2016 Kia Sorento Review: A B-Movie SUV Turned Red Carpet Ride

wheel-to-wheel copy

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The brand that was once considered as “disposable” as gym shorts has surprised me more than once with the quality of craftsmanship it has invested in its flagships, so when I was offered the all-wheel drive version of the 2016 Kia Sorento recently, I jumped at the chance. Why was I so excited about reviewing a grocery-getter? The answer may surprise you.

Unlike many other automakers, which have stuck with a bread and butter meal plan that consists of slapping variations of a V6 into family vehicles, Kia has done a spiteful thing and plopped a boosted four-banger in the Sorento. Anytime you see the “SXL” badge followed by the letters “T-GDI,” just know that there’s some turbocharged potency in there somewhere.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Opting to give drivers more torque but less top-end pull, Kia has redesigned its turbo setup in order to offer more fun off the line. And since it snowed like hell that week in Cincinnati, I was able to test the SUV’s drivetrain via “trial by ice” deep within the foothills near my house.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior

Remember the days when the Sorento had the outward appeal of a pelican? They were by no means vulture-ugly, but neither were they very graceful looking. Thankfully, a lot has changed since 2003, and what was once all obtuse feathers and disproportionate jawlines has been replaced by something far more hawk-like, and I dig it. The 2016 Sorento isn’t a massive mothership, even though certain models can be had with a third row of seating. Instead, Kia has taken the Sorento and made far more Optima-ish in its external styling cues.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ The 2016 Sorento SXL has a sharp-looking exterior. While it may not always stand out in the parking lot, the Sorento shines for not being overly blocky, bubbly, or feminine.

+ The alloy wheels and tires on the SXL proportionally fit the rest of the vehicle. It isn’t often that a family car gets sporty looks that aren’t obtuse, but Kia nailed it with these 19-inch rims and rubber.

+ The lighting array on the outside of the Sorento is pretty slick looking, and if those piped rear LED taillights don’t catch your fancy, maybe those massive diode-filled fog lamps up front will.

– Why does the inexpensive Forte5 get proximity-based automatic power-folding mirrors with puddle lights and this SUV doesn’t?

– Kia put LED illumination in the front door handles, but ignored the rear ones. Passengers like to see too.

– This is the top tier sport model. While it has some nice plastic trim touches, the disproportional lower grille is an eye sore, and only having one exhaust port out back instead of two makes it look a bit lopsided.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

While everyone else has retained the status quo of sticking with the V6, Kia has decided to do things a bit differently in the SXL. You can still get a V6 version if you need to tow something weighing up to 5,000 pounds, but for those of us who just want a nice family cruiser, the T-GDI version is the way to go. In the snow it showed very little wheel slip, even when on steep terrain, and I like how the various driving modes produced results instead of just engine noise.

Sporting 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, the SXL Sorento scampers around at a surprisingly swift pace despite its two-ton curb weight. It has a locking center differential, multiple drive modes that actually offer returns, and although it may not have had the best fuel efficiency I’ve ever encountered, it all seemed pretty par for the course in regards to its competition.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ I was skeptical that the 2.0-liter turbo motor that moved me physically and emotionally in the Optima last fall would do the two ton SUV any favors. Vanquish all disillusions: This vehicle has plenty of power for its frame.

+ Lock the center differential and the drivetrain on the Sorento suddenly splits engine power evenly between the front and rear drive shafts. Combine that with Torque Vector Cornering Control (TVCC), which is activated when yaw and steering sensors detect unwanted understeer, and you’ve got more control in crappy weather.

+ Most turbocharged cars should have the option to run on 87 octane by this point. I love that Kia’s T-GDI motors are one of them.

– While having the ability to lock the center differential is nice, there aren’t any traction setting options on the Sorento. It would be nice to have some snow and mud choices, especially since many Americans are quite keen on the idea of outdoor adventures. Then again, this isn’t exactly a Grand Cherokee.

– While 22 mile per gallon average wasn’t terrible, once the Sorento gets loaded down with kids and camping gear, you will likely see efficiency numbers that rival a V8 and an engine that struggles up inclines due to limited power on tap.

– While it does have its merits as a sporty version of the Sorento, utilizing Kia’s “Sportmatic” manual shifting mode was pretty predictable but droll, even when in Sport Mode.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

I must commend Kia for the quality of interior you find in its upper trim line. From comfy, merlot-colored Nappa leather seats that are heated and cooled to the stylish panoramic sunroof and piano black seatbacks, there’s so much in the cabin that punches above its weight that you suddenly see why J.D. Power ranked Kia second behind Porsche last year for initial quality.

