standard on all but the LX; EX and SX will also have a power front passenger seat and an automatic-dimming rearview mirror.

Will 2021 prices be different?

Some increase is almost certain, though don’t anticipate a big jump over model-year 2020 prices. For reference, here are 2020 Telluride prices, including Kia’s $1,045 destination fee.

With front-wheel drive, the LX started at $32,735, the S at $35,035, the EX at $38,135, and the SX at $42,535. Expect AWD to again add an even $2,000 to any model.

Factory options will remain minimal and their prices should carry over. In addition to those described above, Kia will again charge $395 for premium paint colors, such as Snow White Pearl, Black Copper, and Sangria.

When does it come out?

Look for a 2021 Kia Telluride release date in the third quarter of 2020.

Best competitors

Toyota Highlander, Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Travers, Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia, Subaru Ascent, Dodge Durango, Nissan Pathfinder, Volkswagen Atlas

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]