2003 Kia Sorento
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by Richard Russell
photos by Paul Williams

You’ve got to hand it to Kia, they’ve hit the ground running and brought to these shores a steady stream of products loaded with value and impressive quality. Not many manufacturers, especially new ones, have managed to bypass the stage where the initial product is badly in need of upgrading.

The British, French and Italians all failed to build vehicles that could survive the world’s most competitive marketplace. Woeful quality and reliability, combined with inadequate dealer support, had them turning tail in the face of the Japanese invasion. But let’s not forget that when the Japanese came to these shores 30 years ago, the first products were under-powered, unreliable and started to disintegrate from rust while still on the boat. Today they build the most reliable, highest quality vehicles on the planet – and some of the most expensive.

South Korean products made a couple of aborted forays to these shores wearing various Ford and GM badges before Hyundai launched the first true assault from that country. Those early products were pretty awful in terms of build-quality and their ability to withstand our climate. Remember the Pony? But, unlike others who withdrew, Hyundai followed the example of the Japanese. It regrouped and addressed issues head-on. Subsequent products have been at least the equal of the competition. Daewoo was the next South Korean manufacturer to try its hand, followed by Kia. Both companies were severely hampered by financial difficulties having borrowed billions to get started at a time when the world economy took a dive. Daewoo didn’t make it. GM has purchased much of the remains and we’ll see rebadged Daewoo product wearing GM and Suzuki nameplates in the coming year.

Kia was saved by Hyundai, which is now its parent company even though the two compete in many of the same segments. End of history lesson.

2003 Kia Sorento
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Kia’s first forays into our market came in the form of a complete line of cars from sub-compact to mid-sized as well as an under powered but tough compact SUV. Several of the cars have been replaced by newer models, but only because it is time for a change – not because there was anything wrong with the earlier versions. Next up was the first shocker – the Sedona minivan. It offered exceptional value in a category where value is everything. Consumers started adding the Sedona to their shopping list once they realized they could drive a fully loaded Sedona for about the same price as a stripper from the competition.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Welcome to the Sorento, Kia’s new mid-size SUV. Same value story as the Sedona. Lots of content for minimal outlay. The Sorento offers a full slate of features including not only a V6 engine, automatic transmission and four-wheel-drive, but also mud guards and skid plates, a two-piece tailgate, intermittent rear wiper, power windows, cruise control, eight-speaker stereo with CD player and tilt wheel.

But there’s more, features either optional or not available on competitive products such as disc brakes at each corner, ABS, both front AND side curtain airbags, 16-inch alloy wheels, a roof rack, power heated mirrors and slick windshield wiper de-icer. That’s for the base LX trim level, the least expensive Sorento at $30,000. Step up to the EX and you add an electronically-controlled all-wheel drive system with limited slip differential, speed sensing power steering, automatic climate control, remote keyless entry, tire upgrade – Michelins on our tester, stereo upgrade with redundant steering wheel mounted controls, power driver’s seat and woodgrain trim for $34,000. Topping the line is the EX luxury model with all of the above plus full leather interior, heated seats and a power moonroof at $36,000.

If you’ve been in the market for a mid-size SUV you’ll recognize this as a price advantage of up to $10,000 over similarly equipped vehicles. You will also notice the Sorento is not cut from the same loaf of bread as many others with a more stylish sloped roofline that may reduce cargo capacity a bit, but also gets away from the box-like squared off look. The exterior look also benefits from the very large wheel-tire package giving it a more masculine appearance and hinting at its offroad ability.

2003 Kia Sorento

2003 Kia Sorento

2003 Kia Sorento
Click image to enlarge

The engine is a modern dual overhead cam unit with electronic fuel injection and all the other goodies. At 195-horsepower output is adequate for all but the most heavily laden situations. The Sorento’s boxed steel ladder-type frame with body mounted on top means it is heavy compared to unibody competitors at 2000 kilos. Part of the weight issue is due to the four-wheel-drive system. This is no pseudo offroader, a front-driver capable of turning the rear wheels on occasion. The Sorento comes with a transfer case, low range and skid plates, enabling it to venture where most competitors would not dare to tread. There are actually two systems. The base LX model comes with a shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive system. The EX features a torque-on-demand system with an electronically controlled two-speed transfer case and a limited slip rear differential.

On the road the ride is more pleasant than several upscale, but older competitors. With a double wishbone suspension up front and solid rear axle at the rear it has the best of both car and truck. The front end stays planted nicely in all but the most spirited cornering maneuvers while the rear is equipped to handle heavy loads and more severe offroad ventures. It still understeers heavily when pressed and exhibits some head toss over rough surfaces, but all-in-all offers a nice compromise of ride and handling for a vehicle with this degree of offroad ability, especially at this price.

On the inside there are a number of surprise and delight features and more space than in some older and more expensive SUVs. There are storage nooks everywhere including under the passenger seat. The front seats offer plenty of room and support for people of any dimension although shorter folk will have a bit of a climb to get in. The rear is roomy for two and comfy for three. The 40/60 split second row seat can be folded for more space but the cargo area is very roomy, albeit not as tall at the rearmost portion due to the sloping roofline.

I’ve accumulated more than 2,000 kilometres on a Sorento over a month-long period and can happily report a complete lack of squeaks and rattles, nothing fell off, and everything works as advertised. The only issue is a slight wind leak from the power sliding moonroof, which can be easily adjusted at the first scheduled service. To address any remaining doubts about the reliability of its product Kia offers a comprehensive five-year, 100,000-kilometre warranty that includes roadside assistance.

I’ve pressed the tester into use as everything from a grocery-getter and high school bus to lugging 750 pounds of laminate flooring on a 150 kilometre trip and tackling the winter’s worst storm. Smooth, quiet, reasonably fuel efficient and comfortable for lengthy periods of time, the Sorento has surprised me with its level of refinement and development. Many others in this class took a decade to reach this level.

Technical Data: 2003 Kia Sorento EX Luxury

Base price $29,995 (LX)
Price as tested $36,195 (plus Freight)
Type 4-door, 5 passenger mid-size SUV
Layout longitudinal front engine/RWD/4WD
Engine 3.5 litre V6, DOHC
Horsepower 192 @ 5500 rpm
Torque 217 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
Transmission 4 speed automatic
Curb weight 1930 kg (4255 lb.)
Wheelbase 2750 mm (106.7 in.)
Length 4567 mm (179.8 in.)
Width 1884 mm (74.2 in.)
Height 1810 mm (71.3 in.)
Cargo capacity 889 litres (31.4 cu. ft.) seats up; 1880 litres (66.4 cu. ft.) seats down
Fuel consumption CCity: 15.7 l/100 km (18 mpg)
  Hwy: 13.1 l/100 km (22 mpg)
Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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