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2021 Kia Sorento: A solid contender in the midsize, 3-row segment [First Drive]

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Kia has done a bang-up job on design recently. Everything from the Telluride to the K5 sings with a deliberate attention to detail and unique styling. So, we expected big things from the 2021 Kia Sorento, and for the most part, we got them.

When we did our post-reveal article, we talked about a lot of the new technology and available powertrains, so I won’t discuss them ad nauseum here. But I do want to call attention to the spectacular design, which is way better IRL, as well as share what I learned during my first-look, 48-hour test drive.

Design dreams realized

The upright stance and vertical taillights mimic big brother Telluride, but the compact styling and strong horizontal lines create a profile of its own. I was obsessed with the grille and the “shark skin” mesh pattern with its incredible 3D texture. The Kia emblem really pops here.

The 2021 Sorento manages to look both elegant and rugged at the same time, and that’s just on the outside.

Step inside, and there’s more texture and bits of flair thrown in, which on the EX trim I tested added more elegance and a lux-level appearance – especially with the light interior trimmings From the shape of the air vents to the textured pattern on the dash inserts to the raised metal etchings on everything from the dial shifter to the volume knob, there’s an incredible amount of attention to detail here.

Though the seats are a synthetic material, they look and feel like leather rather than a pleather or vinyl. Plus, the perforated pattern is a nod to a more luxurious appearance.

In general, Kia once again delivers an excellently designed vehicle.

2021 Kia Sorento

2021 Kia Sorento EX Hybrid (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

Let’s talk about that third row

A lot of my automotive journalist colleagues have been effusively positive about the third row. But I want to offer a different perspective. I’m about the size of an average 10-year-old, who I presume is the appropriate age of someone who might sit back there regularly.

And, frankly, I didn’t like it.

Because Kia adopted a single floor pan for all models – from gasoline through plug-in hybrid – there’s about a 4-inch step from the second to third row, which does serve a purpose when you’re accommodating a 13.8 kWh battery pack. However, when you’re in the gasoline or hybrid model, all it does is scrunch someone my size up into a fetal position. The hip-point is terrible, and the backs of my knees popped off the cushion by about four inches.

That doesn’t even get into the general stiffness and discomfort of the seats themselves.

Kia calls this a usable third row because there is generous legroom back there, but I’m going to call it a last-resort third row. I say that not only as a petite female but also the youngest child of three who would have been relegated to that seat while my older sisters lolled in the middle captain’s chairs.

On behalf of younger siblings everywhere, I beg you: If you have a child you’re going to relegate to the third row regularly, please make sure they have the chance to spend some quality time back there (not just 10 minutes) before you buy.

2021 Kia Sorento

Legroom in the third row of the 2021 Kia Sorento EX Hybrid (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

The irony of wireless things and leveling up

The EX test vehicle came equipped with the base 8-inch infotainment screen. It also had wireless Apple CarPlay and a wireless charging pad for a completely wireless environment. All the wireless things worked really well, with very little operational lag and a charge pad that didn’t simultaneously overheat my phone. I thoroughly enjoyed “cutting the cord” during my brief test.

But here’s the thing. If you upgrade to the beautiful 10.25-inch screen and 12.3-inch digital cluster (they’re a pair), you lose wireless CarPlay. That’s weird right? I mean more luxury, more up-level should mean more technology, not less. But nope.

Because I had the base screen, I wouldn’t have even thought of this if I hadn’t just driven a couple of Hyundai vehicles that suffer from the same affectation.

It’s weird.

2021 Kia Sorento

Apple CarPlay in the 2021 Kia Sorento EX Hybrid with the base info screen is wireless. (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

So, how’s the HEV system?

The test vehicle was an EX hybrid, which has the 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine that delivers 227 horsepower and has an EPA-estimated combined fuel economy of 37 MPG. I have to cop to a lot of aggressive city driving and a serious amount of idle time as a filmed video, but I was still able to average 32 MPG, which I’m going to consider a win here.

But how is the system itself? OK.

Here’s the thing. I’ve recently driven some prime examples of what a hybrid powertrain should be, namely the Toyota Venza and the Honda CR-V Hybrid, and the Sorento hybrid isn’t that. It’s perfectly fine. But not exemplary. If you want to resort to lettered grades, in fact, I’d give it a solid A- to the Venza/CR-V Hybrid A+.

So, it’s a solid contender – relatively smooth and only just a little loud – just not top of the class. It was a little rough with some of the stop/starts, and because Sorento itself isn’t as quiet, you could definitely feel when the engine came back on.

A plug-in hybrid is coming in late 2021 as a 2022 model, and that’s what I’m anxious to test. If I could do most of my city driving (think 30 miles of all-electric range) and only deal with the on/off of the engine in longer drives, this vehicle becomes A LOT more attractive.

2021 Kia Sorento

2021 Kia Sorento EX Hybrid (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

The bottom line on the 2021 Kia Sorento

Generally, I really liked the 2021 Kia Sorento. The design is top-of-the-line, and the interior is comfortable and relatively tech forward. I’m a bit put off by the third row and general lack of cargo volume if you employ the use of said third row, but if you only seat four on a regular basis, this becomes an incredibly attractive proposition.

This model is definitely better than the one preceding it, and I am looking forward to the plug-in hybrid option.

Kia has a lot going for it, and Sorento is a fine example of what you can get in this segment. For my tastes, the EX trim offers the right amenities without an off-the-chart price tag. With the hybrid and EX trim, the as-test price was $38,205. The only option: Runway Red Paint.

Related posts:

5 things to know about the 2021 Kia Sorento

The pickup truck that wasn’t: A behind-the-scenes look at Kia Mojave

2021 Kia Seltos: Newest SUV is good but not great


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Jill Ciminillo

Jill Ciminillo is the Managing Editor for Pickup Truck + SUV Talk as well as a Chicago-based automotive writer, YouTube personality and podcast host, with her articles and videos appearing in outlets throughout the U.S. Additionally, she co-hosts a weekly radio show on car stuff for a local Chicago station. Previously, Jill has been the automotive editor for both newspaper and broadcast media conglomerates. She is also a past president for the Midwest Automotive Media Association and has the distinction of being the first female president for that organization. Jill is also currently a juror for the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY).

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