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Living with the Kia Sorento GT-Line: long-term review

By Ash Westerman, 06 Feb 2021 Reviews

Kia Sorento GT-Line long-term review

Seven-seater SUV joins the fleet to show just how far the Koreans have come

Month one: Kia to the city

Price as tested: $64,990 (driveaway)
Fuel this month: 326km @ 9.4L/100km

Is it possible the Koreans didn’t get the memo about the death of diesel?

The least-refined member of the petroleum family continues to fall out of favour around the world, yet Hyundai has just launched its all-new 3.0-litre turbo-diesel in-line six in the Genesis GV80 SUV, while here we have a new alloy-blocked version of Kia’s 2.2-litre turbo-diesel four.

According to Kia, it’s expected to be the volume seller in this, the all-new fourth-generation Kia Sorento.

Just for the record, I didn’t choose the diesel over the alternative, which is the venerable 3.5-litre non-turbo V6. That decision was made for me, due to timing and availability.

In fact, I’ve not yet driven the V6 version, so I’m left to speculate as to what I’m missing out on. I do know that choosing the V6 saves $3000 in top-spec GT Line, but means forgoing AWD, as it’s engineered for FWD only.

 Kia Sorento GT-Line engine

I’m predicting it would mean a smoother, quieter idle – the weakness of this diesel – but on paper, its max torque of 332Nm occurs way up at 5000rpm, which would mean working it hard to match the effortless pull of the oiler, which grunts out 440Nm at just 1750rpm, and holds onto most of that until well past 3000rpm.

As a quick aside, these two powertrains won’t be the only choices offered to Aussie Sorento customers. Two hybrids – one series, one plug-in – are set to join the line-up in the first half of 2021, meaning four powertrain choices, along with four equipment levels (though not all interlinked). I’m especially keen to try the plug-in, and will make a comparison with it and the diesel the subject of a latter instalment here.

The other thing I’ll sort through is the value-for-money equation when applied to the equipment level. This handsome metallic blue GT Line is $64,990 (driveaway) making it currently the most expensive model.

The rung below is occupied by the Sport Plus, which saves you $7500 in diesel AWD guise, but does away with the 20-inch wheels (it gets 19s), the mood cabin lighting, glass roof, Bose audio, self-parking function and blind-spot cameras, among some other bits.

We’ll circle back to that next month; as I wrote in the first drive of this car this really does feel like Kia’s coming-of-age model; one that finally banishes that attached proviso: “...for a Korean car.”

 Kia Sorento GT-Line

It really is an impressive family SUV, despite needing to overcome the fundamental NVH disadvantage of a diesel four, as well as an out-of-favour eight-speed dual-clutch transmission.

Personally, I have no practical need for a seven-seater, yet I still find myself walking up to the Sorento and admiring its chiselled exterior and confidant stance. I’m not alone; so far it’s attracted only positive comments from curious punters. Which continues when you swing open the door. I’d love to whack a bit of gaffer tape over the Kia badge on the wheel and ask a dozen people who have a passing interest in cars to each tell me what brand they think they’re sitting in.

Sure, when you really scratch and sniff your way around the cabin, you’ll see the materials that look like aluminium are plastic, but countering that is the level of design and consideration that’s gone into every detail, as well as the utter intuitiveness that runs through the whole car.

You hear companies like Mazda bang on about ‘human-centric design’ as if it’s a bold breakthrough (who were the cars designed for prior to this? Panda bears?) whereas Kia just gets on with the task of making every function feel intuitive, with no exploration nor explanations needed as to what does what or why.

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Jeez, listen to Mister Practical Motoring here. I’ll go now and try to find something to whine about and see you back here next month.

Month two: Take it from the top

The flagship model is lovely to have, but essential?

Price as tested: $64,990 (driveaway)
Fuel this month: 765km @ 8.9L/100km
Total: 1091km @ 9.0L/100km

Questions I’m rarely asked include, “How do you maintain such a deep golden tan all year round?” More frequently, though, I’m quizzed about model grades and options packs.

Kia Sorento GT-Line  driving

Prospective buyers often seem in a mild state of anxiety over which model in the line-up to choose, and what extra equipment they should make sure is fitted.

It’s classic FOMO syndrome, not just prompted by what they may miss throughout the ownership experience, but also the worry that their car will end up seeming under-equipped and dated come resale time.

In the case of the Sorento, the options issue is not really an issue at all, because apart from paint there aren’t any. You either settle for white at no cost or stump up $695 to choose from one of six metallic colours. Done.

But the question of which of the four spec levels to choose isn’t as straightforward. The good bit is that the diesel four and petrol V6 are both offered in all grades, but that doesn’t mean you can please all the people all the time.

