Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



By Robert Farago

I have no desire to piss off the Koreans, Northern or Southern. For those of you involved in that region's automobile industry, who probably view anything other than a puff piece as an affront to your family's honor, let me say this: the Kia Sportage EX 4WD is a nice SUV. It's nice– in the same sense that attractive women used to call me a "nice guy". In other words, the Sportage is about as sexy as mitosis.

One look at the Sportage proves that you can't reverse engineer style. The exterior incorporates all of the standard SUV design cues: blistered wheels arches, bisected radiator grill, integrated roof rack, blacked-out window surrounds, letterbox exhausts, etc. Like every other occidental pastiche, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The Sportage is too big here (back end), too small there (rear three-quarter glass), not enough aggression anywhere.

Of course, the Sportage's aesthetic pacifism and diminutive footprint qualify the mini-SUV as a "cute ute'. Now THERE'S a segment that baffles me. Why would anyone want an SUV that doesn't even LOOK like it can go off-road? To my mind, driving a cute ute is like using an Irish Setter for a guard dog. I suppose the appeal centers on the genre's raised driving position, high[er]mileage and LL Bean lite fashionability. I could say the Sportage, Escape, RAV4 and CRV are all chicks' SUV's, but then I'd run the risk getting flattened by a soccer Mom in a Sequoia.

Anyway, one of the great things about cheap cars is that they aren't expensive cars. You adjust the seats with levers and knobs, the radio looks like a radio, nothing beeps at you and you don't need a programming degree to direct air to both your face and your feet.

The Sportage's airy, comfortable cabin makes perfect sense, with the added attraction that the materials aren't made by GM's suppliers. There's even a bit of cleverness here and there, like the crooked window wiper arm on the passenger side. And Kia's decision to sacrifice luggage space for rear legroom– a boon to Moms who need reach-around access to baby wipes, milk and far flung toys– was the right choice for the right car at the right price.

Yes, there is that. Even at this point, it's worth mentioning that you'd be hard-pressed to spend $23k on a fully-loaded Sportage EX 4WD, which comes with a five-year, 60k-mile "limited basic" warranty. Financially-challenged buyers have every reason to stop reading this review and head straight for their local KIA dealer. At that price, it's not as if you're looking for an SUV with the soul of a sports car.

Well if you are, don't. Despite the brand's stated goal– to position KIA as sporty spice to Hyundai's posh– even the top-of-the-line Sportage EX doesn't have the stones for the job. Its 2.7-liter, 173hp powerplant is a rough-revving, asthmatic unit. What's more, the V6-that-thinks-it's-a-four is charged with propelling a lardy (if reassuringly substantial) 3740 pound SUV. Zero to sixty takes, let's see, wait, almost there… 10.2 seconds. And that's at full chat.

As for handling, a Sportage used in anger is a Hell of a steer: understeer (lots), torque steer (before the 4WD kicks in) and Angus steer (Ponderosa ponderousness). That said, the rack and pinion helm offers something remarkably akin to genuine feedback, and the tires tell you when G-forces are about to inflate your insurance premiums. The four-wheel disc brakes demand some serious pushing, but they'll slow the Korean from 70mph to naught in 172 feet– some 20 feet sooner than a Jeep Liberty Limited Edition 4WD.

The Sportage's chassis is the biggest disappointment. Let me put it this way: if the Sportage has a performance-tuned suspension, someone at Kia is tone deaf. The need to tie down the SUV to avoid lateral flop was obviously Job One. You get all of the pain of a poor roadway with none of the pleasure of extra cornering ability. Vehicles like this tell me that manufacturers are trying to fool an entire generation of drivers into equating BCW (Bang Crash Wallop) with "road feel".

Of course, thrashing a Sportage is about as ludicrous as using a Mazda Miata to move house. The best thing you could say about the Korean SUV's driving dynamics, perhaps the only thing that really needs saying, is that it's safe. Predictable, controllable, stable and safe. Which makes the Sportage safe, affordable, practical and environmentally responsible.

Anyone notice the missing word 'fun'? Still, you can't blame the Kia Sportage for being so damn sensible. When it comes to the sales chart, there's no denying that nice guys finish first.


By Frank Williams

There are three basic ways you can build a low-priced automobile. You can use lower-cost materials (and workforce). You can limit the standard features. Or you can keep variations to a minimum. When making the Rio, one of the lowest priced cars sold in American, Kia employed all three strategies. Is that a good thing? It depends entirely on where you draw the line between “cheap” and “inexpensive.”

