In 1995, Kia turned the small sport-utility segment on its ear with the introduction of the value-packed Sportage. It was a big success for Kia, and marked them as a brand to be taken seriously. Now, as a division of Hyundai, Kia has set their sights on the crowded and fiercely competitive mid-size SUV segment with this all-new Sorento. It certainly looks capable. But can the Sorento handle a tough crowd?

Well, the 2003 Kia Sorento looks like it’s pretty tough itself. That’s because the mid-size Sorento is a good, old-fashioned, truck-type, body-on-frame design, rather than the car-based unibody platform used by import brand competitors like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.

Styling, however, is anything but old fashioned! The Sorento’s angular lines mimic those of luxury sport-utes like the Acura MDX and the Mercedes-Benz ML. Not a bad pair to copy! It rides on a 106.7-inch wheelbase, about the same as the MDX, but its 179.8-inch overall length puts it at the short end of the mid-size segment. The stiff, ladder-style frame rides on a well-damped double wishbone front and 5-link solid axle rear suspension. The Sorento is not only the most solid Kia that we’ve ever driven, but feels as strong as many more established competitors. On road ride quality, however, is a bit choppy, particularly over broken pavement.

When put to work off-road, however, the Sorento makes up for a pitching ride with a reassuring solidity that tells you that this is one very tough truck chassis! While also quite agile off road, on-road handling, while competent by truck standards, still needs to be a little sharper to match that of many car-based SUVs. Body roll is substantial, and side-to-side transitions a bit abrupt. The power rack-and-pinion steering is light but lacks feel.

Sorento buyers may not get car-like handling, but they do get a V6 that most cars wish they had, the same 3.5-liter dual-overhead-cam V6 engine used in the Sedona minivan. Here it delivers 192 horsepower and 217 pound-feet of torque, enough to two 3500 pounds. The only transmission is an unobtrusive 4-speed automatic. It’s linked to just the rear wheels, or all four through the LX-grade’s part-time shift-on-the-fly setup, or up level EX’s sophisticated full-time Torque-On-Demand 4x4 transfer case. Both units have a low range for tough going, something the Pilot and Highlander lack.

Our test Sorento LX 4X4 was no slouch in street traction either. 0 to 60 takes 9.1- seconds, with the full 1/4 mile in 17 seconds at 74 miles-per-hour. Not the quickest in its class, but not bad for a 4,255 pound SUV. Power is concentrated down low, giving energetic starts, and builds smoothly through an also strong mid-range.

Things come to a halt by standard 4-wheel disc brakes, with optional ABS, which stop the Sorento from 60 in a reasonable average distance of 131 feet. There’s plenty of nose dive, but good pedal feel makes it easy to bring the Sorento to a safe, stable stop.

Of course no modern SUV will win buyers if it doesn’t have a roomy, comfortable interior. And once again the Kia surprised us. The airy interior is a very clean design. Materials, especially plastics, are still a bit utilitarian, but the EX adds some wood tone and chrome for a more luxurious appeal. Fit and finish are miles ahead of the Kia Sportage. As are safety features. The Sorento offers front and rear side-curtain airbags as standard equipment. The analog gauges are reasonably clear, but rather dinky in shape and size, while the front bucket seats are firm and supportive. Both leather and power adjustments are available on the EX. Switches for the standard AM/FM/CD stereo are simple and clean, and if you take the plusher EX route, you get a choice of high end Delphi 10-speaker systems with steering wheel controls.

Rear seat room is perfectly adequate for 6-foot adults, and the 60/40 split seat folds flat to expand total cargo space to 66.4 cubic-feet, again at the small end of its class.

But then the Sorento also has a small price. The mid-size 2-wheel-drive Sorento LX has a $19,995 base price. Add 4-wheel-drive for $21,795. Choose the almost luxurious 2-wheel-drive EX, and the prices starts at $22,795. While the top line EX 4X4 goes for $24,595. Most brands charge that much for a well-equipped mini-ute. Clearly the 2003 Kia Sorento has strength, style, performance, and impressive value. In short, everything it needs to handle the tough mid-size sport-ute crowd. Plus, while we expect Sorento to be a screaming success, most of the screams will be coming from its competitors!


  • Engine: 3.5-Liter Dohc V6
  • Horsepower: 192
  • Torque: 217 Lb Feet
  • 0-60 MPH: 9.1 Seconds
  • 1/4 Mile: 17 Seconds @ 74 MPH
  • 60-0 MPH: 131 Feet
  • EPA Mileage: 15 MPG City 18 MPG Highway