Review: 2011 Kia Sorento SX FWD

By Chris Haak

About a year ago, Kia ventured into new territory with its first mainstream vehicle above the $30,000 line.  The brand that was once proud to tout its Rio subcompact as the cheapest car sold in America was on its way upmarket, where the profit margins are fatter, where buyers don’t default to your vehicles

Fast forward a year later, and the 2011 Sorento has firmly established itself as Kia’s flagship vehicle in the US.  Not only is it the most expensive Kia sold in the US, but it’s also the company’s best-selling vehicle, and the Korean automaker’s first US-built vehicle.  From the 2011 Sorento’s launch in January 2010 through December 31, some 108,202 of the attractive crossovers found buyers.  The next-best selling Kia was the Forte compact, which had 68,500 sales, or 37 percent fewer.

Since the 2011 Sorento was launched, Kia added a new flagship trim level to its flagship product, called the Sorento SX.  The SX is not dramatically different from the now-midlevel EX, but nearly everything that’s optional on the EX is standard on the SX (navigation, chrome-finish wheels, third-row seat, leather, etc.), and the SX adds a few additional features.  We spent a week using the SX every day for commuting duties, plus child-carrying errands to see if the changes to the SX improved the breed, or are just window dressing.

The most obvious change to the SX versus the EX is the additional brightwork applied to the Sorento SX.  While the Sorento EX has a significant quantity of gray plastic on the lower bumpers.  I do like the deletion of the gray plastic and its replacement by body-color materials, but the other SX visual feature – the brightwork – left me feeling like it was a bit of a tacky afterthought.  In particular, the chrome alloy wheels and roof rails seemed to have a slight goldish tint, and seemed to be a bit more like plasti-chrome than real chrome.

Inside, the Sorento sports a clean, modern layout with electroluminescent gauges (and the speedometer surrounded by a Forte Koup-like reddish-orange halo inside its border) and a large navigation screen atop the center stack.  A year after first reviewing the Sorento (in EX trim), I came away from the SX less impressed with the interior than I was in the EX a year ago.  The Sorento SX is just as good as the EX was, but now that it’s been on the market for over a year, perhaps the luster of newness is wearing off.  Sadly, there’s a considerable amount of hard plastic throughout the interior.  The entire dashboard echos when you knock on it, as do the upper door panels.  Really, only the seats, armrests and leather-wrapped steering wheel are soft to the touch.

It’s not to say that the interior looks bad at all.  It’s very attractive, well put-together, and the plastics – though hard – are at least low-gloss and somewhat upscale looking.  Kia’s own Optima – which costs less than the Sorento – does a much better job of using nicer materials and more interesting, dynamic shapes in its interior.  The Sorento’s interior, like its exterior, is handsome and attractive, but not dynamic and exciting.  One unfortunate change from the EX to the SX inside is that the SX drops the EX’s attractive fake dark wood trim and picks up cheaper-looking fake carbon fiber trim instead.

The Sorento’s front seats are comfortable, and are also reasonably supportive.  As in many vehicles, the further back you go (from first row, to second row, to third row), the seats get less comfortable.  The second row easily accommodated two different Britax seats (a forward-facing convertible and a five-point booster), and was spacious enough for me to “sit behind myself” despite my 6’4″ height.  In the third row, it’s possible for me to fit back there, but my knees are in the air, against the second-row seatbacks, and my head’s against the ceiling.  If you can get back there (access is reasonably easy via a tilt-and-slide mechanism on the second-row’s passenger side), hopefully you’re a child or a small-stature adult.

I appreciated the ease with which the Sorento integrates technology.  For instance, its 10-speaker Infinity audio system boasted iPod/iPhone jack, USB, 1/8″ auxiliary jack, Bluetooth streaming audio, Sirius satellite radio, AM, FM, and CD player.  It’s all easy to use via the large touchscreen shared with the navigation system.  My only gripe about the audio system is that the Bluetooth audio stream sounded like it had either too much treble or poor reception.  For days, I assumed that the issue was a blown-out speaker, until I connected my iPhone directly to the Sorento via its included iPod jack.  Miraculously, the sound was suddenly good, so blame Bluetooth.

All Sorento SX models are equipped with the 3.5 liter V6 and six-speed automatic that’s optional in the LXs and EXs.  This is a strong engine with good low-end torque and a good bit of refinement.  Its NVH suppression seems to trump what you’d find in most competitors, including Toyota’s also-well-regarded 3.5 liter V6.  One problem that I encountered with the FWD Sorento not present in the AWD model was that it was incredibly easy to initiate wheelspin when pulling out from a stop.  If you’re a glass-half-empty kind of person, blame the lack of rear driving wheels and the lack of a limited slip differential in the Sorento, coupled with perhaps an overly sensitive throttle tip-in.  However, if you’re a glass-half-full person, you could say that the 3.5 liter V6 is so strong that it overwhelms the Hankook all-season tires that the Sorento SX comes with.  Bottom line is that there’s a lot of V6 and not a lot of tire grip when pulling out from a stop, and you’ll “peel out” quite a bit until you get used to the throttle.

That 3.5 liter V6 and hair-trigger throttle made it easy for me to employ my leaden right foot.  Despite decent acceleration numbers (zero to sixty in the mid-six second range), it’s not a superstar, but the six speed automatic/V6 combination in the Sorento really does give the impression that you have enough power in reserve to pass nearly any car on a two-lane road that you wanted to.  The downside of that lead foot is that observed fuel economy was around 18-19 miles per gallon in mixed driving, which is actually below the Sorento V6 FWD’s EPA estimates of 20 city/26 highway (chop each of those numbers by 2 MPG for AWD-equipped models).

Another key upgrade that Kia first employed in the Sorento SX, but which has trickled down to the remainder of the Sorento lineup, is the employment of trick dual-flow dampers.  Early 2011 Sorentos were widely criticized as having suspension that was unnecessarily harsh, particularly given the Sorento’s family-hauler focus.  The result of the new dampers is that the Sorento’s ride is still firm and controlled, but no longer harsh.  The SX, being the sporty model of the bunch, sits 0.4 inches lower than do the other Sorento models.

I found the steering to be nicely weighted with good feel and an adequately-quick ratio.  The wheel is comfortable to hold, and the leather covering it is a reasonable facsimile of the real thing.  The brake pedal was firm and stopped the two-ton crossover without drama.  In fact, the brake pedal has a much better feel than the Kia Optima’s does, despite the latter’s sporting intentions.

As noted earlier, the Sorento SX FWD comes standard with nearly everything that you can get on a Sorento, save all wheel drive and the panoramic sunroof.  The base price of this model is $32,195.  My tester had the $1,200 sunroof; tack on the $795 destination charge to trek it from its assembly plant in Georgia, and you’re at a final MSRP of $34,190.  That’s a lot of money for a Kia, but it’s actually pretty fair for a V6-powered three-row crossover with the equipment levels that the Sorento has.  For instance, TrueDelta.com tells us that’s $2,500 less than a Toyota Highlander Limited, in a vehicle that looks and drives better (and has a better warranty), and is actually fairly close dimensionally.  However, TrueDelta.com also tells us that the Sorento EX is a better buy than the SX by about $550.

Overall, I found the Kia Sorento SX to be a comfortable, powerful, agile crossover with decent space, a third row seat that can be used in a pinch.  It has good looks and it’s fairly priced.  However, if I was buying a Sorento, I’d give serious consideration to an EX AWD.  With that model, you’re getting more crossover for your money – basically swapping AWD for the slightly-fancier trim line and sportier supension.  Plus, the SX is only available in four colors, while you can get an EX in nine different hues.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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