In terms of looks, let’s go with inexpensive. As you might expect, the Rio is a blend of every styling cue known to man; from a Ford front grill with Honda Fit-style supersized headlights, to an Audi-esque rear pillar, to a vaguely Volksy rear. Strangely, it works. The only external indication that the car costs chump change is its Gallic “ass in the air” stance and the fact that the teeny tiny 14” wheels fail to fill up the teeny tiny wheel arches. It’s not what you’d call a compelling design, but neither does it scream blue rinse brigade like the Toyota Corolla– which the Rio also sort of maybe kinda resembles.

Inside, you’re greeted by a surprisingly handsome two-tone color scheme, which is especially not completely unattractive in beige. The best and only important thing you can say about the switchgear and controls is that they’re all present and accounted for, positioned exactly where you’d expect them to be, doing precisely what they should be doing. The jumbo-sized, sprocket-shaped seat control knobs are a nice touch in a cabin otherwise (and unsurprisingly) devoid of nice touches. But the best news is that there’s plenty of room in driver’s throne. My 6’3” carcass slotted behind the wheel without short or long term injury.

The rear seat, however, is a whole ‘nother story: How My Teenage Child Lost His Legs in a Kia. With the front seat adjusted to accommodate anyone taller than Tom Cruise, rear leg room is literally nonexistent. Compounding matters, the rear seat squab is made from Nerf balls; the seat immediately collapses along the edge when you put weight on it. Despite the two-seaterness of the thing, the Rio’s interior is fairly nice for a car in this price class, and light years ahead of anything GM offers in an entry level car (I’ve got an Ion you).

The Rio is somewhat motivated by a 1.6-liter 110hp four-banger. Obviously, the car’s target audience only needs to know two things: mileage (32/35 with a five-speed manual) and reliability (a five year, 60k mile bumper-to-bumper warranty says relax). Rio intenders may also be interested to hear that the Rio’s engine at full throttle makes it just about impossible to hear. Think of it as a fuel economy measure; penny pinchers will keep their foot off the throttle just to reduce the noise levels below that of a Cessna during take off. At least the Rio’s engine roar helps drown out some of the road noise from the skinny tires.

The zero to sixty amble takes forever. The handling is… what are you nuts? It doesn’t fall over, and anyone who manages to generate enough speed to make the Rio’s tires squeal gets what they deserve. OK? Let’s stay focused here.

Rio buyers choose between two trim levels (for some reason, Kia treats the hatchback Rio5 as a separate model). The base Rio– which dealers stock in small numbers to advertise ultra-low prices– clocks in at a little above $11K. You get a manual transmission, no radio or AC and manual windows (remember them?). For roughly $2K more, you get a chiller and tunes, power steering, tilting steering column and fold-down rear seats that add capacity to the spacious trunk. Add the $600 “power package” and you get power windows, locks and mirrors. An autobox’ll run you another $850. By now, you’re in the mid-teens, bumping into the lower end of the price range of larger, better-equipped cars, both new and “recently loved.”

This creates a quandary. If you need basic, fuel-sipping transportation for commuting or a reasonably safe first car for your teen, and you must have a new car, and can live without automatic transmission, power gadgets and AC, the base Rio’s price, full array of air bags and excellent warranty make it worth a look. If like most drivers, you want AC and automatic transmission along with the convenience of locking all your doors and adjusting your mirrors without playing Twister, you’ll have to go to the more expensive LX. At that price your selections broaden to late model Civics and Corollas, new Fits and Yaris’ and clearance-priced American-brand intermediates. When you throw the Rio into that mix, the warranty is the only thing in its favor. Unfortunately for Kia, when compared to these “inexpensive” cars, the “low cost” Rio comes off as “cheap.” So now you know.


By Justin Berkowitz

If Toyota is the new GM, Kia is the new Toyota. After establishing a U.S. beachhead with price-oriented products, the Korean automaker has gradually expanded its reach by replacing its penalty boxes with vehicles sporting upmarket features and class-leading safety, while maintaining the brand's value promise. The Rondo is yet another example of the kind of mass market machine The Big 2.5 should be building, but isn't.

