2021 Kia Sorento X-Line Review

The master of reinvention does it again

Kia is no stranger to reinventing itself and its products - even when it's not explicitly necessary to do so.

While some constants remain, like pricing that usually undercuts the competition by a healthy margin and all kinds of desirable features for the money, the automaker's ability to pivot has been instrumental in its sales success in recent years. In fact, it finished 2020 ahead of rivals like Nissan, Mazda, Subaru, and Volkswagen - an impressive accomplishment given Kia has only been on the market in Canada since 1999, giving each of those brands a decades-long head start.

The Sorento has been around for the better part of Kia's Canadian history, launching in 2002 as a crucial step towards what it's achieved to this point. The first generation wasn't very good, but it was improved steadily from there before being completely revamped back in 2014. Not only did it look totally different but it was even better than before, delivering a quality product that's capable of holding its own to this day.

Rather than allowing the ink to dry as it writes the pages of its own history book the brand is at it again, with a significant overhaul to its popular midsize SUV that might not have been necessary but is welcome nonetheless. And once again this right-sized sport utility has taken on a whole new identity, with the 2021 Kia Sorento X-Line in particular built to look about as adventure-ready as they come.

Styling: 9/10

Kia might not enjoy the same rugged reputation as, say, Subaru or Jeep, but this new X-Line trim at least looks the part of an SUV that could bear either one of those badges. It doesn't add any more cladding to the wheel arches or rocker panels, but this version of the Sorento has slightly more ground clearance than the rest of the lineup to go with unique roof rails and a few other finishes of its own.

While it can be had in a number of hues ranging from a semi-gloss grey to a vibrant blue, it's the so-called Aruba Stone green of this tester that sets the Sorento X-Line's look off to perfection. Unfortunately, it's far more understated inside and Kia decided against including anything unique in this trim. That means an underwhelming cloth upholstery and a few textured plastic panels from the rest of the lineup in what's a fairly understated space overall.

Comfort: 8/10

Even so, the seats were supportive over the course of testing - somewhat surprising given their lack of contouring and Kia's reputation for chair comfort (or lack thereof). The rest of the materials inside are a similar about-face from the brand's usual, with plenty of soft-touch surfaces and improved plastics throughout the cabin.

The ride quality, too, borders on premium-market levels, with the multi-link rear suspension in particular lending a rare kind of composure to this properly proportioned SUV. It's not often a sub-$50,000 sport utility this size delivers such refinement on all manner of surfaces, managing everything this side of washboard-rutted dirt roads with ease. It's certainly on the firm side, with a short rebound that's not quite supple, but it's nice nonetheless.

Sadly, the insulation from outside interference isn't on the same level, with lots of wind noise making its way inside - even in calm conditions. Beyond what's generated by the door mirrors, the lack of sound-deadening means much of what's happening outside makes its way in.

Driving Feel: 9/10

The intrusion of wind noise is disappointing if only because of how buttoned-down the Sorento is otherwise. Handling is sharp, with impressive responsiveness from the electric power steering system - though there is some noticeable body roll when entering the highway or hustling along a winding country road. It's certainly tolerable, though, particularly given how controllable the roughly 1,790-kg (3,946-lb) sport-utility is, not to mention the progressive braking feel that brings it to a halt in a hurry.

Power: 7/10

The X-Line is the first step in the Sorento lineup that sees a turbocharged engine stuffed under the hood. Gone is the V6 of old, replaced with a 2.5L four-cylinder that makes substantially more torque than the motor it replaces. That's the stuff that makes it move, and with the peak 311 lb-ft kicking in at just 1,700 rpm the Sorento is happy to get going once it all hooks up. It does struggle for that to happen in the first place, however, with a couple of bizarre hiccups holding it back from its full potential.

With an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic shuffling torque to the standard all-wheel-drive system, it seems this turbocharged Sorento model suffers the same problem that has plagued this type of transmission since Kia (along with sister brand Hyundai) introduced it. Roll onto the throttle and the powertrain feels bogged down, with a sputtering sensation similar to starting a manual-equipped vehicle in third gear instead of first. Combined with a significant delay in throttle response when the engine's ignition stop-start system is engaged, and "sluggish" only begins to describe the everyday operation here.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

Such a system leads only to marginal fuel savings - it's aimed more at reducing unnecessary emissions when idling at a stoplight - and this all-wheel-drive Sorento isn't especially efficient. Officially, it's rated at 11.1 L/100 km around town and 8.4 on the highway, according to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), resulting in a combined average of 9.9 L/100 km. That's better than the slightly smaller - but more seriously rugged - Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and either of its available engines, but worse than the Subaru Outback Outdoor XT and its turbo motor.

Real-world testing saw mixed results, with an initial evaluation drive spanning 200 km netting the same 9.1 L/100 km average the Outback is rated for. It's worth noting, however, that while Subaru's all-wheel-drive system is full-time in nature, the one fitted to the Sorento is an on-demand type that disconnects the rear wheels when four-wheel traction isn't required. But just like the Outback (and so many other SUVs like this), the Sorento comes with a terrain mode select system that can tailor the drivetrain to conditions like mud, snow, and sand. The final tally after a week of testing, meanwhile, stood at 10.1 L/100 km over the course of 600 km of mixed driving.

