2019 Kia Sorento Buying Advice
This is the best midsize crossover for you if you want the automotive equivalent of the hit song “Hip to be Square.” Its lyrics are an almost allegorical representation of Kia’s shaky start and eventual evolution into a serious player in the North American market.
The first verse of the Huey Lewis and the News tune goes, “I used to be a renegade, I used to fool around/But I couldn’t take the punishment and had to settle down.”
Early sales brochures from this South Korean carmaker posed the reasonable question: “What the heck is a Kia?” The brand’s first customers had to have a little renegade in them to take a chance on a company that got its start in the U.S. producing under contract to Ford the lamentable Festiva and Aspire subcompact cars. And the initial vehicles it sold under its own name suffered poor quality, terrible reliability, and troubling crash-test scores.
That reputation shaded the first-generation Sorento, which went on sale for the 2003 model year. It was quite a different SUV than the one you see today. A five-seater with old-school body-on-frame engineering, it was panned by the press and mostly ignored by the public, barely selling 25,000 units annually over the course of its eight-year run.
It was clear Kia couldn’t take the punishment. It settled down and completely revamped the Sorento for 2011. It adopted car-type unibody engineering, sharing some of its underskin architecture with the Santa Fe produced by Kia’s former rival and current corporate cousin, Hyundai. Compared to its predecessor, the second-generation Sorento was a revelation in design, practicality, and value for money. More than 100,000 buyers purchased one in its first year, and sales have stayed at that level ever since.
Today’s third-generation debuted for model-year 2016, as the most stylish and refined Sorento yet. It seats seven, offers four- and six-cylinder engines, rides and handles well, and is priced to undercut direct rivals such as the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, and Toyota Highlander.
Should you buy a 2019 model or wait for the 2020?
Wait — for two reasons. First is the expected model-year-2020 arrival of a diesel-engine option for the Sorento, a first for the brand in North America. Second, waiting gives you the opportunity to sample Kia’s brand-new flagship crossover, the 2020 Telluride. Details on powertrain and equipment were unavailable in time for this review, but Telluride will be larger than the Sorento, bolder-looking, and seat up to eight passengers.
The 2019 Sorento lineup consists of L, LX, EX, SX, and SX-Limited (SXL) trim levels. All come standard with front-wheel drive. Traction-enhancing all-wheel drive (AWD) is a $1,800 option available on every model but the L. The L and LX grades have a four-cylinder engine as standard. Optional on the LX and standard on the EX, SX, and SXL is a more powerful V-6. Five-passenger seating and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine have been discontinued for 2019.
ChangesStyling: Look closely to see 2019’s very subtle changes to the front and rear fasciae. They do clean up Sorento’s look, working with a tweaked version of the brand’s signature “tiger nose” grille to keep this a handsome-enough midsize crossover. SXL grades have “ice-cube-tray” fog-light clusters, a styling touch borrowed from Kia’s smaller Sportage crossover. Little else about the exterior really stands out, though, and critics will say Sorento’s overall look is a little long in the tooth. As previewed by an auto-show concept, the blockier Telluride is more stylistically ambitious – and may well cannibalizing some Sorento sales.
Inside, Sorento is unfussy and functional but not especially interesting. The updated 2019 instrument panel is well-laid-out and easy to work with. L and LX grades replace their 5-inch central-dashboard infotainment screen with a high-resolution 7-inch unit that has built-in support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto. Optional on the EX and standard on the SX and SXL is an 8-inch touchscreen with imbedded GPS navigation. All versions support some form of Kia’s intuitive UVO software interface. We just wish the system was a bit faster to respond to voice commands.
Materials quality is fine in base and mainstream models. The flagship SXL gets plenty of soft-touch surfaces and fancier seats trimmed in Nappa leather. Still, there’s little of the flair found in similarly priced versions of the Mazda CX-9.
Passenger comfort is good in the first two seating rows. A 10-way power driver’s seat is optional on the four-cylinder LX and standard on the LX V-6 and EX. SX and SXL trims include a 14-way power driver’s seat and a 10-way power front-passenger seat — nice touches. Sorento’s second seating row is comfortable and slides fore and aft to benefit legroom. The good news stops at the third row. Access is awkward: Sorento’s second row has none of the clever sliding tricks of a Chevrolet Traverse, Pilot, or Nissan Pathfinder. Once you twist your way back there, adults will find minimal clearance for knees and noggin.
Similarly, cargo volume remains near the bottom of the competitive set, with 11.3 cubic feet behind the third row and 38 and 73 cubic feet, respectively, behind the second and first rows. With the 2019 elimination of five-passenger seating, Sorento’s cargo bay has very little under-floor storage.
Mechanical: Four-cylinder Sorento models borrow their engine from the smaller Sportage. The 2.4-liter produces 185 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque and pairs with a six-speed automatic transmission. In the larger, heavier Sorento, this engine feels overmatched, producing plenty of noise but paltry forward progress.
With the discontinuation of the turbocharged four-cylinder engine and its 240 horses and 260 pound-feet of torque, the ’19 Sorento’s only engine option is a 3.3-liter V-6. Optional for the LX and standard on the rest of the lineup, it makes 290 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque. On paper, those numbers are class-competitive, but in actual driving, V-6 Sorentos feel more sluggish than their rivals, particularly equipped with AWD.