The Rondo boasts Kia's latest design language– which is about as familiar to the average American as Urdu. Translation: the Rondo's sheet metal splits the difference between a smart-looking pope-mobile and a shrunken minivan. The details are a bit fraught, what with over-sized headlights ruining any hope of proportionality and a rear window treatment the likes of which haven't been seen since the days of the Azteks.

Clearly, the Rondo's a family bus with no sporting intentions whatsoever. And? In a world where car designers snort swage lines, flame broil perfectly innocent door panels and Bangle big butts (and they cannot lie), the plain Sook Rondo is a handsome beast. May Giorgio Guigiaro have mercy on my soul.

Ten years ago, a Kia's cabin was a space best suited to contemplating how little you paid for your perch. (Rumor had it the Sephia's interior was made out of old scotch tape.) Grab a seat behind the Rondo's wheel, poke, prod and play with the surfaces and controls, and you'll feel like you found a twenty dollar bill in your pocket. The Rondo's plastic quality and control snickery are on a par with Honda and Toyota's offerings, full stop. Even without factoring the price differential, it's an accomplishment that should give GM supporters pause for thought. And yes, it matters.

Unlike some down market products I could mention (cough Cobalt cough), the Rondo's interior feels as finished as an episode of Law and Order. The corporate stereo head unit is a model of ergonomic (if not aural) clarity. The HVAC knobs are a breeze to operate (so to speak). The large oval vents break up the dash's landscape with symmetrical precision. The headliner is made from genuine woven material. All the Rondo's attempts at cheap chic are successful.

As a 180” car riding on the Optima platform, the Rondo's second row comfortably accommodates all but pro b-ballers and WWF refugees. The van's optional third row is perfect for your friends– provided you secretly hate them. More importantly, the Rondo's got your genetics covered. Mom and Dad get torso and head airbags and seat belt pretensioners, while everyone else gets side curtain airbags and five star government crash safety (save for four stars on rear seat side impact).

Cargo carrying is the Rondo's party trick. The second row does the flip and fold trick, the third row sinks into the abyss below and hey presto! You've got a perfectly level floor– to the point where a stranger happening upon a Rondo post-seat submersion would be forgiven for thinking the vehicle is a cleverly disguised delivery van. Between the huge rear hatch and the sky scraping roof, the Rondo is a big-box compatible schlepper.

Given the Rondo's 3500 lbs. curb weight, its [optional] 2.7-liter V6 generates a no-more-than-merely-adequate 182 horsepower. At least Kia did the right thing and hooked it up to a five-speed automatic gearbox. Acceleration is brisk when the car is unloaded. With a full crew, highway merging takes the patience of a Vulcan. There's no chance of a pistonhead mind meld with the base Rondo's 162hp 2.4-liter in-line four. Besides, the extra power only costs you a grand up front and one and two mpg at the pump (20/27 vs. 21/29 mpg).

Even better, at highway speeds, the V6's song is quieter than the wind noise off the side mirrors. If you should somehow mistake silent speed for handling prowess, the Kia steps up to the plate with a coffee klatsch of e-nannies, including electronic stability control and ABS. Hear that Toyota? They're standard issue.

The Rondo drives like white bread tastes. Or the Midwest looks. Or Lindsay Lohan acts. Understeer? I suppose. More to the point, the Rondo's leather-wrapped wheel connects to a precise rack and pinion setup, with proper weight and feedback. The brakes work. Nuff said?

The Rondo's ace: msrp. Actually, it's four aces. My nearly fully-loaded tester stickers at a family-friendly $21.5K. Considering a starting price in the high 16's, I'm going on record as saying the Rondo is the best family-car value in the U.S. It eviscerates Honda's Element and CR-V, Toyota's RAV4 and anything else in the price bracket. By building honest vehicles like the Rondo and pricing them aggressively, the Korean conquest of America's mainstream automotive market steamrolls ahead.


By P.J. McCombs

Lazy automotive writers love assignments on Korean vehicles. The review practically writes itself: just recap a few Letterman-esque Hyundai jokes, feign shock at how much the brand has come along, issue some heavily-qualified praise ("it's endearingly almost Toyota-like!") and Bob's your uncle. We here at TTAC reckon it's time to stop treating the Korean brands like they're special-needs children. It's time to judge these vehicles against their own self-proclaimed brand values. The Kia Spectra: "Simply put, it's a blast to drive." Simply put, we'll see about that.