Practicality: 8/10

Even with its raised suspension, the Sorento X-Line lags the Trailhawk version of the Cherokee and every Outback this side of the newly announced Wilderness edition when it comes to ground clearance, standing 209 mm (8.2 in) compared to 220 mm (8.7 in). But then the Sorento delivers far more usable space inside despite a similar overall footprint to both of those SUVs.

The emphasis is on passenger space here, with its 2,815-mm (110.8-in) wheelbase stretching longer than those of both rivals. With three rows of seating, there's ample room for six occupants inside - the maximum given this X-Line trim's second-row captain's chairs. Both also slide on rails to provide more legroom for those using the rearmost seats, and this 6-foot-3 author was able to easily divvy up the space to get comfortable in either back row without feeling cramped.

Unlike the Mazda CX-9, this is much more than an oversized two-row, and the Sorento is genuinely used to accommodate more than a family of four. Of course, just like any SUV, up to and including massive entries like the Cadillac Escalade ESV, the second-row is best enjoyed without anyone behind it. That's how the kids can take advantage of the maximum 1,060 mm (41.7 in) of legroom that's barely off the mark of that long-wheelbase Escalade. (No, seriously - at 1,067 mm (42 in), there's not even a noticeable difference.)

It's also how to get a decent 1,090 L of cargo room to work with - closer to that of a smaller Honda CR-V than a proper three-row SUV like the Kia Telluride, but still more than enough for a family of four to fit its stuff inside. It's the 357 L with the third row upright that's rather cramped and narrow, rendering it all but useless for a road trip's worth of gear.

User Friendliness: 8/10

Whether in that grocery-getter format or with the cargo area opened up entirely (with both rear rows folded, there's 2,139 L available), the tailgate opening is wide and the liftover height reasonably low. The rear doors open nearly 90 degrees, revealing wide frames that make it easy to climb aboard or help a little one into a car seat. What's more, all four doors extend all the way to the bottoms of the rocker panels, keeping road grime off of pant legs when climbing in and out.

It's easy to pick up on the Sorento's right-sized vibe from the driver's seat, with outstanding outward visibility in all directions and a good sense of control when reaching for features or functions. The eight-inch touchscreen mounted high atop the dash is flanked by physical controls, while the HVAC system below it is easy to see at a glance.

The wireless Apple CarPlay connection wasn't perfect during testing either, routinely claiming the phone wasn't responding and reverting to the infotainment home screen - though Apple Music continued to stream through the speakers, and a simple tap of an icon would bring the interface back up on the display.

Features: 8/10

Both wireless CarPlay and Android Auto connections are included in the Sorento X-Line but satellite radio isn't; it only comes in the EX trim and higher. The bigger disappointment is the absence of a power tailgate - a feature that really should be included for this model's pre-tax price of $41,345 including freight. There's also no sunroof. The front seats and steering wheel are heated, however, while there's a wireless phone charger up front, eight USB ports peppered throughout the cabin, and quick-release buttons to stow the second-row seats from the cargo area.

Safety: 8/10

This trim includes a decent assortment of advanced safety features, too, like automatic high-beam headlights, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-keep assist with a lane-follow function. But the latter makes the absence of adaptive cruise control especially strange. As a point of reference, competitors such as the Outback or Toyota RAV4 Trail include adaptive cruise.

The fourth-gen Sorento performed well in crash testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), with top marks across the board and a Top Safety Pick rating overall. It's only the headlights that held it back, with the basic ones here earning a rating of "Poor." The Sorento comes equipped with six airbags throughout the cabin, as well as a government-mandated backup camera and automatic lightning, while the X-Line adds rear parking sensors absent from cheaper trims.

Value: 9/10

The Sorento's in-between sizing makes it tough to compare pound-for-pound with other entries on the market. Its closest competitor in terms of size and space might well be the GMC Acadia, which also comes with three rows of seats - though its off-road-inspired AT4 trim is substantially more expensive than the Sorento X-Line and starts at $50,298 before tax. In the same vein, there's the Cherokee Trailhawk that does without a third row but costs at least a few thousand dollars more (and, it should be noted, is much more capable off the beaten path).

The Subaru Outback Outdoor XT also skips a third row of seats but has a similar look and feel to the Sorento X-Line - and it's priced within $200 of this Kia, coming in at $41,170 before tax. The same goes with the Toyota RAV4 Trail, which rings in at $41,230, though its TRD Off-Road package pushes that price to at least $44,750 before any specialty paints are applied. As tested, this version of the X-Line rang in at $41,695 before tax, including a $250 charge for the green paint.

The Verdict

The biggest price advantage the 2021 Sorento brings to the table, X-Line or otherwise, is its size for the money. While there's a lot to like about a larger three-row like the Telluride, the Sorento is stuffed with all kinds of practicality without taking up any more space in the driveway than a Subaru Outback. Add in its pseudo-adventurous persona, and Kia has served up yet another winner.

The 2021 Kia Sorento X-Line also happens to look cool, too. Anyone shopping in the mid-size segment would do well to place this sport utility at the top of their shortlist.

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