Several factors are to blame. Maximum horsepower and torque come at relatively high engine speeds: 6,400 and 5,200 rpm, respectively. This undercuts off-the-line acceleration. Then there’s a portly curb weight that exceeds 4,300 pounds with AWD. The final culprit is Sorento’s eight-speed automatic transmission, which replaced a six-speed automatic for 2019. To save fuel, it’s quick to shift into the highest possible gear and that blunts acceleration from a stop. It’s also reluctant to downshift when more power is needed.
Kia furnishes four driver-selectable drive modes, but none does much to improve the experience. “Comfort” and “Eco” dull throttle response too much, and “Sport” hardly lives up to its promise. New for 2019 is the “Smart Shift & Drive” setting. It automatically activates the optimum drive mode based on driving style and is where we ended up leaving our SXL review sample and it was the best compromise of the bunch.
Once you’ve dialed in your preferred drivetrain setting, things get better. The ’19 Sorento feels more confident on the road than its predecessors. Adept suspension tuning results in a very smooth ride, even on the 19-inch wheels and tires included with the SX and SXL (the EX has 18s, the other models 17s). Grip and balance are quite good as well. Fast, bumpy turns don’t upset the body structure, and the steering has better-than-expected road feel. Sorento doesn’t match the overall athleticism of a CX-9, but it’s very capable.
The AWD system is a basic setup that automatically transfers power to the rear wheels when sensors detect front-tire slip. It’s intended mainly as an all-weather safety net. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is the only crossover in this class with real off-road chops. But kudos to Kia for give AWD Sorentos a center-console switch that locks in a 50/50 front/rear torque split, a feature we appreciated in heavy rain and snow.Features: The entry-level L model exists to fill a price point. We appreciate the infotainment upgrades that include CarPlay and Android Auto, but most shoppers probably will start with the LX trim level. It includes blind-spot alert with rear cross-traffic detection and extra USB charging points. Springing for the LX V-6 nets you that, plus the more powerful engine, power driver’s seat, and dual-zone automatic climate control.
We’d recommend beginning your Sorento audition with the EX model, primarily because it includes a full suite of advanced driver-assistance features that are not offered on the L or LX. These include forward-collision warning and autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure alert with automatic steering correction, adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, and drowsy-driver alert.
Other standard EX amenities include the 18-inch wheels, rear-obstacle detection, keyless entry with pushbutton engine start, a hands-free power rear liftgate, and leather upholstery with heated front seats.
Moving to the SX nets specific exterior trim with 19-inch wheels, a panoramic sunroof, imbedded navigation, upgraded audio system, front-obstacle detection, 14-way power driver’s seat with two-position memory, power front-passenger seat, and a wireless smartphone charging pad.
SXL grades come fully loaded with Nappa upholstery, ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, heated outboard second-row seats, rain-sensing winshield wipers, automatic high-beam headlight control, and a 360-degree camera.
Once it overcame its initial growing pains, Kia established a reputation for providing lots of features for the money. That remains true for its smaller cars and smaller crossovers. Its larger vehicles, including Sorento and the sporty Stinger midsize four-door hatchback, are chasing a more upscale demographic.
Yes, the least expensive Sorento starts at $26,980 including Kia’s $990 destination fee, but that’s the spartan L model. Base price for the four-cylinder LX with front-wheel drive is $28,480; the V-6 LX starts at $32,280.
Obtaining advanced safety features means ponying up for the EX, which starts at $36,580 with front drive. The similarly powered SX lists for $40,980. The SXL starts at $45,680. AWD is an extra $1,800 on all grades but the L.
LX models offer a Convenience Package that costs $2,000 on the four-cylinder and $2,100 on the V-6. It includes rear-obstacle detection, heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift lever, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and roof rails. Four-cylinder versions also get the V-6’s standard power driver’s seat and dual-zone auto climate control.
The $3,400 EX Touring Package nets you many of the SX’s standard features, including built-in navigation, upgraded audio system, panoramic glass roof, and front-obstacle detection. It also adds a heated steering wheel, and a 110-volt power inverter for connecting household electronics.
The SX also has a Touring Package. It costs $2,500 and adds full LED headlights with automatic high beams, surround camera, ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and power-folding exterior mirrors.
L and SXL grades have no factory option packages. “Snow White Pearl” and “Passion Red” paint are $395 on select models. With some dealer-installed accessories, our AWD SXL test vehicle listed for more than $47,500, which we think is a bit too pricey. An AWD EX or AWD SX without their Touring packages for $38,380 and $42,780, respectively, would be our top picks.
Sorento’s EPA ratings are mid-pack among midsize-class three-row crossovers. Four-cylinder models rate 22/29/25 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 21/26/23 with AWD.
The V-6 has far more power without exacting too much of a price at the pump. Models so equipped rate 19/26/22 mpg with front drive and 19/24/21 with AWD. Our AWD SXL averaged a surprisingly good 24.5 mpg, which included a trip where we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic for 90 minutes.
All Sorento models use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline.
Likely not much in the immediate term because Kia’s energy is focusing on the Telluride’s launch. Expect little in the way of substantive changes for the Sorento until at least model-year 2022 or 2023. At that point, the next-generation Sorento will probably be a little smaller and less costly to put some more space between it and the upcoming flagship crossover.