Lest we forget, Kia fancies itself the "sporty" arm of the unflatteringly acronymed Hyundai Automotive Group; the econo-minded Spectra is the company's best-selling model. Hang on. Might we expect a sort of value-leader Mazda 3 (Spectra pricing starts at $12,985), combining sporty reflexes, features galore and a low, low sticker? At the risk of giving the game away: no, we mightn't. What, then, is the Spectra?

Let's start with this: it ain't a looker. The Spectra offers disinterested onlookers styling cues cribbed [weakly] from Honda and Toyota. In fact, the Spectra's sheet-metal is so deeply, profoundly generic it makes Liz Lang for Target seem like haute couture. The Spectra's strongest feature is its oddly-shaped profile. Call it a "character line"– provided the character in question is Quasimodo. Tight panel gaps and liberal daubs of chrome keep the Spectra from shouting "cheap," but the car's proportions are fundamentally awkward.

Those proportions feel better from inside, where the Spectra's tall roof and big windows create a bright, airy ambiance. Japanese cars used to have interiors like this: simple, mood-enhancing, with low cowls and easy sight-lines. While they've gotten somber and techy, Kia serves up the old cheery, pretense-free flavor.

Good stuff, but isn't Kia's trying to send a sporting message? The Spectra's cabin garbles the company line. The interior's soothing gray plastics and velvety-soft seat fabric would flatter an entry-level Buick. The steering-wheel rim is wimpy thin, and there's no lateral support in the driver's seat. But hey, check the velour-lined coin tray!

The Spectra shares its major mechanicals with the previous-generation Hyundai Elantra- a vehicle that, at last count, hadn't taken home many Solo II trophies. If you're thinking that the Kia Spectra is more of a Sam's Club Corolla than a marked-down Mazda 3, you're right. At least that's how it drives.

The sporty Spectra holsters a 2.0-liter, 138-horsepower four cylinder engine. Although this hand-me-down Hyundai mill is relatively mannerly and generates a decent whack of torque right off idle, it groans asthmatically when asked to climb a steep incline. Wanna try running it up to redline? Fine; see you next week. As with most Korean metal, fuel economy trails the class average. Drive the five-speed Spectra without deploying the advertised sporting intent and she'll suck down the gas at a rate of 25/33 mpg.

On the scale of stick-shift sensuality from one to ten, the Spectra lacks numeracy skills. The five-speed's gear-lever moves with light, wafty motions, but there's a clunky remoteness to its gear selections. Worse, the Spectra's prow rises and falls buoyantly with each dip into the long-throw clutch. Pistonheads who drive a manual for mechanical companionship, rather than fuel savings, will be left wanting.

After buzzing and clunking our way through the straights, what reward awaits in the twisties? A romp in a bouncy castle! Although the Spectra's ride is really quite comfy, Kia achieved this isolation the old-fashioned way: with Jell-O springs and Stay-Puft damping. As a result, sinuous roads call forth billowy heaves and sloshy body roll from the Spectra's suspension. And when you nail the brakes, the nose dives like WorldCom stock.

Nor does the Spectra's thin-rimmed tiller inspire much confidence. There's a nonlinear, squirmy spot right around the straight-ahead that makes the Spectra feel a bit distracted, particularly on the Interstate. At town speeds, the Spectra delivers the easy maneuverability typical of this class. Don't ask it to dance, and it won't ask you to take your Dramamine.

It's easy to see why most reviews of Korean cars are clouded with fluff. It's tempting to cheer on the underdog. But the truth is that Toyondissan has nothing to fear from Kia's sales leader. The Spectra is still the sort of uninspired car you buy because you can afford to, not because you want to. To change that, Kia needs to formulate a compelling brand image and stick to it like glue.

In the meantime, Kia still has The Big 2.8 shaking in their cement shoes. The Spectra nails the small car formula they've been bungling for decades: low entry price, lots of standard-features and cut corners hidden in places where Joe Motorist won't ever find them (i.e. corners). So the "sport" thing didn't work out so well. Never mind. There's always Chevy's lunch to steal.


By Samir Syed

Chrysler has just unleashed its new minivan, hoping to jump-start sales in a sector that's been shrinking for a decade. During this slide, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna have moved their people movers upmarket, banking healthy margins on the back of tremendous customer loyalty. Meanwhile, Kia entered the fray with a more budget-minded alternative, the Sedona. Although Kia missed the obvious marketing opportunity (My, my my, Sedona), the not-so-fancy shmancy minivan has proven itself a sales winner. Why?