I was approached the other day for a chat by a guy who told me he was expecting delivery of his diesel GT Line in a few weeks. Turns out diesel wasn’t his preference; he wanted the petrol, but not when he learned it was available as front-drive only. His family were frequent visitors to his in-laws, who lived rurally off a steep five-kay access road that was often muddy, so AWD was a must-have.

Kia Sorento GT-Line interior

But then he hit me with the question I was hoping to avoid: “Reckon I made the right choice going for the GT?” Knowing it was a done deal, naturally I said, “Oh yeah! Absolutely!” But truthfully it’s not that clear-cut. As is often the case with top-spec models, the extra kit is nice to have but doesn’t necessarily transform the ownership experience.

Here’s my snapshot of the usefulness of the extra equipment that adds $7500 to my GT Line over the Sport+ below it. The 20-inch wheels look great but don’t help the urban ride, so they could go. The autonomous parking function is a cool trick, but I’m yet to find a jammed-in scenario in which to use it. Similar deal with the blind-spot cameras.

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That leaves the vast glass roof, which I occasionally remember to use at night, the mood lighting (Yeah, baby!) and the 12-speaker Bose audio, which is a huge improvement over the standard six-speaker system fitted to the three models below.

Overall, I reckon the extra definitely justifies the cost, but if spending that additional $7500 is going to mean feeding the kids pet food for the next few years, the Sport+ in no way leaves you feeling short-changed.

Month three: Diesel… dust

Getting down and dirty to determine the merits of all-wheel drive  

Price as tested: $64,990 (driveaway)
Fuel this month: 105km @ 9.2L/100km
Total: 2096km @ 9.1L/100km

I reckon there’s a broad rule of thumb that can be applied to the essentialness of all-wheel drive on cars and SUVs. If the platform is fundamentally rear-drive, you can almost surely do without it, if you’re happy to live on the edge.

Witness the Porsche 911 GT2 RS versus Turbo S, or Lamborghini Huracan LP-2 models.

However, if the platform is born as a front-driver, there’s every chance you do want AWD; evidenced by Golf R versus GTI, or a bunch of fast AWD Audis versus their front-drive counterparts.

Kia Sorento GT-Line driving

This thinking carries over to the Sorento. It’s a front-drive platform that really does benefit from AWD.

Without giving too much away about 2021’s COTY coverage, our testing gave us plenty of time to evaluate the field on closed dirt roads within the proving ground.

Now, while this is a great way to really probe a car’s traction, ESC and ABS calibration, I’m not going to pretend it isn’t a ridiculous amount of fun, either.

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Sometimes the biggest challenge is keeping a steely face for the photographers when, on the inside, you’re whooping like a teenage girl at the Magic Mike stage show.

Well, at least that’s me when a car’s ‘ESC off’ button actually does what it claims. In the Sorento, as with plenty of other SUVs, ‘ESC off’ is not off at all, merely a reduction of the threshold of intervention.

 Kia Sorento GT-Line

We had both the diesel AWD and V6 petrol front-driver at COTY, and in both cars the ESC calibration was about as lenient as arriving late to a booking with Madam Lash, instantly clamping down on the first hint of a slide and slow to release the brakes and restore throttle response once the loose moment had been regathered.

Switching it off helped things plenty, allowing a small amount of lift-off oversteer to tighten a line or hold a balanced throttle through faster sweepers with the car past the edge of traction.

But as for full freedom to really get the Sorento swinging and pivoting through the tighter turns, no chance.

I guess this comes down to how different car companies interpret corporate responsibility. It’s fair to argue that no-one really needs to be on the lock-stops on public dirt roads, and for most buyers in this segment, the whole analysis of loose-surface dynamics is going to be a moot point anyway.

Kia Sorento GT-Line

But it’s still interesting that some companies, like Mazda, tune their ESC to recognise competent drivers and not intrude when appropriate inputs for car control are being made, and provide an ‘off’ setting that really does mean off.

But back to the question of all-wheel drive; the dirt section of the proving ground was a conclusive demonstration of the effectiveness of the Sorento’s system when driven back-to-back with the petrol front-driver.

Even though the petrol V6 makes less torque than the diesel four, it still funnels sufficient twist to those front wheels to have them fairly overwhelmed with the power-down task on a loose surface. Generous helpings of throttle with steering lock applied brings quite violent axle tramp and sees the wheel writhing in your hands like a snake being wrangled by Steve Irwin’s mini-me kid.

The diesel suffers none of this, thanks to the AWD system’s ability to quickly funnel the torque rearward when needed, leaving the steering largely uncorrupted. It delivers a level of calm, power-down competence missing from the front driver.

So if you regularly drive on dirt or visit ski resorts in winter, the Sorento for you is definitely the diesel AWD. But if you’re diesel averse, don’t forget the hybrid 1.6-litre turbo-petrol four with electric assist is due in Australia in the first quarter of 2021. And, yes, it does drive all four wheels.