2019 Kia Sorento

Kia’s upscale-ish three-row SUV gets some subtle but welcome upgrades.


While you weren’t looking, Kia quietly has become a mass-market brand with decidedly premium aspirations. It now sells a whole range of vehicles that can cost more than $40,000, including the sporty Stinger, a BMW 3-series competitor; the cushy Cadenza, a bona fide rival to the Lexus ES; the indulgent K900, a rear-wheel-drive luxury barge; and the subject of this review, the Sorento, a mid-size SUV that can be optioned to near-luxury-spec levels.

Upscale appearance inside and out, a price for every budget, quiet and refined ride.
Uninspired handling, could use more grunt, smallish third row.

Introduced for 2016, the third-generation Sorento benefits from a freshening for the 2019 model year. There are numerous surface-level updates such as revised styling at the front and rear and some interior appearance tweaks, and the powertrain lineup has changed a bit as well. The standard 2.4-liter inline-four and available 3.3-liter V-6 engines remain the same, but the four-cylinder’s six-speed automatic has been updated and the V-6 gains two additional gears with a new eight-speed automatic. The previously offered turbocharged 2.0-liter four is no longer on the menu, and it will be replaced by a diesel later this year—a novelty in the three-row SUV segment and a technology that, when it’s offered at all, usually is reserved for luxury-brand utes on our shores.

Despite these upscale ambitions, the Sorento still offers a value play with its lower trim levels, which start at $26,980 for the base L model. There’s even more standard equipment for 2019, including a third-row seat, which used to be absent from front-wheel-drive four-cylinder models, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now included on all Sorentos. The trim-level pyramid ascends through the LX, EX, and SX models until you reach the fully loaded SXL (sometimes written as SX Limited), a $48,765 all-wheel-drive example of which we drove for this review.

Not Too Big, Not Too Small

That price is comparable to those of other top-trim three-row crossovers, but you don’t get quite as much car for your money with the Sorento—at least physically. The Kia resides on the small end of the segment, with its 189.0-inch length dwarfed by massive family haulers such as the Volkswagen Atlas (198.3 inches) and the Chevrolet Traverse (204.3 inches); instead, it fits into the space between those bigger models and smaller mid-size two-row SUVs such as the Ford Edge. It’s to be expected that the Sorento’s interior, then, is not the most accommodating. A bit of a squeeze is required for adults to get into the third row, and second-row riders must slide the seats forward to give the wayback passengers adequate legroom. There’s enough room back there for short trips, and the third row stacks up competitively against other not-so-XL-size rivals.

The space inside the Kia is nicely trimmed, with an attractive dashboard, plenty of soft-touch materials, and, in the SXL, soft nappa leather upholstery. We’re big fans of the control layout, which combines a simple-to-operate touchscreen with volume and tuning knobs and clearly marked HVAC controls. You’d think it would be easy to put together such a friendly and intuitive assortment of controls, but many other automakers fail to do so, and Kia deserves credit for not trying to reinvent the wheel here. It’s especially impressive given the amount of tech offered in the Sorento, which includes nearly every active-safety feature available today, a few of which—such as lane-keeping assist—are new additions for 2019.

The Sorento offers a pleasant enough experience behind the wheel. Its demeanor is quiet, refined, and comfortable, and it compromises some degree of agility and responsiveness to achieve this ideal. The ride is soft, the steering is light, and it generally wafts around unperturbed by rough pavement or choppy freeway expansion joints. We’d like to see more feel from the steering and better body control, though. A crisp and communicative chassis may seem like a frivolity in a people-hauling SUV, but it can go a long way toward instilling confidence in the driver, as evidenced by the 10Best-winning Mazda CX-9, which is one of the few three-row vehicles that remains a joy to drive.

Incremental Improvement

With a wider ratio spread than the six-speed it replaces, the new eight-speed automatic transmission aims to improve both the 290-hp V-6 engine’s responsiveness and its fuel economy. We didn’t notice as much of an improvement to responses as we would’ve liked, as the eight-speed is still sometimes sluggish to downshift, a shortcoming that exaggerates the V-6’s peaky nature (its maximum torque of 252 lb-ft doesn’t arrive until 5200 rpm). While we don’t yet know the payoff in real-world mileage, the EPA numbers show the eight-speed’s worth in terms of that test: The combined, city, and highway figures all rise by 1 to 2 mpg, depending on whether you choose front- or all-wheel drive. (AWD is an $1800 upcharge that is available on all but the base L.)

None of these small updates serve to transform the Sorento, but a transformation wasn’t really needed. It’s mostly the same competent and well-rounded crossover that it was before, only with a few more features, an ever-so-slightly fresher look, and the promise of an impending diesel engine that could further legitimize its goal to truly challenge some upscale luxury SUVs.