It sure ain't style. The Sedona has all the flair and pizzazz of a milk crate. All the minivan cues have reported for duty: a big, bulbous rear; a ridiculously raked front and sliding rear doors that leave monstrous, gaping apertures for child seat and stroller management. While these characteristics are pistonhead poison, not being revolting is the only aesthetic criterion for success in this utilitarian segment. Check.

The Sedona's interior combines economy-class design with business-class space. Fortunately, you don't have to deal with those piss-ant overhead air spigots; the Sedona features three climate zones, each with its own control panel and roof-mounted vents. The seven-seater has enough cupholders for a Vitamin drink demonstration squad. Sadly, only the Sedona's highest trim level offers a whine-suppression system (rear DVD).

To make sure the captain is sitting pretty, the Sedona's helm spot offers eight-way power adjustable seats. All four front-most seats (captain chairs) provide excellent back and thigh support– although the material did feel as rough as a three-day beard. The rear bench seats three non-shorts-wearing rug rats in comfort or three adults in purgatory.

The Sedona's two middle seats can be exorcised by anyone strong enough to pitch the family tent (less coordination required). At the pull of a strap, the rear seat folds into the floor Honda-style, leaving ample room for Costco carting.

While the Sedona does its best to ape the features that make the transplants' minivans a sales success, it knows wherein its lunch lies: safety and reliability. We're talking six airbags, a back-up sensor (that beeps maniacally), a five-star NHTSA crash rating all ‘round and a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty. Perfect.

The 3.8-liter V6 sheltering under the Sedona's hood pumps out 250hp through a very competent five-speed auto. The Sedona delivers its power evenly and predictably all across its rpm range, making it deceptively fast off the line. Discovering such an enthusiastic power train in such a soul-sapping vehicle is like discovering that the plain girl in your college geology class…

Of course, it's not as silky smooth as the Odyssey (the Sedona). Nor is it as unrelentingly uneventful as the Toyota Sienna. Anyway, in the Sedona's litany of family-focused chatter, the performance provides a much needed shout out to NASCAR Dad, who's otherwise in very real danger of losing his will to live.

If you expect this barge to handle like a similarly-priced [current gen] Town & Country, you're wrong. The power-assisted rack and pinion steering may be light enough for arthritis sufferers, but the Sedona's independent front suspension and multi-link rear feel tight and work right. In fact, the Sedona hits the road with some unexpected agility; you can actually slalom the van– say, around an errant shopping cart– without generating gastric bypass qualifying body roll.

Yes, anyone stupid enough to drive the Sedona quickly around a corner will encounter enough understeer to make an Impala SS seem like a sports car. But at family-friendly speeds, the Sedona brings the fight. You know; for a parking space.

Even better, the Sedona will do all this in peace and quiet. Engine and road noise are kept at a minimum. The Sedona coasts over most typical road imperfections with neither complaint nor disruption in its course– all the better to watch Disney movies in ambient, relaxed tranquility (and then explain to the kids why Bambi's mom died).

After driving the Sedona, it's apparent that Kia has decided to concede the wretched morsels at the bottom of the barrel to Dodge and go for the Japanese lions' share of the budget-minded Applebee's crowd.

Let's be frank with each other. DOA Mercedes R-Class notwithstanding, the minivan segment has no room for conspicuous consumption. At best, no one will care that your new Toyota Sienna costs more than a used Boxster. At worst, pistonheads will loathe you for dropping Boxster money on a set of wheels that slowly kills you on the inside.

If you're one of the enthusiast types who's resigned yourself to the tragic fate of minivan ownership, the Kia Sedona is a fantastic hearse. If you're a sensible sort who couldn't give a damn about driving dynamics or middle row seats that swivel to face the rear, the Kia Sedona pushes all the right buttons at the right price. It's a done deal.


By Tony Sterbenc

As I drove to my neighborhood Kia dealer, the window signage caught my eye. Actually, make that grabbed both eyeballs and ripped them out, Oedipus-style. DRIVE TODAY! NO CREDIT! BAD CREDIT! I wondered how long before the words “What price are you looking to pay?” would effect the same injury to my ears. While dealerships like this make Kia’s 100,000 mile warranty look like a mixed blessing, let’s face it: they know their market. As does the Kia Optima LX.

