Kia was once like Japanese auto manufacturers in the US, with a reputation for offering cheap but unreliable vehicles. But with the launch of its Sorento mid-size SUV three years ago, the agenda to surprise even the most jaded auto enthusiast took a significant step up north. With then-active tennis player Andre Agassi as its sole endorser, the Kia Sorento became Kia's best selling model in the US. Exactly how does it embody the company's "power to surprise" motto is the reason for this test drive.

Interior revelation

Named after a city in Italy, a first impression of the Sorento is that it can carry roughly a small city. Or maybe a household of five (two in front, three comfortably in the rear), plus their needs for a quarter of a year, a small refrigerator and literally, the kitchen sink. 31.4 cubic feet (cu. ft.) and 66.4 cu. ft. (with both rear seats folded flat) of load volume takes care of Sorento cargo matters. Just make sure you pay attention to what you're carrying, for ingress and egress from the vehicle (due to a high 203 mm ground clearance) may be a bit high for some. If the said storage figures are too small for you, the SUV also offers four cupholders - two behind the two-tier center console, two within the doors - at the rear and two cupholders in front of the center console. And all of the Sorento's cupholders can handle one-liter bottles.

Plop into the comfortable full cloth seats and you will see that the Sorento offers three (yep, no typo error here) 12-volt outlets, one for every area within the SUV. Fit and finish are excellent (with more than enough lighting within the cabin to assert the inside), but the wood trim accents lining the doors and the center panels on the Sorento EX may be somewhat hideous. The glovebox is rather small in volume, but a two-tier drawer in front of the automatic transmission (a/t) stick somewhat helps for front storage.

The strong climate control system blasts Arctic cold or moderate heat, and its three-knob system makes it easy to operate. The audio system is surprisingly great, but needs help in replicating high to midrange tones. Also, the 2-DIN Clarion head unit should be swapped for an aftermarket unit, for its interface buttons and knobs are hard to read or awkwardly placed. Ditto for the keyless entry fob, for the trunk hatch release button is virtually useless.

Surprising performance

The Sorento totes an inline four-cylinder, 16-valve 2.5L CRDi (common rail diesel injection) engine that puts out 138hp and 230 lbs ft of torque, all mated to a five-speed a/t with adaptive sequential shifting. Even with a high 17.7:1 compression ratio, the engine feels taxed during acceleration, no thanks to its 1,957kg kerb weight. The said weight also makes getting into the powerband (2500 rpm onwards) and activating the turbo (3250-4000 rpm) difficult. The good news is that the weight handicap can be remedied somewhat by using the a/t's sequential (push upwards to upshift, pull downwards to downshift) feature. Just one warning - if you're downshifting using the manual mode on the five-speed a/t, let go of the gas pedal before pulling the a/t stick down; the SUV tends to pitch during high-speed downshifting. Nevertheless this writer managed a (Laguna) tested 170 kph top speed and 10.05 km/l on four days of mixed (half city, half highway) driving.

Suspension, steering and handling can either be fun or ingratiating. There's slight torque steer and steering is slightly off-center, but the Sorento's turning arc (36.4 feet) is relatively small (for a mid-sized SUV) and the power-assisted steering felt light to moderately light, even at 70-plus kph. Slight understeer and tire squeal occurs at 50-60kph, but get greedy with the throttle (65-plus kph) and plowing occurs. The good news is that the massive Hankook RA07 245/70R16 tires plant the SUV firmly, whether on tarmac or dirt.

The ladder frame chassis, an in-wheel type double wishbone (front suspension) and rigid axle five-link coil spring (rear suspension) help in softening the Sorento's ride, which may range from floaty to firm depending on the occupant. There's also a bit of body roll during cornering, which is a given considering the height (1730mm) of the vehicle.

The foglights help immensely in seeing the road ahead during night driving, and its brightness rivals that of its stock headlights. The spare tire is mounted under the trunk area, but its aforementioned 203mm ground clearance makes it easier to access. There's no backup sensor to aid in parallel parking, but the side mirrors and the rear glass is wide enough for rearward vision. Four-wheel-drive (4WD, with shift-on-the-fly feature) can be activated via a knob to the left of the steering column, and offers low-range gearing and a limited-slip differential. During a brief off-roading jaunt on a flat, rock-and-earth area that most buyers wouldn't think of trying, the Sorento acquitted itself well.

With occupant-friendly features, fit and finish, performance, driveability, the Sorento bolsters Kia's reputation. And with its P 1.375 million pricetag and diesel engine benefits, it may throw Japanese (or American) mid-sized SUVs sales a good Korean tae kwon do roundhouse kick jolt.