As 2020 draws to a close, crossovers of various flavors remain the most popular form factor in the American automotive market so it’s important for manufacturers to keep those products fresh. That’s exactly what Kia is doing and by the end of 2021 it should have at least five models that are less than two years old including the just launched fourth-generation Sorento. Along with a fresh design, like many other new utilities, the Sorento is now also offered with an optional hybrid powertrain for the first time.
The Sorento shares its basic platform with the new K5 midsize sedan that launched earlier in the year as the replacement for the Optima. Like the K5, the Sorento features the brand’s new design language including a fresh take on the “tiger nose” grille treatment. There is no longer a body colored gap between the LED headlamps and the grille area. The grill itself is also more concave than before. This gives the fascia a somewhat more sporting and aggressive stance.
For the most part the exterior is clean as the past two generations of Sorento have been, but the designers have added a couple of questionable flourishes. Where many other vehicles feature a faux vent in the area between the front fender and doors, the Sorento has a piece of chrome trim that clearly isn’t trying to be anything functional, it just sits there with no real purpose. Similarly, behind the rear doors is a sort of reverse shark-fin that extends about halfway up the C-pillar from the chrome trim surrounding the side glass. While these bits clearly distinguish the Sorento from the dozens of other crossovers out there, deleting either or both probably wouldn’t do any harm. Aside from that the rest of the body is well proportioned and has a sporting stance.
Inside the Sorento has an attractive new look with the eight-inch touchscreen central display standing on top of the dashboard but its surround integrated and flowing directly into the instrument cluster. This approach keeps the display up closer to the driver’s line of sight while driving without the look of a tablet tacked onto the dash.
Like many 2021 models, the Sorento now supports wireless connectivity for both Apple
The Sorento is unique in the Hyundai Motor Group (HMG) lineup (including Kia, Hyundai and Genesis) in being very much a midsize utility vehicle but with three-row seating capability. It’s more than four-inches shorter than the K5 and just half an inch longer than the Santa Fe. However, in the Hyundai lineup you have to step up to the larger Palisade to get three rows. Kia explains that the larger Telluride is only available in North America and the Middle East while the Sorento is a global product. Since there is a demand globally for midsize three row vehicles, the Sorento gets that capability.
The second-row is roomy enough for adults and as long as they are willing to use less than maximum legroom two adults can get in the third row. However, that last row is basically on the floor and my five-foot eleven-inch frame was in a distinctly knees up position although my head wasn’t touching the headliner. The third row offers flexibility for carrying an extra pair of pre-teens or shorter adults, but you won’t want to use it for long road trips. With the third seats up, there is a mere 12.5 cubic feet of very shallow cargo space in the back. With those seats folded flat, there is 38.5 cubic feet with the second row all the way back and 45 with those seats pushed forward.
Perhaps the most notable new feature of the 2021 Sorento is the availability of a hybrid drive option. The gas-powered models feature a pair of 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines with or without a turbocharger. The hybrid features the latest iteration of the HMG hybrid system that pairs an engine with a conventional 6-speed automatic transmission where the torque convertor is replaced with an electric motor. Previous applications have used naturally aspirated engines of either 1.6-liter or 2.0-liter capacity for the Niro and Optima respectively.
The Sorento hybrid gets a 1.6-liter turbocharged four paired with a 60-hp electric motor for a total output of 227-hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. That slots it neatly between the numbers for the hybrid variants of Toyota’s Rav4 and Highlander while the size also slots right between those. Similarly, the Sorento’s 37 mpg combined fuel economy rating also slips into the same gap with the Rav4 hitting 40 mpg and the larger Highlander at 36 mpg.
I had 24 hours with the Sorento hybrid during which I drove it through a variety of traffic conditions including urban stop and go, interstate, suburban highway and some twisting country roads. It was a cold day with temperatures hovering right around freezing and some fresh snow coming down but not really sticking to the pavement leaving it cold and damp. The Sorento averaged about 38 mpg which is good considering that hybrids typically see degraded fuel efficiency in cold weather.
On the road, the Sorento was generally pleasant and refined to drive although not perfect. The ride quality was quite good, thanks in part to the use of 17-inch wheels with 235/65R17 tires that provide some extra compliance. The body was well controlled even over rough pavement, but a surprising amount of road noise was transmitted into the cabin. It wasn’t objectionable, and certainly not out of line for this market segment, but most automakers try to keep noise suppressed in hybrid models to minimize the transition between engine on and off modes.
Aside from that, the only other issue I noted was some wheel hop when accelerating hard from a dead stop on the cold, wet pavement. Since most drivers of such vehicles aren’t likely to do that, they’ll probably never experience it. It is important to note that the hybrid Sorento is only offered with front-wheel drive for now. Other hybrid crossovers including the Ford Escape, Toyota Rav4 and Honda CR-V all offer all-wheel-drive. There is a more powerful 261-hp plug-in hybrid version of the Sorento coming in mid-2021 that will have AWD.
One of the best aspects of HMG hybrids including the Sorento is the overall feel of the powertrain. Since they use a conventional step-ratio transmission rather than a continuously variable setup, they don’t exhibit any of the motor-boating effects that you would expect when accelerating. When coasting on level ground or slightly downhill even at highway speeds, the engine will shut off when there is sufficient charge in the battery and you can cruise around your neighborhood in complete silence and with zero emissions.
The 2021 Sorento hybrid is offered in S and EX trim levels with lots of standard equipment even in the S. That includes a suite of driver assistance capabilities including forward collision assist with pedestrian detection, lane keeping assist, blindspot monitoring and more. The EX adds a radar sensor to the front camera for adaptive cruise control and also fuses it with the camera data for the collision and pedestrian detection. The Sorento hybrid S starts at $33,590 while the EX adds $3,000. The EX I tested with the optional Runway Red paint came to a reasonable $38,205 including delivery. For a stylish, roomy 4/5 wagon with decent performance and excellent fuel economy and the option to carry two more passengers when needed, the 2021 Kia Sorento should definitely be on your shopping list.