If you ever want to knock off a bank and leave witnesses unable to identify your getaway car, drive an Optima. Alternatively, you could say the sedan’s design is appealingly subtle. The front may have a touch too much Ford Taurus to it, but the Kia’s common sense proportions and unadorned sheetmetal evokes the style-less styling of 70’s-era Bimmers. From its sparing use of chrome to its plain Jane wheels, the Optima is deeply, wildly inoffensive.

A recent review made a big deal of the Optima’s interior “soft-touch home run.” You have to weigh that praise in the context of modern mass-market carmaking; the American public expects more horsepower, speakers and airbags which each successive iteration of an existing model– for the same price. Something has to give. Generally, that something is interior materials. Bottom line: the Optima has gradually improved while others (read: Camry) have cratered. So now there’s a smaller gap (pun intended).

That said, your eyes will have no problem telling the difference between the LX and higher-priced merchandise. Yes, the pieces are low-gloss and fit well, but there are so many bits and pigments you’ll think the designers were paid by the color. Score one for the leather-lined, neon-gauged Appearance Package, which comes in any color as long as it’s black. This cockpit not only looks swanky with its perforated leather and brushed accents, it conceals all that busyness.

To its credit, Kia has positioned the Optima’s soft-touch bits from your elbows up, where you confront them the most. Everything below is as hard and cheap as a forty-five- year-old sex industry worker. The Kia’s steering wheel tilts and telescopes, but the mechanism’s crudity will deter you from recreational telescoping. And while overall leg and headroom room is class-compliant and more than sufficient for the average human form, front-seat thigh support is, er, sub-optimal.

The Optima’s 2.4-liter four cylinder engine is the fruit of a joint venture between Mitsubishi, Chrysler and Hyundai. The quality of the weed involved couldn’t have been that high. Although the 162hp mill's fairly punchy off the line and tolerably responsive at highway speeds, it’s dog-dead in rolling acceleration around 40mph. The Optima ambles from rest to 60mph in around 10 seconds. I didn’t try the Sportmatic® slap-shifter, but I doubt it would help; the electronic five-speed lacked proper ratios.

The step-up to the 185hp 2.7-liter V6 is a questionable improvement on paper. A $2k premium buys you a one second improvement to 60 with a debilitating effect on gas mileage. But it’s a no-brainer for those who have more than the environment or their wallet in mind, offering superior midrange punch and much more refined noises. One word of warning, though: like all modern Hyundai/Kia V6’s, its solid lifters must be adjusted near the 90k mile mark. The work isn’t covered under that famous warranty and carries a four-figure sting.

Once underway, the Optima’s pillowy standard suspension is a weaker sedative than a fistful of barbiturates washed down with Southern Comfort, but stronger than two Ambien. If you don’t like to drive and you buy a four-pot Camry instead of an Optima, you either live near a Toyota dealer or you simply don’t care about money. The Kia’s ride quality is at least as good– or as bad– as the Toyota’s.

If you’re not insensitive to the joys of driving, the Optima’s Appearance Package (AP) is a must. While the spec sheet doesn’t say the AP’s suspension is firmer, the fatter Michelin shoes sure make it feel like it is. Perched high atop the Optima’s springs (the price of a civilized ride), you’re still subject to enough body movement to stay your right foot. But roll angles and cornering become perfectly respectable for a family sedan; something to be endured rather than avoided.

Add in stability control, leather, a killer stereo– the full zoot– and we’re talking around $20k. Measured against the ’07 Accord EX V6, the Optima LX comes up short in acceleration, mileage and toys. But measured against comparably priced family iron, it’s just as comfortable (unless you’re long-legged) and vastly more satisfying to look at and sit in. The top Optima will never win any (real) awards, but if there was a Subtly Nice Sedan For Not Much Money, Now or Down the Road trophy, the Optima would be a shoo-in.


By William C Montgomery

Heavy frost blanketed Broken Bow Lake, Oklahoma, where my sons and I bade farewell to 2007. Thirty hearty souls braved the sub-freezing night for a fly fishing adventure. Predawn light revealed our trucks standing sentinel over the smoldering remains of the previous night’s campfires. Through my billowing breath, I examined ice crystals forming a thousand little shrines on the SUVs’ sheet metal. A thought occurred to me: everyone that made the journey to our pine needle-carpeted glade did so in a heavy-bodied American SUV or pickup. In that early morning chill I wondered, is the Kia Sorento ready to join the club?