Some of my favorite touches within this area of the SXL were the sticky silicone impregnated aluminum sport pedals, the overall spaciousness of the cabin, and how quiet the ride was both around town and on the highway. Also, not having a third row allows for anyone resting along the heated bench seat to recline considerably, all while still leaving ample storage space.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ Nappa leather in great abundance, contrasting stitching, vented and heated seats that are cushy, a heated steering wheel, and LED interior lighting on every row all make this cabin look and feel first class.

+ Aluminum accents are a nice touch, adding a lighter splash of contrast. While Honda’s drive selection buttons are pretty revolutionary, the proportions of the Sorento’s piano black gear selector don’t interfere with any of the well-placed buttons around it.

+ The Sorento’s cabin features solid rear visibility, controls that are easy to locate and use, and that stunning panoramic sunroof.

– Retracting the sunroof shade will occasionally open the sunroof, which wasn’t exactly welcome when shooting the Sorento in the middle of a snow storm.

– The spongy rubber dash is questionable — it looks and feels out of place in such a nice cabin.

– Though the steering wheel feels fantastic and isn’t overloaded with buttons and gadgetry, it feels a bit naked without some aluminum colored paddle shifters.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

Loaded to the gills with almost every tech and safety option out there, the SXL Sorento takes a strong stance on these key elements and then adds more to the mix. Receiving an overall government crash rating of five stars, the Sorento is one high-strength steel serving of safety, and it gets even better in the tech department.

The version I received had been upgraded with HID headlights, a forward collision warning system, an electronic e-brake, Kia’s surround view camera system, and adaptive cruise control. Factor in the rear camera display, hill-start assist, traction and stability controls, as well as blind spot monitoring, and you have a pretty well equipped little SUV. Oh, and let’s not forget that the Sorento also comes with a tricked-out driver info display, an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen, Infinity surround sound, and rapid-charging USB ports.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech pros and cons

+ There’s a lot to be said for the amount of safety instilled in this vehicle. From all of the accident mitigation tech to the way the frame has been redesigned, it’s no wonder the NHTSA awarded the 2016 Sorento a five star rating, and IIHS gave it a “Top Safety Pick” classification.

+ The Sorento SXL comes standard with a nice array of apps, fast charging USB ports in both rows, a parking minder that sends the vehicle’s location to your phone, and a banging Infinity audio system. Also, the touchscreen navi will let you drag your finger to explore, and proved to be quite responsive.

+ The driver display on the SXL offers all kinds of info, like if your tires are cocked to one side upon start up. Set cruise control speeds and they will light up yellow on the gauge cluster, and since everything is digital, it’s all totally customizable.

– The MID doesn’t give you a digital readout of your current speed, even though cars like the Kia Sedona minivan do.

– While the navi in the Sorento was well-sized, responsive, and supported dragging one’s finger around to explore surroundings, doesn’t offer 3D mapping. Images of landmarks were 2D, and while the screen was easily adjustable, it felt a bit dated when compared to the maps found in GM, Mazda, and Honda products.

– Not having on-board Wi-Fi or wireless charging was a bit of a disappointment.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

I drove the 2016 Sorento SXL in a broad array of elements, both on and off the interstate. A week that started with sunny weather quickly turned frigid, followed by rain storms and one fat slathering of snow and ice just to top it all off. But all of these environments proved easily tamable by it, and the little Kia ute held its own.

Steering and handling proved to be my biggest complaint. Even in Sport Mode, the softer suspension and electric-steering booster couldn’t offer the kind of agility you’d find in a sporty SUV. Was it horrible to drive compared to other SUVs out there? Absolutely not. But if Kia plans to go all-in with the Sorento at some point, the SXL would be the place to do it.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

It’s certainly is the best version of the Sorento to date, that’s for sure. With its surprisingly agile drive experience, a cabin that fringes on crossing into European luxury territory, and a plethora of safety improvements that make it first class, the Sorento has pleasantly caught critics and consumers alike off guard. But I can see where Kia still has room for improvement.

There also is an issue with price here. With the additional tech package and pearl paint, my Sorento SXL came to $45,390. For that amount of dough you could land a 2016 Volvo XC90 T5 Momentum, or a redesigned Lexus RX 350. Once you get above that $40,000 mark, buyers start to look toward traditional luxury staples, as many of them have become far more affordable in recent years. So if Kia wants to continue to stake claim to more of the market, it will likely do what it always has done, and continue to offer more for the money than its competitors. It’s an exhausting never ending cycle, but at least the Sorento is better than ever before, a fact that will be quite apparent if you opt to test drive one.

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