The Sorento’s wildly inoffensive design remains unchanged since 2003 (and will do until 2010). Given the temper of the times, it’s no bad thing for an Old School solid rear axle trucklet to maintain relatively diminutive proportions and ape a cute ute (albeit one that doesn’t look like a badly packed linen suit). As an off-road appliance, the Sorento doesn’t put a foot wrong, from its handsome, functional lower-body cladding to its deeply generic jewelry.

Even with the EX' $2500 Luxury Package, the Korean cabin doesn’t hold a candle to its more modern competitors. On paper, the option group looks great: leather upholstery, upgraded audio, dual zone A/C, heated front seats and alloy wheels. In practice, the skins pulled tight over Sorento’s seats must be sourced from malnourished thin-skinned North Korean cows. The audio is what it should be and no more. And the rest doesn’t pass the “Hey Martha, get a load of this” test.

Furthermore, there’s no dressing-up the Kia’s drab, downmarket dash. Panels fit together as closely as Dan Aykroyd’s Norge refrigerator repairman character’s buttocks. The retractable rear cargo cover is fabricated from the same tacky and tenuous vinyl used for old white window shades. The Sorento’s Spartan layout works by bargain basement economy car standards, but this $30k Korean has moved up a league. How you gonna keep ‘em in the showroom once they’ve been to Toyondissan, or, for that matter, Detroit?

On the plus side, the Sorento’s seating positions are excellent and the head room’s adequate for occupants up to 6’3” tall. Rear knee room and bench seat bests the comfort of the similarly-sized ’08 Jeep Liberty.

Fortunately for the Sorento, backwoods fly fishermen care little for luxury–– as long as everything works as advertised and can be cleaned without much fuss. To service the “genuine truck” market to which the Sorento (by necessity) aspires, the Kia must reliably transport lifestylers and their gear to their favorite recreation areas. Excluding worrying reports of long-term mechanical reliability, this is where the Sorento shines.

The EX gets a free-breathing 3.8-liter DOHC 24-valve aluminum block six cylinder engine that revs with all the carefree abandon of a Honda. When your foot reaches into the revolutionary penthouse, the mill cranks out 262hp and 260 ft.-lbs. of torque. The Sorento’s five-speed automatic slushbox lacks the quick wit to satisfy anyone with leaden feet. Its virtue is its ability to delicately swap gears with nary a tremor. BUT– there’s enough twist to foil the rear wheel electronic traction control and induce massive oversteer (file under ‘Fun’).

Equally important, Kia found the middle ground (that eluded Jeep Liberty engineers) between harsh and uncontrollably soft rides. The Sorento manages a comfortable and refined ride without completely losing its composure during abrupt maneuvering. It leans predictably in corners but recovers with little rebound.

Kia claims the little mill is sufficient to tow 5000 lbs. While I highly doubt Sorento owners will attempt to pull trailers of that magnitude, it’s enough juice to easily motivate a full load of camping equipment, fishing tackle and humanity over highways and onto the roads less traveled.

Speaking of which, the Sorento is a REAL SUV in a relatively compact package. The Kia’s solid rear axle provides sufficient articulation for seriously uneven trails. The company claims 8.2” minimum ground clearance and rock friendly approach and departure angles (28.4 degrees / 25.8 degrees). This dog will hunt. Also archetypal: this pot bellied pig tips the scales at 4,277 lbs. and feasts on dead dino juice at the rate of 15/21 mpg.

And speaking of expensive, my 2008 Sorento EX 4×2 test rig rang-in at a healthy $28,395. Opt for 4×4, and KIA’s deeply generic SUV tops $30K. Never mind all the cute ute competition that rears their coiffed heads at that price point (CR-V, RAV-4, Escape, Equinox), but that amount of wedge can make you a Ford Explorer, which is, it must be said, a damn fine rig.

The Sorento EX is a competent driver with a zesty engine and off-road cred that’s seriously hampered by a budget car interior and over-ambitious pricing. The cheaper models– staring in the low 20's with a choice of a smaller engine and driven wheels options– make a LOT more sense. But the Sorento EX is not ready to play with the big boys.